The political, racial and religious conflicts of the 20th century have spawned a relentless global nomadism, a fact that contemporary artists can hardly ignore. Indeed, for the final Venice Biennale of the century, curator Harald Szeemann has selected art that specifically emphasizes personal and cultural heritage.
A noble undertaking, but much was missing from Szeemann's final cut, including cultural markers for pop, fashion, corporate multinationalism, biotechnology, longevity and contemporary plagues. The Biennale's poetics thirsted in their absence. The ideal of multinationalism in itself is not critical enough.
Openness over all
It was Szeemann who initiated the popular and lively "Aperto" ("Open") exhibition at the 1980 Biennale, and he has readopted this democratic approach this time around. Now expanded and named "d'APERtutto" ("Openness over All"), the Biennale's special exhibition includes old and young artists from many different countries (especially China).
As if to provide a muscular counterbalance to the colonialist pavilions in Giardini Park, "d'APERtutto" fills the large Italian pavilion as well as the Arsenale, a maritime sector within Venice that hosts dilapidated shipyards, sheds and warehouses. In addition to the Corderie, Szeemann obtained several additional spaces -- the Gaggiandre, Tese and Artigiliere. Although some visitors may wish for a golf cart to perambulate the doubled grounds, the arena is nevertheless perfect for installations, with acoustics and dramatic possibilities that inspired a number of the artists.
Chen Zhen installed an interactive work in the Artigiliere that presented a characteristic Chinese concept. "Instead of striking people, one beats the place where people sit or sleep to awaken the mind." The artist roped together drums made by stretching animal skins on 100 chairs and five beds, creating a structure that incorporated fragments of arms and ammunition, stones and branches, wood and metal tubes. Sixty-nine batons made from police clubs were used for drumming. On opening day, a concert was organized in which the overture was played by three Tibetan Buddhists, a second part was done by professional musicians and the third was audience-improvised. On other days it was curious just to watch viewers drumming.
Sequestered in a cell-like niche, Maurizio Cattelan's untitled work presented nothing to see but a pair of praying human hands protruding from the loose sand surface of the floor. Cattelan hired an Indian fakir to perform a self-burial for two or three hours at a time. He could breathe, explained the artist's assistant, but only with great care.
Also in the Artigliere was Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn, whose World Airport consists of a huge tabletop runway filled with toy airplanes and emblazoned with familiar international logos. Using foil and other discardable materials, Hirschhorn's work seems a quick take on Szeemann's motifs, one that attempts to embrace the fascination and horror of globalization.
Serge Spitzer's beautiful work, Re/Cycle (Don't Hold Your Breath), is an installation of hundreds of identical glass goblets, carefully placed everywhere on the floor, and beams of a vast barn-like structure. The lure here is the contrast between the fragile, delicate glass and the rough-hewn, mammoth structure.
L.A. artist Tim Hawkinson's huge, loose-limbed, clacking primitive-robot attempts to fill a huge space at the Corderie but didn't. Other artists who did better within the structures of the Arsenale were Jason Rhoades and Paul McCarthy, who collaborated on a sprawling bagel-themed mega-installation, and Soo-Ja Kim, who parked a truck loaded with bundles of brightly colored fabric facing a wall-sized mirror. It was dedicated to the Kosovo refugees. Other art of note here, although not architecturally inspired, includes embroidered plastic Kimonos by Wang Jim, erotically stitched canvases by Ghada Amer and a smoke-filled and gimmicky bubble machine by Pipilotti Rist.
The "d'APERtutto" featured a considerable number of video works, a form that can provide a particularly effective introduction to other locales in the global village. Turbulent, by Iranian artist Shirin Neshat, is a poetic evocation of feminist issues in the Muslim world. Two large videotapes are projected onto opposite walls of the gallery. One depicts a man in a white shirt singing in a nearly deserted auditorium while the other shows a singing woman dressed in a traditional black chador. The astonishing, exotic music resounds throughout the Tese, while Neshat's camera angles create a visual sense of stillness and vulnerability.
Istanbul's Kutlag Ataman projects four videotapes side by side, each with a Muslim woman describing why she wore a wig -- a transsexual, a cancer victim, a woman disguising her identity, and another with an identity crisis.
L.A. artist Doug Aitken won the Leone D'or for his video Electric Earth, which evokes a black man's journey through the contemporary American urban landscape using what has become an Aitken trademark -- a meandering series of semi-enclosed spaces that house monitors and projections for each "chapter" of the work. Some viewers may find it offensively stereotypical and slick. I thought Aitken's use of urban imagery from the mall or freeway combined with his experimental camera movement and soundtrack -- characterized by sounds of breathing, in part -- is an interesting direction for this medium.
One large arena at the Corderie is darkened and dotted with videos on the walls, floors and ceiling, each one by a different artist. This confusing hodgepodge mirrors questions about living at the end of modernity, about the individual versus the collective -- the collective being everywhere. When I returned a few days later, I focused on Love Story by the Spanish artist Antoni Abad, which depicts a red heart-shaped cake slowly being eaten by rats.
Abad's macabre gesture was in stark contrast to the prize-winning video by Eija-Lisa Ahtila, the Finnish feminist neo-conceptualist artist whose work is on view in the Nordic pavilion. Her high-budget, 25-minute video uses both landscape and dialogue in a post-Bergmanesque way to speak about relationships.
The Global Giardini
Global relationships are confronted in a variety of ways in the national pavilions in the Giardini. France has two curators: Denys Zacharopoulos, who is Greek and collaborated with Jan Hoet on the 1992 Documenta, and Hou Hanrou, a French-Chinese curator who (with Hans Ulrich-Obrist) helped organize the big traveling show of new Asian art, "Cities on the Move." Each curator chose an artist from his own culture and generation, with the result that the art was integrated only by being installed in the same site.
Huang Yong Ping altered the look of the neoclassic architecture by installing eight 15-foot-tall timbers that pierce the roof and are topped by cast aluminum figures inspired by Chinese legends. The French artist Jean Pierre Bertrand, in distinct contrast, arranged lemons on shelves in alcoves. Playing with light, he also metaphorically destroyed the "gilded" national pavilion by knocking out part of its floor after painting it gold.
The post-Cold War era is most clearly articulated in the adaptation of the Czechoslovakian pavilion into separate sections for Slovaks and Czechs. The Slovak curators, Petra Hanakova and Alexandra Kusa, created "Art for Free," a wall of artist-designed tattoos that visitors can actually have done right on the spot.
As for the Bulgarians, they were apparently not informed about their inclusion until a week before the opening, and consequently seized the day to make a conceptualist gesture -- handing out a card, done in the colors of their flag, promising a real show next time around.
Another absent country, Thailand, is represented by a wood platform with a tree growing from its center designed by the New York artist Rirkrit Tiravanija. This work is sited in a grassy plot right in front of the U.S. pavilion -- a provocative juxtaposition.
The U.S. pavilion, as everyone must know by now, houses Ann Hamilton's Myein. Rumored to have cost $2 million and funded by the likes of Gucci and major collectors, Hamilton's piece is a lush, esoteric metaphor. Hamilton built a minimalist gridded glass wall in front of the pavilion designed to create a distorted view, a plan that backfired as the wall in fact serves to separate and isolate the American pavilion from its neighbors.
The interior of the neoclassic building is more intriguing. Along the walls, fuchsia acrylic powder intermittently falls, leaving tufts on floor and clinging to the walls where Charles Resnakoff's poem, Testimony, was implanted in Braille. Each night, a vacuum system collects, filters and returns the talc to its feed for a new cascade.
In contrast is the compelling intelligence of Rosemary Trockel's three video projections in the German pavilion. Here, in the main room, the viewer is viewed by an enormous eye, actually a montage of seven different female eyes that flow imperceptibly one into the other.
In the next room, side-by-side videos, called Sleeping Pill, depict a 2001-type futuristic dormitory. People remove their shoes and lie on mats, or are lifted into womb-like plastic pods to rest. Is this a displacement camp or a rest-stop for glutted and weary Biennaliere? The video was made from an actual installation, a prototype that Trockel created on the outskirts of Cologne. She says she envisions the structure in shopping malls or airports as a kind of pit-stop for the weary. As if to provide actual as well as figurative rest, Trockel also installed rows of cots in two small rooms in the pavilion.
Her third film, called Kindespeilplatz, depicts the activity in a playground unfolding from sunrise to sunset, and courses the panorama of urban life as a "still life" moving within itself. The works are a dreamlike circumscription of sleep and waking, rest and play, youth and life.
The Italian pavilion
The Italian pavilion was packed with artists included in Szeemann's "d'APERTutto," which emphasizes emerging countries as well as artists both young and old, and women. In his 1973 Biennale, poor Szeemann hardly included any women at all. In 1999 he missed again, with only 25 percent. Louise Bourgeois, who was born in France in 1911, was represented by her sexually explicit stuffed sculptures.
Ann-Sofi Siden, a Swedish artist, created a super surveillance piece titled Who Told the Chambermaid? Along one wall is a kind of linen room, complete with shelves, folded towels and other gear, interspersed with several monitors that played tapes of activity in different hotel rooms.
Also in the Italian pavilion is a crowd-pleasing sculpture by Sarah Sze, a very young woman (b. 1969) from the U.S. Sze constructed a miniature high wire made up of tiny objects and detritus, like a Calder circus without figures. It is constructed from a rectangular hole in the wall up along the walls and ceiling and then out a window that opens to a canal. An imperceptible tapping sound is triggered by the wake of passing boats.
A white male African artist, William Kentridge, is presenting a terrific, haunting projection of a lonely man overwhelmed by technology who finds solace in his cat.
What the Biennale promised was a "hybridity of cross-national collaboration," and that effort is most clear in what could be called a showcase for Chinese artists. Each had his or her own style and all were influenced by their rich cultural heritage. Zhang Peili's Just for You consisted of ten monitors, each with a head shot of a Chinese person singing "Happy Birthday" in his or her own style.
Zhuag Hui photographs large groups of graduates from various uniformed academies for police or the army, a set of images that overwhelm Western notions of overcrowding. Ying Bo's video Fei-Ya! Fei-Ya! -- Fly Fly (Our Chinese Friends) shows a group of Chinese artists sitting around a table playing a childish game with a zeal akin to the Russian Roulette scene from the film The Deer Hunter.
Wang Du's oversized installation of characters that are well known on the global media stage is installed on a room-sized table and mocks political and sexual mores. Szeemann's ploy with the Chinese here is akin to post-Glasnost days when an interest in Russian art seemed a good bet ... even if a losing one.
After viewing almost all of the 123 works, I am struck by how bland, familiar and uncontroversial they all seem. Szeemann will curate for the Venice Biennale in 2001. Let's hope he can give this next exhibition the punch it deserves.
CAROLEE THEA is a New York-based art critic and curator.