Think with the Senses–Feel with the Mind: Art in the Present Tense

The Italian Pavillion and Arsenale, Venice, Italy June 10 – November 21, 2007

If the international survey exhibition of the 2005 Venice Biennale (Always a Little Further, curated by Rosa Martinez) professed “enthusiasm and exhaustion” over the state of contemporary art, the 2007 edition under the directorship of Robert Storr seeks its reclamation and renewal.

Paolo Canevari, video still from "Bouncing Skull" (2007). Courtesy Paolo Canevari, Galleria Christian Stein, Milano.

Storr has divided the exhibition, Think with the Senses – Feel with the Mind: Art in the Present Tense, between two venues: the massive brick Arsenale—the ancient Venetian shipyards—and the more conventional galleries of the Italian Pavilion in the Biennale’s traditional Giardini (not to be confused with the newly opened Italian national pavilion, also in the Arsenale). Storr handles the art differently in each space, as if he were mounting two separate exhibitions. He locates most of the painting in the discrete, white-walled and well-lit Giardini galleries, allowing a room for each artist, while in the Arsenale, where most of the works are epic-scaled installations, he plays artists off each other within the hall’s soaring, barely containable space. Still, the presentation is not as unruly as Martinez’s was two years ago, in which the art, apropos its abject theme, was left to fend for itself against the building’s hulking weight and cavernous shadows. The raw brick walls are now paneled in white sheetrock and the passages between spaces—which can feel like an endless runway—are visually interrupted by cubicle-like projection rooms for the lush black-and-white films of Yang Fudong.

Despite the marked differences between the Giardini and the Arsenale displays, the former seems to act as a kind of précis of the exhibition’s argument, which is amplified in the latter. At the heart of the show lies an implicit belief in the sublimity of art in a material sense—a concept that has been under critical assault, in one form or another, for nearly a century. In this regard, the Nancy Spero installation at the pavilion’s en-trance can be taken as a microcosm of the galleries’ thematic progress-ion, in which the harsh contagions of everyday reality are subsumed and cleansed by the formal properties of art-making. Hand-printed aluminum cutouts of heads, open-mouthed in torment or protest, dangle from the ends of colorful streamers festively rising to the top of a 30-foot maypole. Spero’s buoyant astringency manages to enfold the horror of out-of-control world events, which impinge on much of the art in the pavilion’s outer rung of rooms, with the distilled, exultant materiality found in the paintings at the building’s core. As the galleries spiral inward, the artwork seems to shed outside references—from the text-laden political paintings of Chéri Samba and Jenny Holzer, to the La Jetée-inflected proto-film installation by Emily Jacir, to the mythic, duskily luminous reverse paintings on acrylic sheets by Nalini Malani, whose umbilical cord imagery segues curiously but seamlessly into the antic zigzags of Elizabeth Murray’s unchained “Wild Style.” At the center of the pavilion, Storr has arranged a quartet of rooms that feels like a providential intercession of pure painting: Robert Ryman, Thomas Nozkowski, Raoul De Keyser and Gerhard Richter. Nozkowski and De Keyser, both in top form, display an unanticipated kinship of shapes hovering in two-dimensional space, while Ryman and Richter manipulate the idea of paint-as-object into some of the most sensually satisfying works of their careers. In the context of the heavy political allusions in the works leading up to these abstractions, Storr seems to be asserting that, in a secular culture, the rapt contemplation of material aesthetics is as close to salvation as we’re going to get.

This reconstituted sense of the sacred (for lack of a better term) reemerges in the Arsenale at a similarly significant spatial juncture—the terminus of the vastly long Corderie section—where Storr has hung two massive curtains of woven scrap metal, “Dusasa I” and “Dusasa II” (both from 2007) by El Anatsui. A prior awareness that these glistening, extraordinary works are made from discarded soda cans and bottle caps hardly prepares you for their overwhelming physicality and muscular abstraction. At the same time, the patterns, textures, forms and colors of their material, which is literally garbage, are allusive of everything from the golden mosaics of San Marco to a fisherman’s net encrusted with cowrie shells—a metaphysical and metaphorical dance to the music of this very moment in time.

Storr underscores the quotidian/religious duality of Anatsui’s sculptures by grouping them with Guillermo Kuitca’s “Diarios” tondos (2000-2005), which record specific days or weeks in the artist’s life, and Y.Z. Kami’s “Conversation in Jerusalem” (2006), a five-part work featuring Avigdor Arikha-like oil portraits of clergymen from the dominant religions that venerate and divide that city. On the rear wall, partially hidden by “Dusasa I,” Storr mirrors Kuitca’s tondos with Adel Abdessemed’s “Wall Drawing” (2006), a set of nine large, empty razor wire circles. Their proximity to Anatsui and Kuitca imply the oppression by dictatorial regimes and exploitative industrialized nations that is omnipresent in the developing world, and its obliteration of the patterns of daily life.

As the first Biennale director from the United States, Storr seems set on demonstrating atonement for the cataclysmic mess that the leaders of this country have made of the planet. There is very little humor or Eros, and much of the main Arsenale exhibit is dedicated to the effects of war—not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in Palestine, Lebanon and Serbia, even Vietnam. The aftermath of the NATO bombardment of Belgrade is the subject of one of the exhibition’s most emblematic and chilling works: Paolo Canevari’s video of a boy practicing soccer moves with a fresh human skull.

The exhibition’s seriousness of intent did not prevent the selection of more than a few subpar works, like the godawful mutant manga drawings of Izumi Kato, the surprisingly dreary contributions by Susan Rothenberg and Bruce Nauman, or the paper-thin video by Yang Zhenzhong, People of different ages and status make the statement, “I will die” (2000). The odd inclusion of Leòn Ferrari’s “La Civilización Occidental y Cristiana” from 1965, depicting Christ crucified on a USAF fighter jet, makes its point baldly enough, but feels lamentably dated. Regardless, the globe-ranging scope and ambition of the exhibition, and its conviction in the sustenance and clarity offered by contemporary art in a real-world context, transcends its self-proclaimed examination of art in the present tense and points toward a post-imperial, post-indus-trial, post-Western future, in which artists possessing the redemptive genius of El Anatsui pick up the scraps and shards of our failed system and refashion them in their own image.

Contributor

Thomas Micchelli

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