Friday, June 12, 2009

Venice Biennale: "Making Worlds"

The Venice Biennale has two main areas: the Arsenale and the Giardini, each with large group exhibition spaces around the theme of “Making Worlds”, curated by Daniel Birnbaum, the Biennale’s youngest curator. This year, there are 90 artists represented. The former Italian Pavilion has been converted to the Palazzo delle Esposizione, whose facade John Baldessari covered with a blown-up view of perfect blue ocean, clear sky, and palm trees. One of the winners of the Golden Lion lifetime achievement award (the other being Yoko Ono), Baldessari first wanted to include a postcard saying such as “Greetings”, but wasn’t allowed, so the backdrop transformed into a flat joke. “Dive into La Biennale” it beckoned, an exhortation for people to walk into the ocean of the Palazzo. With the horizon so high above the visitors sitting on a bench, the art world looked like it was engulfing the mere mortals.

If Baldessari wanted to wink at La Biennale, the art inside disputed any such reflexive irony. The Palazzo’s largest room by Thomas Saraceno was a world made entirely of black elastic, a combination of cobweb, constellation, or atomic forms, trapping viewers and multiplying high above their heads like fractals. Mostly the Palazzo presented singular artistic visions, with more of an interest in the varying ways artists work today. Birnbaum spoke of an intergenerational biennial, with such stalwarts as Lygia Pape, Bruce Nauman, and the Japanese collective Gutai included; and he emphasized that some of the strongest works were by women, i.e. Nathalie Djurberg, who received the Silver Lion award. Djurberg’s dark room was filled with gory oversized flowers, all looking like they could out-do the Venus flytrap. Showing on the screen were her delirious stop-animation films, a Brothers Grimm meets Freud world of nightmarish ids gone wild.

Hans-Peter Feldmann created another kind of cast of characters, straight out of a surreal circus, using rotating dolls, kitchen utensils, plastic bottles, kitschy objects like the Statue of Liberty, and creating an entire wall of shadowy overlapping silhouettes.

Tobias Rehberger, another Biennale award winner, constructed the cafeteria as social space, manic and maximalist. Its mix of bold black and white stripes punctuated with neon colors was as trendy as anything in Top Shop. The space displaced and confused with an odd two- dimensional flatness. The baristas dressed in matching orange, were reflected in mirrors set in multiple planes behind them, so that the illusion extended through human form.

At the Arsenale, the first work of art I saw was Hector Zamora’s gigantic zeppelin, literally stuck between the narrow walls of a long passageway. Part of a larger project of art as social intervention, it was humorous and oppressive, but also could be a metaphor for how art aims high and yet sometimes falls flat and gets stuck on its own outsized ambitions. Much less impressive were his small cardboard models of dirigibles inside the exhibition, and with no plaque to describe it nearby the Biennale staff were clueless.

Another intervention of a smaller scale was Miranda July’s awkwardly rendered sculptures with humorous sayings, discovered in the gardens behind the Arsenale. At her reading, she explained that she hoped the work would live on by visitors taking photos of themselves with her sculptures and blogging or sharing them online—art with an extended and murky temporality.

Inside, the first room of the Arsenale was by Lygia Pape, titled “Tteiu”. Ethereally lit copper and gold wires filled a room like abstracted beams, beautiful, simple, and solid, creating space with the most basic of elements. Strong work by Marjetica Potrc also perfectly echoed the theme, using childlike drawings about cities and their power of transformation (i.e. post-Katrina). Pascale Marthine Tayou, from Cameroon, described how his work was not really specifically about Africa, but the interaction of life. His piece could have used some editing but was a great example of the theme: sounds, tree-house-like structures, aggregates of “people” huddling by old-fashioned lamps, piles of straw, videos of village activity, all took over the space.

Cildo Meireles had a series of monochromatic rooms in rainbow sequence, with a video of the color in one corner, showing what Birnbaum called a “painterly gesture”, as a defensive explanation of the lack of actual painting in the show. The dearth of painting didn’t exclude a richness of color and mark, whether in video, photography or sculpture. In general there was a clear attempt to be inclusive, and portray the very real profusion of media in today’s cosmopolitan art world. As I walked through the rooms, I was almost always drawn by the idea of each work first, rather than question the formal qualities of each chosen medium.

The two-channel video by Sara Ramo, a Spanish artist working in Brazil, showed two views of the brick alleyway behind her childhood home, where playful occurrences such as feathers falling, or a ball of paper gently rolled into the frame. A personal world of imaginary childhood events unfurled. Its haunting simplicity was a counterpart to the nearby Paul Chan piece “Sade for Sade’s sake”. Squares of color became black boxes being lifted and restacked for no purpose, with naked men in various jittery states of sexual activity. The artist said he was surprised to hear people laughing. “When you see the Arsenale there is a longing to ambush the space, and you have to NOT do that.” An abstract and oblique metaphor, it was perfectly scaled to the Arsenale’s physical and curatorial space.
By day three I had scored a ticket to the Steve McQueen film, the Great Britain entry, and arrived towards the end of the day for my screening. The stark and existential film resembled a nature documentary at times with its slow close-ups of bugs and raindrops, but its most powerful sensory experience was the sound of the weather. Depicting the Giardini in the winter, devoid of any human presence except the occasional scenes of men looking for a nighttime encounter, “Giardini” was a post-apocalyptic world of nature taking over culture, of the dated grand architecture of the pavilions overshadowed by piles of trash, insects, and packs of stray dogs. The herds of art-devourers, silenced, divided, and squeezed into the small theater, watched their own phased obliteration.