Beginning this summer and running into the fall, the International Art Exhibition of the 51st Venice Biennale, June 12-Nov. 6, 2005, is the concentrated center of global art exchange. Herewith, a guide to ten things at the 110-year-old art festival that art world insiders will be talking about.
1) The triumph of the avant-garde gesture.
Marcel Duchamp and his Fountain have won; Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse and Kazimir Malevich and Wassily Kandinsky and all the rest of the great modernist painters have lost! Everywhere at the 51st Venice Biennale are grand anti-art gestures -- pavilions left empty by Daniel Knorr (Romania), Miriam Bäckström and Carsten Höller (Sweden) and Tino Sehgal (Germany), or converted into an airport waiting room by Muntadas (Spain), or into a caveman's hut by Gabríela Fridriksdttir (Iceland). Rebecca Belmore installed a life-size waterfall in the Canadian pavilion. And these examples are only the beginning of a long list of art-as-avant-garde-gestures.
2) The oldsters in the national pavilions.
In a youth-obsessed art world, this year's Venice Biennale is refreshingly free of adolescent drama and high jinks. We have Ed Ruscha (b. 1937) in the U.S. pavilion, Gilbert & George (b. 1943 & 1942) in the British pavilion, and Annette Messager (b. 1943) in the French pavilion, which even won a Golden Lion. "Old age bring the red flare again," indeed!
3) A "female sensibility" in the Arsenale.
Dare we say it? Sharp-eyed Spanish curator Rosa Martínez has filled "Always a Little Further," her exhibition of works by 49 artists in the rugged brick spaces of the Arsenale, with a wealth of examples of art that engages what could be called -- at least from an ironical perspective -- a woman's point of view! Breaking crockery by the London-based Bangladeshi artist Kuma Islam, a giant chandelier of tampons by Parisian artist Joana Vasconcelos, extravagant fashions by the late London performance artist Leigh Bowery, ballroom dancing by the Brazil-born Brooklyn artist Valeska Soares, even Body Art as political protest by the daring Guatemalan Regina Jos Galindo.
4) Dead painters in the Italian pavilion.
With painting more or less banished from the Biennale, it was left to curator María de Corral to include several galleries of paintings in "The Experience of Art," her show of 42 artists in the 34 white rooms of the labyrinthine Italian pavilion. Among the highlights for those who can't live without paint are galleries filled with works by Francis Bacon (1909-62), Philip Guston (1913-1980) and Agnes Martin (1912-2004) -- "If you're including dead artists," complained Italian critic and commentator Vittorio Sgarbi, "why not exhibit works by Raphael and Michelangelo!" -- plus galleries devoted to octogenarian Antoni Tpies (b. 1923), along with current art-market star Marlene Dumas and rising Leipzig painter Mattias Weischer (b. 1973).
5) Something sweet.
The few examples of real charm in the Venice Biennale are also to be found in de Corral's exhibition, including the black-and-white film animations of South African artist William Kentridge, located in the Italian pavilion's large mezzanine gallery, and Robin Rhodes' slide shows animating kids at play in the smaller gallery.
6) Something macho.
No international art festival would be complete without a dose of hormone-fueled ambition, and the young artist Hans Schabus (b. 1970) provides it in spades. Schabus, who sailed a small boat through the Vienna sewers for an artwork in 2002, completely transformed the Austrian pavilion, designed in 1935 by Josef Hoffmann, into a massive mountain. Built of lumber and covered with tacked-down tarpaper, Schabus' The Last Land is fitted inside with a network of stairs and passages that leads visitors to various observation hatches. Schabus says his work "transfers the myth of the mountain enveloping Austria to the city on the lagoon built on water."
7) The pagan cathedral.
Several important works at the biennale engage the Catholic architecture of the timeless Italian city. Most notable was Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist, who designed a masterful four-channel video installation, titled Homo Sapiens Sapiens, projected onto the entire vaulted ceiling above the nave of the high Baroque Chiesa di San Stae, located on the Grand Canal not too far away from the Ferrovia. A dreamy bacchanal of lush vegetation and gamboling nymphs, the work suggests a primordial Eden. For once, an art installation that visitors don't want to leave.
8) The postmodernist palazzo.
Two New York artists, coincidentally, both have exhibitions that engage Venice's architecture to turn typical cultural categories on their heads. Karen Kilimnik fills the Fondazione Bevilacqua la Masa, a charming 17th-century palazzo nobile near Campo San Barnaba in the Dorsoduro, with her 18th-century British romantic-style oil paintings -- plus chirping plastic birds, moss and pearls. And Kiki Smith installs the third-floor galleries of the Fondazione Querini Stampalia, a 16th-century Venetian palazzo with Renaissance paintings in the ornate period rooms of its second floor, with her folkish figures and homemade dcor done in an American colonial style.
9) Something political.
Pitch-perfect political art turned up in two adjoining spaces at the Fondatione Levi -- at the Afghanistan pavilion, a moving DVD projection by Lida Abdul of a chador-clad woman whitewashing some stone ruins, and a projection of stirring newsreel footage from the Ukrainian "Orange Revolution" assembled by curator Oleksiy Tytarenko at the Ukraine pavilion.
10) Fengshui for Venice.
In the makeshift Chinese pavilion, located in the bucolic Vergini Garden at the very end of the picturesque Arsenale, Chinese artist Wang Qiheng explains (via an outdoor video screen) the Fengshui of the Venice Biennale. "Venice is built on several billion wooden stakes -- it is a city on wood," Wang says. And in traditional Chinese ecology, wood "represents civilization and culture," which is well suited for Venice's role as "the center stage of world cultural exchange."