Maybe 13 centuries ago, the Virgin Mary appeared in a white cloud over Venice, and commanded that a church be built. According to Bishop Saint Magno, the good mother was "formosa" -- sublimely beautiful or, in today's parlance, shapely -- and thus in 639 was founded La Chiesa di Santa Maria Formosa, the city's largest church after San Marco.
We happily borrow this motif -- Shapely Venice, the Buxom Biennial -- for this report on the 50th Venice Biennale, which opens to the public on June 15, 2003. Curator Francesco Bonami's "exhibition of exhibitions" is certainly large enough, with more than 500 artists in over 30 national pavilions plus a series of independent exhibitions organized by 11 different curators.
Despite withering heat that was ever-oppressive at the vernissage, a determined festivity prevailed. At the entrance to the Giardini were several people sitting in trees (actually they sit in burlap covered chairs, with burlap umbrellas, perched on top of tall, tree-like logs), in a kind of seven-day endurance contest, "without compromise or mercy," sponsored by something called the Church of Fear.
In the afternoon another group of young artists -- students of the estimable Marina Abramovic, who was on hand in a wheelchair, having injured her leg by stepping in a hole back home in SoHo -- performed independent actions, Fluxus-style, as part of something called Vivere Venezia. A young woman stood on a pile of cinder-block rubble waving a national flag; a man stood naked while a woman examined his penis with a magnifying glass; another man sprawled spread-eagle on the ground, plucking at a guitar placed above his head; four people sat on a bench, weeping. Boo-hoo, indeed.
Riding around the grounds and through the pavilions was a young boy on a tricycle, a radio-controlled animatron that is the work of Maurizio Cattelan. His name is Charlie, and he looks very real for a robot, pausing on his bike and cocking his head. The artist himself is nowhere to be seen, as one might expect from a remotely piloted project. "That's number one," exclaimed Miami collector Don Rubell, as if to demonstrate the New York artist's market appeal.
And here and there were sounds of a barking dog, coming from hidden speakers. An evocative, if slightly nihilistic, metaphor.
The national pavilions in the Giardini are irregularly arrayed in a trapezoidal plan. The largest by far is the Italian pavilion, a Brutalist maze that is traditionally filled with a sprawling international exhibition (rather than works by one or two Italian artists). It welcomes visitors with a bit of L.A. attitude, thanks to a sign over the door reading "Like, man, I'm tired of waiting," courtesy of American artist Sam Durant.
More lightheartedness is inside, with an irreligious bit of sculptural doggerel by the New York artist David Hammons titled Praying for Safety -- two kneeling Buddhas facing each other, their hands folded as if in prayer, with a string stretched between them and a safety pin hung in the middle. It's easy to imagine the famously insouciant artist -- "the less I do, the more it is art," he told the New Yorker last year -- arriving in Venice and assembling the work from what he found on hand.
"I feel very strongly about advocating creative irrelevancy to attack the absurdity of war, violence and discrimination," writes Bonami in his introduction to the exhibition guidebook (priced at a modest 6 euros), and just that note is struck in the next gallery by Lucy McKenzie's large wall "mural" of the words, Mmm! Ahh! Ohh! Stretching out beneath this ultimate orgasmic, epicurian expression is Rivane Neuenschwander's Globos (2003), a sprawling installation of various balls, each printed with a national flag. It may only be a game, but what passion it inspires, and such desire to colonize the entire world!
The rest of this show, which is dubbed "Delays and Revolutions," is a hodgepodge of set pieces and mini exhibitions, most of them new and interesting. Helen Mirra's subtle, Minimalist arrangement of two abutting piles of military blankets, one blue and the other green, is titled Coastline. Ellen Gallagher, in a new wall work called Double Natural, begins with old advertisements for African American hair products, to which she applies thick pieces of colored cardboard, giving her subjects blonde hair and lifeless white eyes.
And a large painting installation by Kerry James Marshall strikes a hopeful note, as he shows two black couples sailing on a yacht in a serene picture that echoes, in composition and title, Winslow Homer's Gulf Stream, a more ominous image of a lone black sailor adrift in a skiff surrounded by sharks.
Elsewhere is a gallery of exquisitely painted portraits by the British "Sensation" artist Glenn Brown that mix Rococo visages with a trippy Daliesque technique, and another gallery of Richard Prince's old "Marlboro Man" cowboy photos. The room of expressive, small graphics and paintings by the 85-year-old Carol Rama ("the Italian Louise Bourgeois," in rude shorthand) show the artist as part proto-feminist, part Surrealist.
In the U.S. pavilion, which is a little like a compact model of the Capitol building in Washington, the New York artist Fred Wilson triumphs with a sophisticated installation that explores the image of the Moor in Venice through various works, both historical and contemporary. Flanking the door are two photographic reproductions Michelangelesque Nubian caryatids, while in the courtyard is a real African immigrant, posing with some counterfeit handbags -- an echo of the African street vendors who are an insistent presence in the city today.
Inside, hanging from the ceiling in the entry, is an ornate glass chandelier, a unique fabrication done all in black rather than in the typical candy colors. The galleries contain paintings and prints borrowed from local museums that picture Moors throughout the Renaissance, in minor, supporting roles as servants and slaves -- though a painting by Vasari depicts the bastard son of Claudio de Medici, a mulatto who eventually became hereditary Duke of Florence.
Other works use the Venetian version of lawn jockeys, Moorish figures that double as candle- and light-holders. Some are beautifully crafted of Venetian glass, which Wilson has tricked up with ominous-looking contemporary gas canisters or, in one case, a blown-glass Molotov cocktail. The show is perfectly calibrated, and it would be no surprise if it won the gold medal.
Other pavilions provide substantial competition, however. Chris Ofili has transformed the British Pavilion at the top of the hill into an Op Art chapel of bright red and green, complete with colored wall-to-wall carpets and painted walls that make it all but impossible to actually look at his ornately decorated paintings themselves, which take up the motif of African lovers. An irreverent church of black jungle love, then, which is here finished with a startling red and blue "stained glass" skylight.
The German pavilion features a nice installation of photographs of interior architecture by Candida Hfer and a long floor grate, which is a "ventilation shaft" for the late Martin Kippenberger's comically utopian "world metro system." The bright and airy French pavilion is given over to paintings on clear plastic and oversized color photographs by Jean Marc Bustamante, whose newer works, photos of contemporary "amazons," aren't bad at all.
For nihilistic gestures, however, no one can top Santiago Sierra, who blocked off the entrance to the Spanish pavilion with a rude wall of cemented cinderblocks. The sign over the door is covered as well, and by the afternoon they weren't even bothering to keep the "un-exhibit" open.
Another triumph is the Danish pavilion, which is filled to overflowing with works by Olafur Eliasson -- literally so, as the artist has added on a roof pavilion and a system of wooden walkways honeycombing the exterior. Eliasson is a great "Air and Space" artist, as they used to be called in California in the 1970s, and his multifaceted, mirrored environmental constructions, which can be characterized as geodesic domes on LSD, bring a whole new energy to abstract sculpture. Eliasson also makes a contribution in the Op Art vein (with a tip of the hat to Dan Flavin, James Turrell and several others) with a room bathed in pure yellow light, which effectively banishes color and renders everything in apparent tones of black and white.
Five artists share the airy, bright Dutch pavilion, which features a working bar by Meschac Gaba dispensing delicious ginger cocktails that were especially welcome, considering the heat. "In the future, manual labor will be considered a leisure sport," says the slogan by the humble shoe factory nearby, designed by Carlos Amorales, where visitors can cut patterns, assemble and even sew together high-topped footwear in stylish red leatherette -- just for fun.
At the Russian pavilion, four painters herald "The Return of the Artist" with an impressive installation of works that testify to the benefits of a Soviet artistic education. They are Constantin Zvezdochotov, who fills one gallery with large, fabulous Little Nemo in Slumberland-styled Russian street scenes; Valery Koshliakov, who constructs an evocative, impressionistic environment of classical Russian architecture painted on walls papered with scraps of corrugated cardboard; and the team of Vladimir Dubossarsky & Alexander Vinogradov, whose room-filling Socialist Realist mural overflows with elation and optimism at (what one imagines is) the country's new, free life.
More relief from the heat comes out back, where the Portuguese artist Pedro Cabrita Reis has constructed a kind of oversized shanty (the exterior is covered with quilted aluminum sheets) whose grass-floored interior is painted orange, its walls covered with soft-white fluorescent tubes and cooled by five, hard-working air conditioners. Brilliant. Where are the drinks?
Things begin to get a little disheveled in the Arsenal, the long, corridor-like space carved out of some historic buildings. Clearly, economic strictures have taken their toll (despite a budget that reportedly surpassed 6 million euros). Little video, film or photography is in evidence, and many of the artworks have a distinctly hand-made feel, as if they were patched together from whatever materials could be scrounged. Indeed, one of the keynote pieces, by the Venezuelan artist Meyer Vaisman, is a beautiful five-foot-tall pyramid made of "found" Italian tiles and mortar.
Bonami has divided the Arsenal into eight successive exhibitions, which unfortunately lacked signage at the press preview, adding confusion to an already disorienting setup. In "Fault Lines," a team led by Wael Shawky worked feverishly to finish a ramshackle city made of tar paper, while Hou Hanru's "Zone of Urgency" was temporarily shut down as the artists urgently worked to finish the installation.
A classic work by Robert Smithson, a slide-show tour of Yucatan called Palenque Station, played forlornly in its own little theater, seeming out of place in time as well as esthetic sensibility, as did a screen test by Andy Warhol of the incomparable Edie Sedgwick.
In the end, resorting to "festivalism" worked best, despite recent cavils from the critics, as eye-catching, grand gestures stood out among the crowds and the noise. For instance, the 30-something Mexican artist Damin Ortega completely disassembled a 1983 Volkswagen Beetle and neatly hung the parts from the ceiling in a literal diagram of its construction. This was in a show organized by Gabriel Orozco called "The Everyday Altered."
On the other hand, more intimate statements can always hold their own, should the viewer actually pause to look at them. A small work by Jimmie Durham brought poetry to the age-old clash of nature and culture, via a tabletop containing a gold-painted piece of lumber with a hand-lettered sign reading, "A piece of wood sculpted by machine, painted by human," juxtaposed to a branch that had been vigorously gnawed on, and also painted gold, labeled, "A piece of wood sculpted by dog, painted by human."
At the very end of the Arsenal is a section dubbed "Utopia Station," co-organized by that champion of social sculpture, Rirkrit Tiravanija, and featuring a vast set of unpainted plywood galleries, cubicles and computer and video-projection tables. Overall, the perhaps unintended message here is that utopian projects result in squalor and misery, for it was an airless, dingy space indeed.
Still, there are always highlights, and here they included a room installation by Yoko Ono called Imagine Peace, in which viewers may rubberstamp those very words onto maps pinned to the walls, and a funny film projection by the celebrated French cineaste Agnes Varda that equates oddly shaped potatoes with valentine hearts. Ah, love.