Did there ever exist a Venice Biennale that truly satisfied? Certainly not, and the current edition curated by Germano Celant is no exception. Usually such giant art events inspire multiple, split judgments among viewers. But at this Biennale -- as at the previous one organized by Jean Clair -- the array of advance opinions was somewhat more limited: sleepy, lazy, boring, predictable.
We decided not to pay attention to such gossip and proceeded towards the Italian Pavilion, where a revolution was supposed to happen. In the past it's always been a mess. Curators of this pavilion have tended to invite some 30 or 40 Italian artists, thus demonstrating his or her own idea of what Italian art has been lately. Celant took the serious decision to reduce the number of Italian artists to three: the bad boy Maurizio Cattelan, the painter Enzo Cucchi and our Minimalist hero Ettore Spalletti.
But after passing an awful and very sponsored sculpture by Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen -- a giant bottle of perfume, sponsored by Illy Caffé, a brand of chic coffee from Trieste (who also sponsored the last Lichtenstein show in Trieste's Museo Revoltella; Lichtenstein painted a limited edition of a cup of coffee for them) -- we found ourselves in an impressive room by Mario Merz.
Someone advised us we had come in the wrong way and sent us back to start over again. It turns out the Italian Pavilion was split between the three above-mentioned artists and a section of Celant's sprawling theme exhibition, "Future, Present, Past." Therefore we were forced to "navigate" back.
For the Italian section, the three artists did not just occupy separate rooms but presented their work together. This forced combination seemed to function best for the work of Maurizio Cattelan (b. 1960), who since the late `80s has become known for "disturbing" ideas about art and the art system (gossip: Marian Goodman is interested in giving him a show in New York).
For his piece, Cattelan (one of the few artists here who also participates at the Munster Sculpture Project) left five or six bicycles casually leaning against the walls in each room, or leaning against the paintings of Enzo Cucchi. The bicycle is an old obsession for Cattelan: it is his only mean of locomotion, he owned many, he had many stolen and a missing bicycle is also one of his early works. At Venice the story goes that more than once the exhibition caretakers didn't understand that the bicycles were part of an art piece and tried to remove them.
Cattelan also made an installation on the ceiling that could make a viewer feel like Jennifer Leigh in Hitchcock's The Birds: hundred of stuffed pigeons, looking very alive, were perched up there, fostering a sense of danger, both for the audience and for the artworks below.
While Cucchi's paintings seemed a bit "tired" -- he has in the past proudly claimed that he didn't "paint," only realized monumental drawings -- Spalletti was offering a quiet and peaceful moment with his azure horizon growing out of the pavement.
That put an end to the Italian section and more works from "Future, Present, Past" were on view. Some remarkable artwork was exhibited by Ed Ruscha, Tony Cragg, Gino De Dominicis, Panamarenko, Jan Dibbets, Anselm Kiefer (who also has a must-see retrospective at Museo Correr, open till Nov. 9).
Other pavilions where quite predictable with the exception of the Canadian Pavilion screening "Vexation Island," a pirate movie by Rodney Graham. Positive rumors came also from the Nordic Pavilion and its theme exhibition "Artificial Nature," curated by Ion-Ove Steinhaug. The show presented five young artists: Henrik Hakansson (Sweden), Sven Pahlsson (Norway), Marianna Uutinen (Finland) and, surprise, New York professor Mark Dion, who excavated some canals finding broken objects and cataloguing them in a wunderkammer installation. Surprise not over. On a different side of the Nordic Pavilion, Mariko Mori screened her latest 3D video, combining high technology with antique spirituality.
After a quick stop at the local café we had a chance to gather the latest gossip about the show: no one felt like commenting on anything and the only worry seemed to be the urgency to get an invitation to the A-list party of the night. A suggestion for the next Biennale director: include the opening parties as part of the show, since they've become a topic of major interest. According to many, the Oscar for best party would be split between the Portuguese contingent and London's Lisson Gallery. The Lisson was a great open-air dancing party, very crowded with art people. Even Colin De Land was spotted in the crowd for a second. The entrance of the night was made unexpectedly by the police, who came to turn down the music.
After visiting the Italian pavilion, it was time to go at the Corderie dell'Arsenale, where the other two parts of "Future, Present, Past" are on view. This is the space where, since 1981, the "Aperto" section of new talent had been presented. Biennale visitors were so used to this former arrangement that they kept asking the bewildered exhibition guards, "Excuse me, where are the young artists?" Before entering the Corderie, however, you must navigate your way around a new piece by Jeff Koons, one of those puppies made after one of his son's toys.
For a few moments I thought I had finally understood Celant's planetary metaphor for the show, above all, what he meant by saying "Novas and supernovas, small and large stars, all have their own luminosity -- thus each could be drawn into the field of that illumination which is typical of art, an illumination that is both cognitive and visual, linguistic and formal."
Mariko Mori had installed another piece in Celant's show: a giant photo of an artificial Japanese beach, the future of summer, I presume.
One of the few painters in this exhibition, Luca Pancrazzi, installed his "set of time" with six canvases of clocks and highways and a group of TV monitors screening fake landscapes that he had built by himself with junk materials.
Some of the best works here couldn't be photographed because of their own light. Douglas Gordon's dark room, for instance, where every 30 seconds a text could be read. The work is related to an experiment made in France in 1905 and has something to do with the length of time that passes between the moment one gets one's head cut off and the moment when one's gaze fades.
Also among the better works in the Corderie were videos by Pipilotti Rist and Sam Taylor Wood. The same goes for the "freezing" installation by Mario Airò: a very cool room filled with blue ambient light and new age music realized by a Roman composer, an empty aquarium hanging from the ceiling and a Coca-Cola dispenser (whose traditional red color had been replaced with blue) that people could really use. In the newspapers, Airò was the only Italian to get good reviews.
Difficult to portray was also the installation by Kabakov: a forced path inside a wooden corridor that filled your hair with a mix of styrofoam tiny balls and flower petals. In the middle of this course a small Zen garden awaited the viewer.
Juan Munoz's little men were a main object of interest for visitors, particularly the one facing a mirror and moving his mouth in a way that looked as a praying act. Vanessa Beecroft provided her usual performance at 3 p.m. every day. This time, the object of desire were culturist girls --bodybuilders -- both scaring and sexy.
Jason Rhoades' piece was composed of four Ferraris (one of them was real, the others were fragments, of wood, panel, plastic) and gave you the idea of what could be the atelier of a car designer.
At the end of the Corderie a good selection of paintings by Schnabel seemed an unlogical conclusion to this short trip among the canals.