I’ve been at the Venice Biennale for a day and a half. I’m just getting over latecomer’s remorse, brought on by my having skipped last week’s press preview and the opening hoopla. In other words, I missed the international bigwigs, artists, dealers, curators and thousands of art-world worker bees. While I was crossing the Atlantic on Tuesday night, many of them had already decamped for Basel, the world’s best art fair.
The first thing I noticed when I arrived in Venice -- other than the fact that I didn’t recognize a single person I saw, except the curator of the last Venice Biennale, Robert Storr -- was the volume of advertising. The Bridge of Sighs is totally surrounded by huge colorful billboards for a clothing store. The entire face of the Academia Gallery is completely covered in a gigantic billboard of the Russian boxer Vladimir Klitschko, wearing a red robe and holding gold roller skates, with the word "Curator" next to his head. Maybe sinking malls have no other way of making money.
As for the Biennale itself, there are no crowds, no lines. So far I’ve seen the Giardini, home of many of the national shows, as well as the newly named Exhibition Pavilion, formerly known as the Italian Pavilion. As usual, this last location is home to a sprawling thematic exhibit. Organized by this year’s commissioner, Daniel Birnbaum, "Making Worlds" is earnest, professional, and pretty thin. It has a lot of new names, but most of the art looks uniform and familiar. Meaning there’s a lot of late-late-late conceptualism, videos, photos and other visually boring things. As for the national Pavilions, mostly they range from mediocre to infuriating, with a lot of eighth-generation conceptualism.
The best thing I’ve seen so far is the focused survey of the work of Bruce Nauman in -- ta-da! -- the U.S. pavilion. There’s a gallery of Nauman’s bronze hand sculptures and another with hanging heads spewing water. A third, with a turning mobile of taxidermy forms alongside a video of a man skinning a fox, and a video of a man making a balloon toy and someone spilling coffee, forms intricate interweaving psychic grids of chaos, anxiety, reverie, and violence. The other good show was at the British Pavilion. There’s been a lot of complaining about the long lines and mandatory scheduling there, and most of the reports I got from people who did go said the 40-minute video by Steve McQueen, Giardini, was "disappointing" and not worth the wait. But I was surprised by how resonant and haunting the film is. There’s no story to speak of, just shots of the Giardini off season, between biennales. You see boarded-up buildings, close-ups of insects and plants, greyhounds foraging for food, piles of garbage. Even though McQueen’s sense of filmmaking is pretty pedestrian, it’s a real Venetian death trip.
From there I saw as many of the pavilions as I could. My Worst in Show award was a three-way tie between Australia, Japan and France. Australia’s Shaun Gladwell parked a burned-out Road Warrior-ish car outside the pavilion. Inside there’s a video of motorcycle rider stopping to contemplate a dead kangaroo in the middle of a desert. Protruding from the side of the pavilion is a motorcycle. In the Japanese pavilion, Miwa Yanagi exhibits a series of huge, god-awful photographs of grotesque naked women. In an accompanying text, a writer raves that these crappy pictures "will bring great joy not only to the Japanese Pavilion but to the Venice Biennale as a whole." Another bridge wrapped in advertising (sigh).
France’s Claude Lévêque, who built a cruciform of four intersecting hallways painted with gold sparkle, edges those two out for sheer mindlessness. At the end of each of his hallways are prison bars and a black flag being blown by a fan. A text plaintively asks, "Are the black flags quivering in the distance the rising image of a radical hope of a possible other world?" No, they’re flags of surrender -- the pavilion wants to kill itself for housing such bad art. I have four words for Lévêque: Get a job, dude.
JERRY SALTZ is art critic for New York magazine, where a slightly shorter version of this essay first appeared. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.