Monday, June 15, 2009

Venice Biennale: National Pavilions

For a first-time visitor, the 53rd Venice Biennale is a thrill of traipsing through the city in search of art in churches and palazzos among the tourist throngs. This year there were 77 national pavilions, with some new inclusions from Asia and Africa, but because of the cost, there was still a glaring under-representation of anything in the Southern Hemisphere. During the Biennale’s press conference, Italian artist Pino Boresta interrupted with a blood-curdling scream of “what do I have to do to get into the Biennale?” before being escorted out by security. But what soon became apparent was the arbitrariness of national commissions. A Brit impersonated a German (Liam Gillick), an American of Greek origin held court at the Greek pavilion (Lucas Samaras), and the Danish and Nordic pavilions were united by a group of 20 artists staged elaborately by the duo of Elmgreen and Dragset.

The hit of the Giardini, in terms of number of people waiting patiently to enter, was "The Collectors", the two houses staged by Elmgreen and Dragset. The first house was actually a collection of rooms of artwork and installations by other artists, with a fake real estate office providing tours, a timely jibe. The second pavilion was a tightly curated high modernist house of a gay collector, whose dead body floated in the pool outside. Skinny fey boys lounged like perfect objets d’art, as if they had just come from the nearby Hernan Bas painting. “The Collectors” also sold a bag of goodies, including a calendar of “handwritten” select events such as art fairs and auctions. Overall there was much fun to be had exploring both houses’ attention to detail.

The USA pavilion, one of three around the city with work by Bruce Nauman, had a perennial long line, as even in the rain people stood with trash bags on their heads. But after the long wait, and guards telling me not to take photos, I was curiously left feeling blank. Either because it had a “greatest hits” feel, or perhaps because Nauman’s work for me works chiefly as a slap to the face, and upon further encounters, simply a room of Nauman signifiers: neon, casts of heads, animal parts, hands, mechanized, assaulting, aggressive. The most powerful was the simplest: neon words, one on top of each other, alternating good and bad, such as "Temperance/Gluttony" flashed on the cornices of the pavilion. That’s America: we strive to be the purest, the ideal, but end up being blamed for being the worst.

On a more pleasurable note, the sounds of language, human and otherwise were everywhere at the biennale, from Uruguay’s video of a man mimicking birdsongs to a live version of four men bird-calling in unison, creating an amazing symphony at the Turkish pavilion. The sounds were amplified by the pavilion’s acoustics and were intoxicating, adding yet another sort of performativity to the biennial. In a strong Serbian pavilion played a video of a British man trying to lose his accent with the help of a coach. Sound also transformed the French pavilion by Claude Leveque. Viewers walked through a symmetrical room covered in silver glitter, lit by vanity lightbulbs, and jail cell architecture confused the viewer of their position as jailer or prisoner. At the end of each of four hallways was a room painted black, with black grates, and the sound of a black flag flapping in the wind. Fascism, anti-Americanism, the paradox of freedom as lack of liberty, and other visual abstractions echoed its title, “Le Grand Soir”. A French expression for a moment of revolution and societal change, it could be seen as a highly topical interpretation of numerous current events, perhaps a prescient note on the Iranian election?

The Russians presented a strong pavilion, full of visually and conceptually rich material, including a room of whimsical watercolors by Pavel Pepperstein (right) titled “Landscapes of the Future”. His particular world showed the inventiveness of his imagination and a pointed sense of humor, the latter usually lacking in many portentous and often pretentious pavilions (ahem - Romania!). It was refreshing to see conceptual work, weaving in Constructivist art with utopian vistas, with an enthusiasm for lightness of touch.

Another potentially charismatic conceptual pavilion was marred by a maddening cat. Liam Gillick filled the four rooms of the imposing German pavilion with perfunctory unstained pine kitchen cabinets, and an entryway of multicolored flaps as used in British shops. Like many artists, he was working with the architectural ideology of individual pavilions. But the end result, while equally imposing, was laughably lifeless: an animatronic cat sat atop one of the cabinets reciting a nonsense text that had no impact, despite the artist’s intent of disrupting modernism and social utopias.

The Austrian pavilion featured a feminist takeover of quirky paint galloping over the walls and windows. Elke Krystufek (left) showed paintings of a feminine male nude, and covered the walls with an often funny exploration of the Biennale’s historically masculine emphasis. Canada and Australia had video work back-to-back: Mark Lewis’s filmic explorations and Shaun Maxwell’s uber-masculine Mad Max-related series.

I was strongly rewarded by exploration of the off-site pavilions. Estonia featured a fascinating exploration of the political power of symbols by Kristina Norman, who showed footage of riots and installed her own cast of a Soviet monument, whose replanting was the cause of the riots. Singapore’s Ming Wong reinterpreted cinematic tropes with his 50's-era “Life of Imitation”.

Several pavilions around the city took fabulous advantage of the surplus of baroque Venetian churches. New Zealand's Judy Millar (right) stacked giant billboard-printed canvases among the Doric columns and orange and white checked tiles.

Lithuania's Zilvinas Kempinas made a tunnel entirely of magnetic tape, whose material delicacy conversely conveyed a claustrophobic space within, and billowed threateningly from the nearby canal's winds.

(see below left, and right).

The Central Asia pavilion was also worth the boat ride, with strong work in video and photography. Jamshed Kholikov (below) presented a photo series of bus stops in three “stans”—Tajik, Kyrgyz, and Uzbek. As a combination of Muslim symbolism, Soviet chunkiness, and local quirkiness, it was a great visual essay on how culture and history merges, is transported, translated, and transformed as local specificity defies our Bush-42 era need for simple categories. The graphic for the Pavilion could also be a sly dig at American lack of interest in geography: with no country borders, it had only the capitals of certain central Asian countries, defying the visitor to acknowledge that a vast area of the world was mostly a mystery.

Also far afield, the Iceland pavilion predictably provided a great opening-night party. Alas there was a superficiality and immaturity to its exhibition, titled "The End". The artist--Ragnar Kjartansson-- was painting the same model for the duration of the biennial, every day, transforming an empty ground-floor palazzo into a disheveled studio. I returned a few days later to find beer bottles left from the opening, stacks of records, ashtrays, and all the usual symbols of artistic decadence. After a break where the bath-robed model smoked, the artist resumed his work. It was all very smirk-ridden, and as the paintings were so dully second-rate, like a mediocre art-school student, nothing about the whole enterprise surprised or even excited. An adjoining room showed a more evocative suite of video performances of the artist and his buddy performing one musical number, on a variety of instruments, in wintry arctic landscapes. Even then, my aha moment was spoiled by seeing within the frame several cars go by on a nearby road, indicating that instead of being in “the middle” of nature, the artists merely parked their car and walked a few hundred feet. Another disappointment was that the videos were filmed in the Canadian Rockies: enchantment with the wilds of Iceland can hardly be matched by any second-world country. Nonetheless, the idea of two bearded fur-hat-bedecked blokes playing a folk-country dirge in the snow, eagerly listened to by French and Japanese art fans in an emptied palazzo on the canals of Venice, epitomized the appeal of the Venice Biennale.