The 49th Biennale di Venezia is a monster, from the giant, 15-foot-tall statue of a crouching boy by Ron Mueck (originally shown in the Millennium Dome in London) that greets visitors to the 316-meter-long Corderie, to the huge pair of torqued steel spirals by Richard Serra (sponsored by Gucci and François Pinault) that sit in one of the final spaces of the Arsenale. The numbers are large -- approximately 130 artists from over 60 countries are spread across 27,000 square meters in the 100-year-old Giardini with its 31 national pavilions and the additional historic spaces in the nearby Arsenal. And the curatorial theme of Biennale director Harald Szeemann, "Plateau of Humankind," is exceptionally broad and ambitious (not to say grandiose).
So the crowds that flood into the Biennale, June 6-Nov. 4, 2001, may be excused if they come away with the notion that avant-garde art has been overcome in the 21st century by a sort of delirious humanism. Both Mueck and Serra make work that speaks of transcendent, almost sublime human capacity for fabrication (dare we say creation?) -- Mueck's work is astonishingly real, Serra's is awesomely forged.
The range of other works is equally immeasurable. In the pavilions, the bureaucracy of state-sanctioned civil society is perhaps an unexpected constant. Both the Canadian pavilion, which features admittedly erotic projections by George Bures Miller and Janet Cardiff, and the German pavilion, with its claustrophobic maze by Gregor Schneider, restrict entry to a few at a time -- resulting in long queues outside their entrances, as if the collapse of state socialism a mere decade ago was somehow being esthetically revived here in lovely Venice.
Similarly, lines formed at the U.S. pavilion, where the 46-year-old New York artist Robert Gober has installed several objects that articulate his trademark Esthetic of Waste -- notably, bronze casts of slabs of castaway styrofoam the artist found on the beach and a bizarre construction of an androgynous torso in a basket (a basket case?) with a drain in its center. Also on view is an old-fashioned butter churn made of bronze and a gray cellar door, excavated into the floor of one gallery. Duchamp's readymade artistic gesture, once light as language itself, is here made leaden and dark, perhaps appropriate to the political mood in the age of George W. Bush.
At the Gober show, only a few people could be admitted at a time, "out of concern for the work," a pretension that only underscores the astronomical market value of these fine art objects. What's more, in a show of obsessive artistic control, photography was forbidden -- one functionary was even assigned to stand in front of a bronze plunger positioned at the doorway, to block intrepid cameramen -- this touch seeming particularly Kafkaesque, especially at a press preview at a taxpayer-supported event from the self-proclaimed global leader in Free Speech.
In the British pavilion, Mark Wallinger stands out for his witty video projections that give mundane activities a Biblical dimension. Thus, a slow-motion scene of travelers coming through a gate marked "International Arrivals," accompanied by Allegri's choral music, suggests a solemn, momentous entry to heaven, while the artist's celebrated Ecce Homo marbleized resin statue (1999) pictures Christ as an ordinary man wearing a crown of barbed wire. Wallinger also erected a life-size tromp l'oeil image of the British Pavilion's façade in front of the pavilion itself, a gesture designed to hide the labor within and "preserve the dream of the fairy-tale city," according to British curator Ann Gallagher. That dream is preserved too by Wallinger's Ghost, a transparency (what else) of a unicorn.
The elegant spaces of the Belgian pavilion are put to good use with a show of Luc Tuymans' cycle of wan, documentary paintings devoted to the 1961 murder of the (Belgian) Congo's first president, Patrice Lumumba, an engagement with history and politics that is as welcome as it is uncommon. By contrast, Ana Laura Alàez, with her Pink Space and Rain Room installations at the Spanish pavilion, offers an erotics of play as a rationale to the art lover.
The sprawling Italian pavilion, with its brutal concrete spaces and airy wooden skylights, has been installed with works by some 36 artists as the introductory installment of Szeemann's "Plateau of Humankind" (which continues in the Arsenale spaces). Galleries devoted to paintings by Neo Rauch, Gerhard Richter and Cy Twombly -- and these guys can paint -- show the enduring influence of the chapel, from Arena to Rothko, as a curatorial model. A project by the Bulgarian artist Nedko Solakov, in which one worker paints a room black while another paints it white, is an emblem of stoicism under an absurdist regime. "They are not in a hurry," Solakov says.
Jeff Wall seems more nihilistic, with his installation of four photo lightboxes, of "blind windows" and a shuttered storefront. The dark side of religious ritual seems apparent in the group of 17 large black and white photographs by the 51-year-old Madrid-based photographer Cristina Garcia Rodero, whose incredible images of Haitians immersing themselves in mud have a religious sexuality that is all their own.
The first large gallery in the Italian pavilion is given over to a kind of aggregate art work crafted by Szeemann himself, in which a selection of historic sculptures of the Buddha are combined with a Rodin and several folk art figures by Erich Bödeker, Seni Camara, John Goba, Hans Schmidt and Peter Wanjau. The lot -- dubbed "Platform of Thought" -- is installed on a pink-painted wood mound built against one corner of the room, whose walls are painted green. Perhaps the best we can say about this is that curators should be encouraged to experiment.
Over in the Arsenale, the human platform seems to involve a certain amount of sentiment -- which, I should hasten to add, always finds a soft landing with your correspondent. Thus, Helsinki photographer Tuomo Manninen photographs groups of people -- bikers, wives of professors, ice swimmers -- and easily delivers their essential humanity. Portuguese artist João Onofre gives us a video projection called Casting (2000), in which a succession of earnest teens approach the camera and pronounce "courage, fortitude." The Canadian artist Max Dean collaborates with engineer Raffaello D'Andrea in the design of an "intelligent" robotic table that uses sensors and hidden locomotive apparatus to select a single viewer and follow him or her around the gallery -- furniture as some kind of star-smitten pet.
Tatsumi Orimoto presents several series of photographs from his five-year-old "Art-Mama" project, in which he poses his senile mother in a variety of absurd acts -- wearing giant Minnie Mouse shoes, for instance, or with a tire around her neck. Through it all, she shows a notable maternal forbearance, which here seems strangely rooted in mental absence! And Tiong Ang, an artist who is originally from Surabaja but now lives in Amsterdam, shows an utterly charming DVD projection of a group of kindergarten boys, all dressed in white shirts and ties, fidgeting and staring as they practice learning to count.
Even the more abstract projects draw in a pronounced human presence. For instance, a pure white room by the Costa Rican artist Priscilla Monge, constructed like a zone of silence, turns out to be padded with snowy clean sanitary napkins. And Heimo Zobernig, one of the most interesting color abstractionists around, has converted the video image of a nude man in bed adjusting his sheets into a solarized projection of bright abstract color.
One of the last works in the Arsenal is a Maze (2001) by Olaf Nicolai, a magenta-painted wood platform laid out on the mud that suggests several visitors should race through the tangle of paths to see who could first reach the finish. It's fitting, for the world's greatest and oldest art fest, that there is no prize at the end. The reward is of course in the running.