During the month gone by since I bid farewell to the near-continuous dreamspaces of the 48th Venice Biennale, the sense of a theme or unifying raison d'etre slowly crystallized within my memory of this broad, breezy exhibition. Youth, women and China -- such were the demographic emphases proclaimed by the Biennale's director, Harald Szeemann, an independent Swiss curator who first established his reputation as a kind of international art world magus with the 1969 Bern exhibition, "When Attitude Becomes Form: Live in Your Head."
Szeemann subsequently organized the epochally countercultural Documenta 5 of 1972, and in 1980 he initiated the "Aperto" -- Open -- section of the Biennale as a way of keeping the event alive to new developments, regardless of the various agendas expressed within the national pavilions that form the architectural petting-zoo in the Giardini. (Among Szeemann's more recent and most paradoxical contributions to contemporary sensibilities in art was a 1989 exhibition at the Zurich Kunsthaus of works on paper by Victor Hugo -- a show that triggered a surprising resurgence of interest in visual work by the great 19th-century French author and national hero. Szeemann's head is clearly many-gabled.)
The Aperto section, absent from the last two Biennales, was widely appreciated and largely defined Szeemann's show. He emphasized the contemporary with the umbrella title "dAPERTutto," or "APERTO over ALL." Thus the art in the centrally positioned Italian Pavilion, the traditional locus of a more or less discrete curatorial keynote -- often an ode, as well, to curatorial cronyism a l'europeenne -- could be considered of a piece, this time, with the Biennale as a whole, including even the contents of most of the national pavilions and off-site venues (whose selection committees were encouraged to keep Szeemann's encomium in mind), as well as art in and outside of the wonderful old naval buildings that comprise Venice's spectacularly situated Arsenale.
In addition to the by now familiar Corderie, three other cavernous naval yard buildings -- the Artiglierie, the Deposito Polveri (gunpowder warehouse), the Tese and the Gaggiandre (the last two designed by the 16th-century architect Jacopo Sansovino, a disciple of Palladio) -- were recently restored and made available to Biennale installations. (A military-museological complex in formation? Last year's Sydney Biennale provided another occasion for the recycling of disused colonial military structures into exhibition venues. Can art on the beach -- Normandy beach, that is, with its installation-ready bunkers -- be far behind?).
Now back to those stated demographics: Youth, women and China. About two-thirds of the roughly 100 artists in "dAPERTutto" (not counting the pavilions, except for Italy's, which include work by Louise Bourgeois, as well as homages to the late James Lee Byars, Dieter Rot, Gino de Dominici, Mario Schifano and Martin Kippenberger ) were born after 1960. Around 25 percent of them are women. Close to 20 percent of them are Chinese. All but four of the Chinese artists were born after 1960. None of the Chinese artists are women. This statistical breakdown brings to mind the old paper-scissors-rock game played by children, in which no single element is guaranteed to win -- scissors cut paper, the rock can break scissors, paper wraps the rock.
A close variant of that game was actually the subject of one of my favorite works in the Italian Pavilion, a video piece by the Chinese artist Ying Bo (born 1963; lives in Tao Chong, China). A group of young adults (of both sexes) are seen talking, joking and drinking, with periodic surges of boisterousness, as they enact the obligatory game gestures around a wooden tavern table.
The Chinese contribution
The Chinese contribution to this Biennale is, to my view, very strong. There was, I feel I should mention, a certain amount of mild -- dare I suggest genteel -- xeno-resistant grousing on the part of a good number of American and European colleagues I spoke to in Venice. These generally vague, grumpy, sweeping comments tended to run along the lines of "not bad ...like the Russians 15 years ago ...all those 1970s rehashes...in 10 years they might really be something." Such criticisms seemed to me to run headlong into the very youth factor that was otherwise applauded.
A number of the youngest Chinese artists, born in the late '60s and early '70s, were indeed given to neo-conceptualist or whimsically Dadaesque, Happenings-related, photo-documentation works involving such coming-of-age practices as getting naked on the Great Wall, etc. But what with a more or less global '70s revival afoot, plus a loosening of creative strictures in China, such stuff, I feel, was par for the course, on the pulse of the moment, and on the whole pretty interesting.
This Biennale's most perplexing show-stopper, The Rent Collecting Courtyard, is an enormous and theatrically gripping installation-in-progress by the neo-Conceptualist Cai Guo Qiang (b. 1957; now lives in New York). A sprawling array of life-size, pseudo-Socialist Realist, gray clay sculptural depictions of tenant-laborers, bosses, landlords and flunkies, the theme originally figured in a famous work (unknown to most Westerners on hand, hence the perplexity) of Maoist propaganda made in Sichuan during the height of the Cultural Revolution.
Chen Zhen's grand sculptural installation of drums and gongs (b. 1950; lives in Paris and New York) is in its rough-hewn, traditionalist splendor thrilling to behold -- and perhaps the only Chinese work on view here to appeal directly (if inadvertently) to currently fashionable inclinations ŕ la neo-rich-hippie. It actively engages viewers of all ages when not, at specified intervals, being performed on by members of a group of (mostly young) Buddhist monks who -- in their maroon and saffron robes, white socks and oxford shoes -- were widely appreciated as the most glamorous presences around Venice during the opening days of the Biennale.
Other impressive works by Chinese artists include Zhang Huan's performance-and-or-endurance related photographs (b. 1965; lives in Brooklyn); Zhang Hui's panoramic photographs of occupational groups (b. 1963; lives in Beijing); Wang Du's large, newspaper-inspired, caricaturish table sculptures of world figures, which suggested a cross between the work of Stephan Balkenhol and Barbara Kruger's recent sculptures (b. 1956; lives in Paris); Yue Minjun's grayish, nastily comical, grimacing figure paintings (b. 1962; lives in Beijing); and Yang Shaobin's almost apocalyptically violent, sfumato canvases -- a painterly theater of cruelty (b. 1963; lives in Beijing).
Women in "dAPERTutto"
A seemingly disproportionate number of the women in "dAPERTutto" come from Scandinavia, with Northern Europe in general running a close second. I especially liked work by three artists. The Swedish photographer Miriam Backstrom (b. 1967; lives in Stockholm) presents a large group of admirably small, compositionally tight, subtly detailed pictures of the apartments of recently deceased people that suggest an almost excruciatingly keen (but not mean) sensibility.
Annika von Hausswolff (also Swedish; shown in the Nordic Countries Pavilion) makes large-format, color and black-and-white photographs of ordinary domestic sights -- underwear, for instance, floating in a sink -- that have an effortlessly twisted, surreal edge. And the Danish painter and installation artist Simone Aaberg Kaern (b.1969) constructed Sisters in the Sky, a cool but earnest echt-Modernist gallery-pantheon -- literally a curved, Alvar Aaltoesque white structure set up within the Corderie -- filled with the recorded sounds of airplanes, and a seemingly endless lineup of uniformly sized and formatted portraits of World War II female fighter pilots.
Each of these artists can be linked up to what I have now begun to think of as this exhibition's dual themes -- a dual zeitgeist, really, since they also reflect the mood and content of work in virtually all mediums seen in countless other internationally oriented exhibitions over the last few years.
The first, essentially intimist -- think "yin" -- has to do with a whimsically or anxiously skewed domesticity or "everydayness." The territory is most typically populated by female photographers and video-artists. The group photography show "Another Girl, Another Planet," organized this spring at Lawrence Rubin Greenberg Van Doren Fine Arts in New York, was a recent touchstone within this genre, and the filmmaker Chantal Ackerman must, by now, be considered its mother-figure. Other widely admired works in this Biennale by artists as different as Pipilotti Rist and Doug Aitken, William Kentridge and Shirin Neshat, all convey images and messages of this type.
The other theme, maximalist and more decidedly "yang" in spirit, tends towards the manic-euphoric, and involves the impulses to build, wire, assemble, tinker, film, exhaustively document or catalogue, and fill large spaces, along with various forms of speed- and/or technologically induced angst -- call it techno-globalism, if you must. Jason Rhoades (b. 1965), the current ruler of the mega-tinkerer's domain, is represented at this Biennale by two separate collaborative works in which his characteristic presence is dominant: with Paul McCarthy, in a gigantic installation in the Artiglierie; and more unexpectedly, in a smaller piece about racing cars in (of all places) the Danish Pavilion, with Peter Bonde.
World Airport, however, an overbearingly polemical, hangar-scale, multi-media installation in the Artiglierie by Thomas Hirschhorn (Swiss; b. 1957) is certainly another prime example of these aggregating and/or actuarial types. In this vein, among many others in many mediums, are Tim Hawkinson's interactive room-size constructions (USA; b. 1960); several wonderful structures, in various locations, made of plastic bottle-crates by the team of Wolfgang Winter & Bertholdt Hörbelt (German; b. 1960 and 1958); Georges Adeagbo's one-day-only, outdoor, flea-market-style installation of sensitively chosen and organized postcolonial objects and literature, in English and French (Benin; b. 1942); John Bock's elaborate playroom (Germany; b. 1965); Richard Jackson's room full of synchronized clocks (USA; b. 1939); Serge Spitzer's huge roomful of recycled glass bottles (USA; b. 1951 in Romania); Lori Hersberger's big patchwork-quiltlike installation of rugs and fabric remnants floating outdoors in Arsenale waters (Switzerland; b. 1964); Wim Delvoye's impressive, life-size, carved wooden truck (Belgium; b. 1965); and an exquisitely filigreed assemblage installation by the brilliant Sarah Sze (USA; b. 1969).
There is an unexpectedly moving lineup, towards the far end of the Corderie, that begins with Balthasar Burkhard's grandly poetic, black-and-white wide-lens views of an unnamed metropolis that may have been Mexico City (Switzerland; b. 1944) moves on through Kaern's homage to aviatrixes; segues into Chris Burden's gorgeous and impeccable large-scale models of bridges (USA; b. 1946 ); and culminates with Soo-Ja Kim's truck, piled high with bundles of bright fabric (USA; b. 1957 in Korea) and reflected in a mirrored wall. (The filmed image of this truck and its contents could be seen last year in P.S. 1's edition of "Cities on the Move," a traveling exhibition whose spirit lingered over large swathes of this Biennale.)
Finally, a few words about the Giardini pavilions. I'm afraid that Ann Hamilton, in the American Pavilion, gets my Pseud's Corner award -- and with Gucci's Tom Ford so solidly behind her pink dust and righteous Braille, I'm sure she'll survive the affront. But I liked Esther Ferrer's then-and-now composite-portrait photographs in Spain's; Daan van Golden's oddly romantic painterly-designerly works, somewhat reminiscent of Chris Wool's, in the Netherlands'; Ann Veronica Janssen's neo-Symbolist roomful of vapor in Belgium's; Rhoades and Bonde's in Denmark's; and everything -- Hausswolff's photos, Knut Asdam's nocturnal forest environment, and what little I could peek at of Eija-Liisa Ahtila's very popular other-girl-other-planet-type video -- in the Nordic Countries'.
But the pavilions of Great Britain (a mini-retrospective of paintings by Gary Hume) and Germany (a three-part, big video- screen installation, involving images of children playing, adults sleeping, and a single Surrealistic eye by Rosemarie Trockel) are my picks for best-in-show: High style, and evolving consciousness -- now that's where I'd like to live.