Critical Reflections

53rd Venice Biennale

Date September 30, 2009 at 10:00 PM

Publication THE magazine

Categories Performing Arts


Contemporary art is a goody bag of what’s fashionable tonight, local “cultural production” auditioning to be history. You can argue for it, but you can’t argue from it, since contemporary art lacks the sustained track record that invests art with historical authority.
–Dave Hickey

Perhaps because the bubble has burst and the future looks grim, the work on view in the 53rd Venice Biennale seems to me to have more gravity than “what’s fashionable tonight” or “local cultural production auditioning to be history.” Despite dramatic budgets cuts, Daniel Birnbaum, at forty-six the youngest director ever, has assembled a thoughtful and provocative show. Birnbaum’s inspiration for Fare Mondi/Making Worlds comes from Nelson Goodman’s book Ways of World Making. Yet the director states that the show does not try to illustrate a philosophy of art. “What the title tries to emphasize is that art can perhaps help us in the search for new beginnings.” The artists chosen for Making Worlds address new beginnings by reflecting on history, interpretations of cultures, and the environment—both natural and man-made.

A strange beauty emphasizing the complexity of darkness and light pervades these reflections and resonates throughout the exhibition. Nathalie Djurberg’s stunning installation, Experimentet, includes three videos of Plasticine figures animated by stop motion Claymation. Placed among a garden of human-size grotesque flower sculptures, the videos include naked women popping out from under the robes of lascivious priests, a woman lying in a cave while parts of her body break off and attack her, and another woman trying to get away from a lecherous old man as the forest that surrounds them begins to attack. Kinky and horrifying as they are, these displays of eroticism and violence reverberate beyond the screens to address the nature of conflicts that color our world. Eroticism and violence also burst forth in flowers throughout her garden. Colorful carnivorous plants evoke—like the videos—Baudelaire’s poems Les Fleurs du Mal, addressing sacred and profane love, bisexuality, lost innocence, metamorphosis, and death. No wonder Djurberg won the Silver Lion for most promising new artist.

Chu Yun’s magical galaxy is composed of indicator lights (LEDs) from electrical appliances. In the darkness, these small colorful illuminations create a poetic, intangible world, bringing forth the dichotomy between the majesty of the cosmos and the nature of consumerism. Lygia Pape’s golden moonbeams, a series of rectangular structures of golden cables stretched and lit diagonally from floor to ceiling in the dark, lift the spirit and calm the over-stimulated mind. Jorge Otero-Pailos’s latex hanging, imbedded with the impression of a wall of the Doge’s Palace, is a meditation on the fragile beauty of the architecture of Venice, reinforcing Joseph Brodsky’s words, “dust is the flesh of time.”

In the Dutch Pavilion Fiona Tan’s two-channel video, Disorient, also unveils Venice’s past. By utilizing text from Marco Polo’s journal combined with contemporary images from Asian lands, Tan creates an insightful work incorporating the romantic perception of a journey seven hundred years ago in relation to the devastation of modern-day globalization. A narrator describes the rich indigo obtained in India as one video shows blue-violet mongrel dogs wandering around huge vats of dye. Bountiful valleys are described as we see starving children and emaciated elders. This potent portrait brings a historical context to the ways in which we interpret and misinterpret each other’s cultures and ways of life.

Choreographer William Forsythe’s installation of translucent gymnastic rings hanging at multiple heights in a twilight atmosphere provides respite from walking through miles of art. What a joy it is to stretch and swing in this playful space with arms and legs akimbo! Tomas Saraceno’s vast installation of black elastic cords examines how a black widow’s gossamer web is able to suspend extreme weights through the use of complex geometry. Saraceno challenges our orientations to up and down as he “catches” us naively moving through his extraordinary macro universe. Michelangelo Pistoletto’s shattered mirrors in golden frames also jolt our awareness. Each day the artist comes in to smash one with a wooden mallet. Piles of glass on the floor and our distorted images reflected in fragments emphasize that things are not always what they appear to be. Giacomo Costa’s light boxes, Private Garden, stretch our perception of the city into unfamiliar territory. Foliage, roots, and vines ensnare the architecture. Apocalyptic visions are rarely digitally manipulated with such delicacy, clarity, and pure beauty.

Bruce Nauman’s Topological Gardens is an elegant retrospective curated by Carlos Basualdo and Michael Taylor of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The exhibition, representing the United States at this year’s Biennale, includes many of Nauman’s most well-known works such as Hand to Mouth, Smoke Rings, and Vices and Virtues, as well as two new sound installations, Days and Giorni. Each sound work presents seven people speaking the days of the week. The English version symbolically accentuates the individualist nature of the American spirit. Musically it reminds me of John Cage, Steve Reich, and Cecil Taylor—often discordant, but with an underlying structure that is always on the move. The American English is linear, industrious, and bold, but lacks elasticity, and subtlety. The Italian voices have a consistent flow and harmony reminding me of church choirs or operatic choruses. This version is more civilized than the English—like the Italian custom of lingering over meals rather than the American breakfast-standing-up, lunch-at-the-wheel, dinner-in-front-of-the-TV sensibility.

By using the simple vehicle of voices speaking the days of the week Nauman has thoughtfully woven complex tapestries of sound that reflect the persona of both cultures. Once again, he makes us think and feel. His Golden Lion for best national pavilion is well deserved.