In Italian, the slogan for the 52nd International Exhibition of the 2007 Venice Biennale, June 10-Nov. 21, 2007 -- "pensa con i sensi, senti con la mente" -- sounds like an advert for a breath mint. In English, that’s "think with the senses, feel with the mind" -- and just plain bad advice.
The Italian pavilion, the warren of galleries that hosts the main part of the exhibition, features individual rooms filled with works by curator Rob Storr’s usual suspects -- Gerhard Richter (a particularly gummy assortment of smear abstractions), Louise Bourgeois (a grid of not-half-bad grid drawings done in blue pen), Ellsworth Kelly (they looked better a few months ago at his New York gallery), Robert Ryman, Nancy Spero, Kara Walker, Susan Rothenberg, Thomas Nozkowski.
For this we come to Venice? Oi.
Sigmar Polke gets pride of place in the pavilion’s grandest gallery, with a suite of very large paintings made of glistening, alchemical resin on some kind of transparent support, so that the stretcher bars are half-visible. The pictures are dark brown, the color of Worcestershire sauce. Most are only marginally inflected, but two reproduce 19th-century woodcut images of explorers, presumably looking out to a very muddy future.
Jenny Holzer contributes a room full of new paintings, blow-ups of censored documents, works that appear to marry a conceptual artist’s interest in text with a latter-day Neo-Expressionism. Holzer is finally moving away from those tiresome maxims. Somehow, it’s not surprising that Storr is encouraging her in this regard.
The punk cartoonist Raymond Pettibon contributes a particularly listless room -- didn’t he do an installation here before? -- as if he had decided that it would be easier to be a graffiti artist and work on a large scale than to make all those intimate, labor-intensive drawings. It reminds me of Basquiat, with its Tourette-like outburst of scattered found texts, including one that’s anti-Semitic.
Even the late, much-missed Sol LeWitt seems to bend towards a utopian end, as his Wall Drawing #1167, Dark to Light (Scribbles) (2005), resembles a mystical orb painting by Richard Pousette-Dart.
Despite all this, people actually seem to like the Italian pavilion, saving their scorn for the second part of the show, which is installed in the long, almost endless gothic brick hall that is the Arsenale.
Perhaps it’s the "politics." Paolo Canevari (b. 1963), a Roman artist who also lives in New York, screens a 12-minute vid of a kid playing soccer with a rubber skull in the ruins of Belgrade in 1999 (whatever that’s supposed to mean). And an 87-year-old artist from Buenos Aires, León Ferrari, contributes a supremely kitchy political statement from 1965 -- a polychromed statue of Jesus crucified on an F-111.
One gallery holds about 15 straightforward photos of soldiers from Vietnam, WWI and WWII and the Persian Gulf War, presented as if they were his own by the London-based artist Neil Hamon (b. 1975). They have a no-bullshit air about them.
The Bulgarian artist Nedko Solakov (b. 1957) covers a large swatch of wall with an amusing, hand-written tale of his attempt to interview Russian and Bulgarian authorities about a dispute between the two countries over royalties for the AK-57. In the post-Soviet world, Russia wants Bulgaria to pay a fee for producing the very popular Russian rifle. In the end, Bulgaria declines, noting that Russia pays nothing for its use of yoghurt and the Cyrillic alphabet, both devised in Bulgaria.
I actually like this kind of stuff, though you often hear art-world types disparaging anything that resembles political art. They prefer artists like Y.Z. Kami, who has two giant portraits of white people with their eyes closed, which here seem like an emblem of curatorial dim-out. Overall, the selection of artists shows that the art-world’s utopian modernism is increasingly fraying at its Third World edges.
Then there’s the huge room filled with dangling neon signs in bright colors, all spelling out different slang words for "pussy" -- here done Italian-style -- by Jason Rhoades, who died suddenly last year after a night of partying. It’s hard to see how this demented Dionysius fits in, since in his case it’s probably safe to see his unbridled hedonism as a cautionary tale.
Most interesting of all is the new African pavilion, a nicely proportioned rectangular hall with an s-shaped floor plan. Since the works are all from the collection of the controversial Luanda-based businessman Sindika Dokolo, the show -- "Check List Luanda Pop" -- represents a distressing abrogation of curatorial responsibility, not to mention a blatant privatization of the biennale’s otherwise public independence. (Is Charles Saatchi wondering how he can get in on this deal?)
Still, the pavilion supposedly represents the first African show of African art at the biennale in its 100-plus years -- though it’s hardly focused on black Africa, since a good portion of the work comes from artists who are African-American (Jean-Michel Basquiat, DJ Spooky) or white (Marlène Dumas) or from north Africa (Ghada Amer) or who live in the West (Chris Ofili) or who are not remotely African at all (Andy Warhol).
Africa is the World. But that’s actually a good thing in the global 21st century, making "national" boundaries more porous, indeed, more meaningless. Isn’t it?
These artists can fight it out for the various clichés that represent "Africa," whether it be the various primitivisms of Kendall Geers, Viteix or Miguel Barceló (apparently an honorary member of a Malian tribe); the tattered remnants of a colonialist history collected by Paulo Kapela and Yonamine; the photos of contemporary Africans, whether colorful or mournful, taken by Kiluanji Kia Henda or Nástio Mosquito in this case; or some of the more contemporary concoctions.
"Luanda Pop" includes a striking black-and-white video projection of female "aliens," all bald, shape-shifting and naked, by the South African artist Minette Varí, and a found-object sculpture by the U.S.-based Nigerian artist Olu Oguibe called Keep It Real Memorial for a Youth, consisting of a pair of sneakers hanging on the wall with several cheap bouquets of flowers laid on the floor beneath them. It feels affectingly simple (or perhaps commonplace schmaltz, depending on your frame of mind).
The Arsenale has tons of work, including some things that I liked. The new installation by Ilya & Emilia Kabakov, titled Manas (2007), consists of intricate scale models of a series of mountain observatories, ostensibly designed to collect cosmic energy, special dreams, views of alien civilizations, etc. Like most of the Kabakovs’ sculptural tableaux, the work has the pleasing tone of Russian absurdist literature. Aren’t they always in theses international shows, though?
Philippe Parreno (b. 1964), who turns out to be Algerian, has filled a gallery with black balloons shaped like cartoon speech bubbles. They cluster on the ceiling above, and seem like a dark comment on Andy Warhol’s famous installation of silver, pillow-shaped ones.
I like art that uses the ransom-note style of letters cut out of newpapers, and Ignasi Aballi (b. 1958), who is from Barcelona, has compiled dozens of lists made up of newspaper, typically involving numbers of the same subject -- money, books, music, the missing, the dead. They’re very neat.
A whole section of the Arsenale is given over to musings on death. Two vast walls feature rows of individual video portraits of people around the world, saying "I will die" in their native tongues. The work is by Yang Zhenzhong (b. 1968), who lives in Shanghai. Another gallery has large Day of the Dead-style embroideries, done in black thread on deep purple fabric glistening with diamond dust, by Angelo Filomeno (b. 1963), an Italian-born New Yorker. One skeleton shits a turd of shiny black beads.
Still another gallery is filled with color photographs by Jan Christian Braun of graves in New York cemeteries that have been decorated for the holidays -- Halloween, for instance, or Father’s Day, in what is surely a new, schlock-culture version of a hallowed practice. None of this has anything remotely to do with the true human feelings or meanings of death, so it all feels opportunistic and adolescent.
Perhaps a work by the Japanese artist Hiroharu Mori (b. 1969) says it best -- a large question mark on a floating white balloon. A video shows people flying the balloon in a field like a kite, and a wooden bin nearby contains small balloons with question marks on them, free for the taking. This would be "Institutional Critique" of the inadvertent sort.
The national pavilions this year are pretty good. In the little White House that is the U.S. pavilion, Guggenheim Museum curator Nancy Spector has installed a collection of works by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, who died of AIDS ten years ago. Several strings of 40-watt light bulbs hang in the entryway, giving off as much heat as light.
People were helping themselves to the free licorice candies and the free posters of flying birds and the like, though I wanted to shout out, "Don’t take those, they’re bad luck." In the end I gave in and ate a candy, and wondered if I had been infected. It’s a good thing I’m not superstitious.
At the top of a little hill, the British pavilion presented a show of works by Tracey Emin, largely self-portrait etchings and drawings of the artist in the nude, reclining with legs splayed gynecology-style or standing there naked, naked, naked. Amazingly, her inept and callow public persona seems to have translated into a notably expressive line, vulnerable and abject. She’s hot.
The French pavilion contains a sprawling photo-and-text installation by France’s own Miss Lonely Hearts, Sophie Calle. Some recent lover ostensibly broke up with the artist via email, and she submits his long and reflective missive for analysis to 138 French women experts, from psychologist and journalist to proofreader and clown.
I liked it, though I need to learn French. On the other hand, a French-speaking publicist I know didn’t like it. He said it made her sound like an old woman, collecting all the complaints of her sex against men. I said that the nature of the letter didn’t matter, as long as you ended the romance.
Poland has finally begun to come into its own in the international art scene, which is reflected in the Polish pavilion at Venice. The Warsaw artist Monika Sosnowska (b. 1972) has filled the space with a black-painted metal armature that apparently represents the architecture of the pavilion itself, a building from the 1930s. But Sosnowska’s rational architectonic structure is crumpled as if it were a tin can, just as the force of Capitalism is altering Polish society.
And out in front of the Nordic pavilion is a set of three modern pay toilets, done in the colors of the French flag and playing an audiotape of the Marseillaise. I don’t know who made the thing, but plenty of countries arrest artists for this kind of satire -- back in Greece, where I was last week, the director of Art Athina was thrown in the clink for including in his show a videotape that played the Greek anthem over a pornographic scene of a woman masturbating. Seems that elections are coming.
More serious is the exhibition devoted to the Italian Abstract Expressionist painter Emilio Vedova (1919-2006) in the newly initiated Venice pavilion, a curved space in the Giardini "ghetto" housing pavilions for several South American and former Iron Curtain countries. The great German artist Georg Baselitz has made a series of new black-and-white paintings to accompany a single late sculpture by Vedova, a Cyclops-sized wooden wheel slathered with paint.
In a text written only a few months ago, Baselitz notes that we are comfortable with misunderstandings. "Emilio loved ambushes, he was a partisan, he loved the revolution, powerful gestures, expressionism and me. But I am not an expressionist, I despise the revolution, at best we are able to produce paintings, maybe even some good ones. I used to make fun of him back then and he would look at me questioningly."
By the end of the day, I was thinking that the best thing about the biennale is the films and videos, where a person could sit and rest his muddy feet (the biennale opened to rainy weather this year).
Especially good is the 20-minute-long, three-screen computer animation in the Russian pavilion by AES+F (Tatiana Arzamasova, Lev Evzovich, Evgeny Svyatsky and Vladimir Fridkes). Dubbed Last Riot, it shows youthful models in slo-mo combat, battering and cutting each other but never drawing blood or making contact, intercut with scenes of a tanker truck spiraling up an alpine peak, from which a formation of nuclear missiles is launched. Trucks and trains drive off roads and bridges and break into pieces below. The soundtrack is most effective -- Wagner mixed with Japanese drums and some contemporary electronica.
"Machines can suicide, but people have to fight for eternity," said Svyatsky, who noted that their work is inspired by Baroque artists like Caravaggio and the "contemporary trash culture" of computer games. AES+F is currently having a retrospective at the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, which has permanently installed their huge sculpture of a girl riding a T-Rex out front. Expect big things from this group, which has allied with Russia’s new Triumph Gallery, whose mysterious and deep pockets fund shows of Old Masters as well as the recent Moscow debut of Damien Hirst’s diamond-encrusted human skull.
The star of the 2005 biennale, Francesco Vezzoli, is back in 2007 in the new Italian pavilion (carved out of the far end of the Arsenale) with a pair of parody campaign commercials, dubbed Democrazy (2007), one starring the real Sharon Stone as the fictional Patricia Hill, who is running for president. "We are not the world’s greatest country for nothing," she proclaims. The bogus candidate, who has her own website at www.PatriciaHill.us, is facing off against another politician, this one supposedly named Patrick Hill, a wan joke to be sure, as is the entire installation.
Also in the pavilion is a major installation by the Arte Povera stalwart Giuseppe Penone, which doesn’t disappoint. Dubbed Sculture de Linfa (2007), it includes two massive tree trunks whose rough surfaces have been methodically covered with leather, which is attached by tacks. "All were living organisms before becoming producers of form," notes pavilion commissioner Ida Gianelli.
Other good places to rest the dogs are the Swiss pavilion, where you can actually lie down and watch one of Yves Netzhammer’s engaging animations, and the Chinese pavilion, where an inflatable igloo out on the lawn -- there’s hardly any grass in Venice, did you know? -- houses a film made in Second Life, the computer community, by the artist Cao Fei, whose avatar is named China Tracy.
Elsewhere in the Arsenale are new films by Steve McQueen (the British artist, not the dead actor), a five-part film by Yang Fudong called Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest, and a film of aphasiacs reading the Futurist Manifesto, with some difficulty, by Luca Buvoli. "Except. . . in. . . struggle. . . there is. . . no. . . beauty."
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.