I can tell already that Venice, like Paris, is not operated for people who need to get things done. It takes an hour for the Vaporetto to travel from the terminal to the Lido, the last stop on the line, and then it requires a cab for another mile to reach my hotel. I pine for my 1981 Toyota, left behind in the Kennedy airport parking lot. Its muffler is beginning to go, which results in a throaty vroom-vroom sound on acceleration -- just what the doctor ordered for a busy do-bee like me.
But who wants to get anything done in Venice? The Lido is a great place to stay, with its own beach and proximity to all the tourist spots. The air smells like honeysuckle and gardenia, the sky and sea are unbelievable shades of blue. The city and its architecture -- not to mention the streets filled with water -- are sublime.
Against all this, then, it takes a certain suspension of disbelief to consider contemporary art, which however imaginative and high tech is no match for Venice's natural and historical wonders. Nevertheless, it must be done. So let's get on with it.
The 48th Venice Biennale, which opens to the public June 13-Nov. 7, 1999, features official exhibitions from 59 foreign countries as well as an "International Exhibition" of work by 102 artists.
All in all, it's a triumph. The so-called "new, post-reform Biennale," under Swiss director Harald Szeemann, has revitalized the fair as a show of contemporary art. Under the orthographically gawky theme of "d'APERTutto," the show presents more established and younger artists together in a kind of giant group show, housed in the large Italian pavilion in the Castello Giardini as well as the nearby spaces of the Arsenale.
"This 1999 show is not occasion for retrospective reflection," said Szeemann, "but for a confident affirmation of the strength of the present."
In addition to the national pavilions in the Giardini and the 330-meter-long space of the former rope factory, the Corderie, the Biennale has expanded into additional spaces in the cavernous Arsenale, a conglomeration of huge, raw, pre-industrial spaces quite different from the classic white cube. These include the workshops spaces in the Artigliere (c. 1560), the erstwhile timber warehouse called the Tese (c. 1564) and the covered shipyard area of the Gaggiandre (ca. 1568-73). These spaces are all arrayed in a kind of winding path from the Corderie to the Lagoon, where visitors can catch a water ferry to take them around the island to dock back at the beginning at the entrance to the Giardini.
The result is not so much an exhibition as a series of project spaces by individual artists. The Biennale welcomed "the grandiose gesture," and got it in spades.
Easily the most talked-about "gesture" at the fair was an untitled work by Italian bad-boy Maurizio Cattelan, who presented a fakir from India who buried himself under the sand for hours at a time in an extended meditation, with only his peaked hands showing. Word is that Cattelan at first wanted someone who would bury his head in the sand like the classic ostrich. As it turned out, finding a swami for the job was no easy task; money is no inducement, nor are the wonders of Venice itself.
In the Giardini, Katarzyna Kozyra made an impression at the Polish Pavilion with a video projection called The Men's Bathhouse, filmed on location in Budapest. Kozyra had herself elaborately made up with beard and false penis so she could pass as a man in the steam room, towel draped over her shoulders to hide her breasts.
At the Austrian pavilion, Frankfurt-based curator Peter Weibel invited several artists whose work is socially engaged, an appealing move for those of us who came of age during the 1960s and '70s. A group called WochenKlausur specializes in direct social intervention; the project promoted here involved teaching English, French and German to Kosovars in Macedonia -- presumably to promote a more international outlook rather than employment on Wall Street!
Also in the Austrian pavilion was Rainer Ganahl, who despite his origins now lives and works in New York. (Generally speaking, the Biennale made a hash of nationalistic restrictions, and no one seemed to mind.) Ganahl presented Please Teach Me (1999), in which the artist endeavors to learn 100 languages from countries not represented at the Biennale, from Afrikaans and Albanian to Wolof and Zulu. His installation featured two racks of T-shirts bearing the slogan in different languages and some videotapes showing the artist at his language study. If things go as planned, Ganahl should soon be a one-man Tower of Babel.
Ann Hamilton's installation at the American pavilion, whose architecture comically suggests a Greek temple on a mini-golf scale, was titled Myein, a word that refers to "an abnormal contraction of the pupil of the eye." Thanks to the installation of hidden machinery, bright magenta powder sifts down the walls of the pavilion's twin gallery spaces, piling at the edges of the floor where visitors track it through the rest of the space. Every night the powder is vacuumed up and recycled for the next day's performance.
The walls are studded with oversize Braille poems from Charles Reznikoff's Testimony, which is based on court records, and a soundtrack of Hamilton whispering the text plays throughout the space. In front of the building she has installed a wall of translucent, wavy glass tiles and a kind of gridded table hung with knotted white cloths. All in all, people seem to like Hamilton's portentous object poetry, though it always seems to have an unpleasant subtext. Here, the garish pink powder is an unwitting emblem of the vulgarity and artificiality of American culture, especially in contrast to the dazzling Venetian light.
Pavilions of the three "Great Powers" -- Britain, Germany and France -- are grouped together up on a slight rise. Gary Hume has filled the British Pavilion with some 24 of his enamel paintings, including a gallery of six huge, overlapping line renderings of a naked young fashion model. Perhaps it's his muse! (It's not actress Patsy Kensit, one of the artist's dealers assured me.) Hume's other subjects include children, teddy bears, flowers and birds -- who says the Young British Artists are nasty and brutish? In all, quite a nice presentation, really.
Rosemarie Trockel filled the German Pavilion with three projections, which were characteristically recondite. Upon entering the darkened space, visitors were greeted with a projection of a huge, blinking eye -- another reference to vision and spectatorship that would be tiresome were the format not so effective. (Video projections remain the model avant-garde mode.) To the right is a projection of a kind of futuristic nursery school, with young children sleeping in hanging pods. To the left is a projection of a playground, peopled first with figures dressed in red shirts and then in pink. Two smaller rooms hold four cots each, as if to invite viewers to take a nap. Could this be something about activity and rest, day and night, regimentation and pan-opticality? Who knows?!
At this point, the inclination to rush through the rest of the pavilions is irresistible. Pyrotechnician Roman Signer is at the Swiss pavilion, where I kept waiting for something to explode. Actually, he has a very nice fountain made of a hose and a Piaggio three-wheeled van.
Ann Veronica Janssens has filled the Belgian space with a fine white smoke, the kind used in discotheques. It has something to do with being universal, with "superspace," she told me. The high-end art historian Mieke Bal wrote the catalogue essay.
The same theme is at work in the Japanese pavilion, where Tatsuo Miyajima has filled the upper space with a grid of dozens and dozens of blue diodes, patiently counting down from nine to zero. Downstairs is his Kaki Tree Project, for which he encourages people to plant seeds cultivated from a single Kaki tree that survived the Hiroshima atom bomb. The project has three concepts, Miyajima writes: It keeps changing, it connects with everything, it continues for ever. Finally, I understand the East.
At the Korean Pavilion, Lee Bul has installed a pair of pink-padded Karaoke booths, making the public more private, she said. "I like that people know it's stupid, but enjoy doing it anyway." The piece certainly is popular, stupid or not. Visitors can be seen voguing and crooning through the tiny window in the booth, from which they eventually emerge giggling and swooning. Elsewhere at the Biennale is Bul's piece involving a quantity of dead fish in plastic bags, the work that the Museum of Modern Art installed and then removed, resulting in angry charges of censorship from the artist.
In a triangular yard near the American pavilion, a modest structure is under construction -- a wooden platform built around a small sapling. This, the New York critic Jerry Saltz assures me, is Rirkrit Tiravanija's Thai Pavilion. "He's supposed to serve everyone curry at some point," Jerry said. "But who knows?"
Downstairs in the Russian Pavilion are Komar & Melamid, who have installed paintings by Ruby the elephant and photographs by a chimpanzee (sorry, I didn't get his name). Upstairs, the artist who goes by the name Africa has tiled the darkened space with metal plates, some enameled with photo images. In the center is a spherical goedesic framework with a projection on its floor of a man taking electroshock in Crimea. A very unpleasant way to erase one's memory! Africa is apparently Russia's most successful contemporary artist.
At the Slovak Pavilion -- occupying half of the old Czechoslovakian Pavilion -- one can obtain a free tattoo designed by a Slovak artist. Just call me sailor!
The long journey through the Cordiere and the rest of the Arsenal spaces is a potpourri of projects, each one more grandiose than the last. The Native American artist Jimmie Durham has a room with a 1997 piece called St. Frigo. It includes a video projection of people stoning a refrigerator and the battered refrigerator itself. Very funny.
Belgrade artist Vesna Vesic has a video projection of someone crying, the most direct reference to the Yugoslavian conflict, taking place just across the Adriatic. Doug Aitken's installation of video projections, called Electric Earth, stars an urban youth -- a young black man -- and is typically energized and overwhelming.
Tim Hawkinson's Pentecost is here, the sprawling cardboard tree construction with figures modeled on the artist's body, looking as awful as it did at Ace Gallery in New York. From Chris Burden are three impressive, large-scale models of bridges -- he is surely the granddaddy of the adolescent esthetic, and the best at it.
Monica Bonvicini has contributed a sheetrock room, its walls punched through with holes and inscribed with graffito and quotations relating architecture to the phallus. "Why do I always feel out of place when I'm walking down the Champs Elysées? Because you are a woman," says one, paired with a drawing of a giant penis stuck through an arch. "A window is a man, it stands upright!" says another, paired with a drawing of a man proudly erect. I must say, I don't get the point.
Other works include a clear plastic fish tank, with fish, in the shape of a Chinese palace by Lu Hao; an upside-down World War II vintage airplane by Paola Pivi, a truck loaded with gaily colored packages by Kim Soo-Ja; a trademark (but enormous) installation by Thomas Hirschhorn of a World Airport; a room with the walls and ceiling paved with 1,000 clocks by Richard Jackson (it was 4:20 when I was there, I'm quite sure); and a giant ersatz bagel-making installation by Jason Rhoades and Paul McCarthy.
In the Georgian gallery, the artist Mamuka Japaridze made a wall drawing of the repeated word "art" -- art-art-art-art, a reference to the sound of artillery and the Arsenale itself. "Parked" in the back was Wim Delvoye's incredible cement truck, made entirely of wood carved with decorative curlicues, from its windshield to its tires to its concrete chute.
The newer spaces were great for even greater gestures. The New York artist Serge Spitzer, who was born in Bucharest, covered the floor and timbers of a vast, wood-raftered space with pairs of glasses, balanced one on the top of the other, mouth to mouth. Shattered glass littered the floor. In another wrecked space, Stephan Huber installed his massive white, gesso models of the Alps, with a violet neon river flowing through the makeshift valley. This may be the most dramatic presentation of the Biennale.
Nearby, floating on the water in a kind of marina, was Lori Hersberger's motley, plaza-sized conglomeration of carpets. She's Swiss, and the piece is called Archaic Modern Suite. Oi, with its reference to flying carpets and the Arabian Nights, it was a fitting endpiece to a journey through the Biennale.
One more thing. Monica Lewinsky is in the Bienniale, courtesy of a sculpture by the Chinese artist Wang Du. Who could resist?
By the way, the Golden Lions have already been awarded to Louise Bourgeois and Bruce Nauman. Awards for the best national pavilion and for three exhibition artists are to be announced later by a jury that includes Zdenca Badonivac, director of the Moderna Galerija in Lubiana; Okwui Enwezor, curator at the Art Institute of Chicago; Ida Gianelli, director of the Castello di Rivoli; Yuko Hasegawa, director of the Setagaya Art Museum; and Rosa Martinez, curator of the 1999 Santa Fe Biennale.