Size is no measure of ambition. Big ideas don’t have to take up a lot of space, and bad ideas don’t get better when they’re amplified. Both kinds inevitably turn up in the 54th Venice Biennale, June 4-Nov. 27, 2011, which involves artists and curators from a record 89 countries, not counting the "collateral events" or the museum shows surrounding it. If the breadth of this exposition bites off a larger slice of the cake that is art today than any single person could possibly chew, it does have some tasty icing to make swallowing easier.
“ILLUMinations,” the semi-formalist exhibition organized by biennale director Bice Curiger for the international pavilion, throws out a lot of ideas at once, in no particular order or direction. From the jump, where Josh Smith has spray-painted the words "Art Attack" across the façade in enormous, scraggly blue letters, Curiger’s show ping-pongs across generations and media. In fact. The Jump, Jack Goldstein’s 1978 film of a luminous red diver somersaulting in space, leads into a dimly lit gallery hung with three 16th-century Biblical paintings by that Venetian stalwart, Jacopo Robusti, otherwise known as Tintoretto.
From that diplomatic nod to the host city -- and to the foundations of western painting, which is not much in evidence elsewhere in this object- and installation-heavy biennale -- the show unfolds at a leisurely pace, in galleries devoted to one or two artists each, and painless viewing from usual suspects like Sigmar Polke, Seth Price, Christopher Wool and Fischli and Weiss.
Cindy Sherman injects some awkward humor with lifesize fashion-victim portraits on fabric; overhead, stuffed pigeons supplied by Maurizio Cattelan perch in the rafters. The birds, which are scattered throughout the pavilion, can be easy to miss, but they aren’t as hidden-in-plain-sight as Ryan Gander’s We Never Had a Lot of € Around Here, an adjusted-for-inflation, €25 coin dated from the year 2036 and glued to the floor.
Most of the artists in the show come from his generation, like Kerstin Brätsch and Gabriel Kuri, who performs an exquisite balancing act between the commercially produced and the natural with works like, Three Arrested Clouds, actually three rolled-up sweat socks pinioned between two heavy red rocks bolted to the wall.
Norma Jean quickens the show’s interactive pulse by inviting viewers to make their own damn art on a worktable laden with red Sculpy. But I had a better time in the open spaces of the Arsenale, but not because it was flashier or replete with mirrored objects and lighting fixtures -- the better to reflect the show’s title, I suppose -- but because its greater variety gave it more life.
Giambologna’s famous sculpture Rape of the Sabine Women held center stage in the form of a giant burning candle by Urs Fischer, who paired it with another bearing the likeness of Rudolf Stingel, both as awesome as they are theatrical. Haroon Mirza constructed a short-circuiting padded cell, in which a bright white LED unexpectedly flashed with a loud buzz. And biennale-goers lined up daily to disorient themselves in the latest James Turrell.
More alluring for me were Dayanita Singh’s black-and-white photographs of an archive stacked with mysterious old books and papers, Gander’s deconstructed Mondrian panels, and Andro Wekua’s mournful models of decayed buildings in the Georgian city his family had to flee years ago, after his father’s assassination. Klara Liden offered a surprisingly sweeping view of urban esthetics by placing trash cans collected from city streets in different countries within a room that felt like a dank back alley. And Trisha Donnelly’s rough white monolith, standing alone in another half-forgotten space, was an enigma that exuded an ineffable vulnerability.
In a cave-like room nearby, Frances Stark’s lengthy video, My Best Thing, caught me up in a dialogue between two digitally modeled characters who don’t quite speak the same language. Next door was Sturtevant’s Elastic Tango, a nine-monitor collage of savage moments culled from Paul McCarthy videos and stock footage of TV nature shows. Outside, a big pink fuck-you finger by Franz West poked up from a grassy knoll, while a standout group of Day-Glo figures by Katharina Fritsch stood by a canal, near the silliest work of all -- a beached aluminum whale with a hatch leading into a white living chamber in its belly by Loris Gréaud.
Taking charge of a Venice Biennale is a thankless task, but if Curiger’s non-didactic, make-of-it-what-you-will approach to curating covered all the bases without hitting it out of the park, she still gave the central show the feeling of a living body, with all its parts in motion at once.
It also provided considerable relief from Caroline Bourgeois’ shows at the Palazzo Grassi and Punta del Dogana, both owned by the luxury-goods magnate François Pinault.
The Grassi show, "The World Belongs To You," should have been titled, "The World According to Me," for the way it strains to establish this undisciplined collector as the arbiter of taste and value. Minor works by artists on whom the jury is still out (like Matthew Day Jackson, Thomas Houseago and Gréaud), are presented as historically important just because they are large or expensively produced. "In Praise of Doubt," the show at the Dogana, is installed better and has some beautiful work but it mainly praises the boring.
Both shows get a very sharp retort from the exhibition opening Ca’ Correr della Regina, a ruined 18th-century palazzo that Miuccia Prada and Patrizio Bertelli’s Prada Foundation is restoring while leasing from the city.
Overseen by foundation curator Germano Celant, with input from several period specialists, the show has exhilarating moments and also some puzzling ones, but these only make the whole feel more personal and human.
Pino Pascali’s Confluences (1986), two Minimalist tracks filled with blue-tinted water, run half the length of a ground floor appointed with a gilded ceiling and period frescoes on the walls -- a sight of considerable grandeur. I was surprised to find that the artist responsible for a mottled silver rectangle framed by drapery was Walter de Maria, vintage 1968. No less weird was the pairing of Jeff Koons’ decidedly unconventional 1988 porcelain figures with a collection of 18th-cenury Meissen porcelains from the Hermitage Museum. But an Arte Povera room hung with Lucio Fontana, Alberto Burri and Enrico Castellani paintings would be the envy of any collector. And the Venetian antiques that Thomas Demand brought together with his own photographs only underscored the feeling that a true cabinet of curiosities now inhabited the building, which is exactly what this year’s biennale moved into my mind.
Back at the Giardini, the late Christoph Schlingensief’s full-dress hymnal of a Fluxus church in the Golden Lion-winning German pavilion is one of the most affecting. It is actually the recreated set of an autobiographical 2008 play in which the artist dramatized his approaching death from cancer, which came last August, while his unforgettable, not-for-prime-time films are on view in a separate screening room.
Christian Boltanski’s faux printing operation in the French pavilion stamps out the interchangeable faces of anonymous infants that are born to be lost in a crowd, just like this work. Mike Nelson’s warren of spectral rooms in the British pavilion revisit his partly fictive caravanserai in the 2003 Istanbul biennial. Realistic to a fault, it contributes mightily to the theme-park character of the Giardini. So does Thomas Hirschhorn’s Swiss pavilion, an equally maze-like graveyard for electronics, Barbie dolls, foil-wrapped airline seats and lawn furniture that is a shiny meditation on obsolescence, terrorism and consumerism as opaque as it is startling.
Allora & Calzadilla’s less focused exhibition for the American pavilion parks an upside-down Army tank outside and requires a track and field star to go nowhere, like the country’s efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, by running on a treadmill attached to its treads. They make a terrible sound, while the Olympian gymnasts performing inside, on two wooden replicas of American and Delta airlines business-class seats, hardly break a sweat during silent routines that are as unforgiving as the corporate greed that keeps pushing up air fares to places like Venice. I did love the artists’ pipe-organ ATM machine, though like our foreign policy, and the biennale itself, it didn’t always work.
LINDA YABLONSKY is an art critic who writes for Artforum.com, the Art Newspaper, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, W and other publications.