Two years ago the art world had a hate-fest over "Dreams and Conflicts," the Venice Biennale curated by Francesco Bonami. Universally lambasted as "an incoherent mess," "a disaster" and the "worst biennale ever," Bonami's show took one of the most coveted jewels in the curating crown, a top spot in the corporation, and risked it all. He gave up power and granted the art world the choice it said it wanted.
Dispensing with the so-called "dictatorship of the curator," Bonami enlisted 11 artists and curators who curated 10 exhibitions and included over 375 artists. He transformed himself into a kind of beast with a hundred eyes, creating a sort of monstrosity, or gigantic Balzacian city of an exhibition with warring philosophies, methodologies and esthetics. It was a reflection of art as it was. Some shows were bad, others god awful. A few were outstanding. I know Bonami, which may cloud my judgment. Still, I loved the majestic failures and serendipitous successes of his biennale, the frenzy and confusion of it all. I thought he had changed the paradigm. Then I remembered, everything changes except the avant-garde. The show was scorned from every quarter.
The art world had a collective dream that chaos be banished from biennials. This year's biennale is that dream come true with a vengeance. Counteracting Bonami's raging bedlam, Rosa Martínez and María de Corral have given the art world the order it yearned for. This kind of reverse logic is typical these days. At this biennale one of the worst pavilions, Annette Messenger, won the prize for the "Best Pavilion." This is because these accolades are awarded by curators and museum types who are completely involved in the minutia and politics of these things and who choose things only curators could like.
Corral's show in the Italian Pavilion, "The Experience of Art," has moments of revelation and thoughtfulness. William Kentridge, an artist who I thought had slipped into a downward spiral, showed new work in which he seems to be shaking a number of his formulaic tics while also trying to probe his own processes. Martínez's "Always a Little Further" in the magnificent Arsenale veers from bland to bad. Critics have praised it as "sober," "sensible," "orderly" and "adult." Maybe I missed the memo, but I don't remember these being positive artistic traits. I thought we were after vision, originality, risk and surprise.
Martínez's show represents the revenge of the professionals, the apotheosis of the managerial. She has a terrible eye. The entire Arsenale is dimly lit like a mausoleum, even the few paintings. It's like limbo. Martínez asserts that her show "isn't about the market." But everything is installed so trimly and labeled so neatly that each section of the Arsenale looks like a gallery viewing room. In truth, this show is all business and orthodoxy all the time. Sometimes this orthodoxy turns hard. Unable or unwilling to discern new currents or ideas, Martínez falls back on familiar late-'80s, early '90s tropes and positions. Most of the work she favors is so relentlessly pious and on-message -- so 10th-generation identity politics and formally derivative -- that the entire enterprise comes off as retro and moralistic.
And smug. Of the 43 individual artists included, none are natives of Great Britain. Only two were born in Italy and two in the United States (both live and work elsewhere). So a big segment of "the coalition of the willing" has been barred. This is fine, except, Martínez makes it appear that these artists are excluded because they're failures, not because she doesn't know anything about these country's art scenes or that she is enforcing her own private Patriot Act.
After a show like this it's tempting to say that biennial culture is over, that these fetes are too big, baggy and bureaucratic to reflect the state of art. By now it's unclear who they're for: The several hundred thousand who come to see them or the several thousand from the art world. Yet, just when they seem dead, a new age of biennials looms. In roughly 700 days, starting early June 2007, a kind of "harmonic convergence of super exhibitions" is slated to take place when the Venice Biennale, Documenta XII, and the Munster Sculpture Project will open one after the other.
At the helm in Venice will be Robert Storr, former curator at the Museum of Modern Art. Storr hasn't worked regularly with younger artists, which is cause for concern, but he's sharp, discerning and driven, and his considerable acumen is almost sure to render something worth seeing and arguing about. Conversely, if a comment made over dinner in Venice by its curator, Roger Buergel, is any indication, Documenta could be truly bad. After I casually remarked that, "After all, big exhibitions are about the art," Buergel narrowed his eyes and sternly countered, "No. Exhibitions are about ideas." Ennui filled my heart as I stood up and excused myself. Meanwhile, the once-a-decade Munster exhibition will be overseen by the legendary curator Kasper Koenig, who almost always manages to pull rabbits out of hats.
There are sure to be ancillary shows and independent efforts that summer. It was at the off-site Arolsen, near Documenta in 1992, that Jeff Koons -- who had been excluded from that year's Documenta -- created his magnificent 40 foot topiary "Puppy." Regardless, June 2007 could be some kind of turning point. For now, we need to recognize that this summer's return to order and business-as-usual, even though it's the order of the day, is a dead-end.