Although visitors troop dutifully in and out of museums in Venice, as in every site of touristic pilgrimage, it’s really impossible for even the best art works to hold their own against the city outside. Venice itself is the most beautiful thing one can imagine. It is a survivor from a time when painting and sculpture was not set apart from the rest of life in special places but decorated houses and churches, and not just the interiors: every turning of a street leads to some pleasurable sight and it is only the wish for the next one that keeps one moving. So the Biennale, tucked away in its scruffy gardens at the east end of the city, can hardly compete. The turn-of-the-century pavilions devoted to the exhibitions of various nations present an image of sad decay in striking contrast to the brilliance of the Renaissance and Baroque architecture of the city, which looks good old. The art displayed in them, and in the gigantic halls of the Arsenale, the sixteenth-century munitions factory nearby, is so lackluster that it seems as though it has given up the unfair contest without an effort. And in any case the people who come for the opening week of the Biennale are there for other reasons.
This was my first Biennale, so I’m in no position to compare it to the past, but more knowledgeable friends tell me it was worse than recent ones. The curator in charge, Francesco Bonami, turned the Arsenale over to a bunch of sub-curators, apparently with a mission to represent art as a global phenomenon rather than as the work of the art stars whose products normally dominate international exhibitions. The huge spaces occupied in 2001 by artists like Richard Serra and Ilya Kabakov were filled this time with works by relative unknowns from Africa, China, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East, along, of course, with art from the United States, Western Europe, and Japan. This aesthetic globalism was intended, in Bonami’s words, to “acknowledge the broad and fragmented field of contemporary art,” with “its multiplicity of languages, and the inevitable autonomy of new geographic, political and cultural contexts.” What this could possibly mean in a world more bound together than ever economically and culturally, if not politically, by “market forces,” as the power of ever more concentrated capital is known, is not clear to me. In any case the art, for all its geographical diversity, betrayed a numbing uniformity: a seemingly endless procession of videos of sexy young people, talking heads, and third-world misery, mixed in with badly made paintings and three-dimensional structures assembled from degraded materials and presenting a vaguely medical equipment-like appearance. In the midst of all this portentous but unconvincing pseudo-politics it was a pleasure to encounter Maurizio Cattelan’s contribution: a radio-controlled mini-me Cattelan robot, peddling a little tricycle around the Italian pavilion, smiling happily. The truth in its a comment on the globe-trotting artist and his claim to “seriousness” was visible in the amused response it evoked in everyone.
The hot show in the Arsenale was “Utopia Station.” According to the curators—Molly Nesbit, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, and Rirkrit Tiravanija—utopia is “an idea with a long history and many fixed ideologies” that has “loosened up to become a catalyst first, or the no-place it always was, a hope for the better future.” A huge roster of artists contributed small objects and pictures to a ramshackle labyrinth of rooms and walls; 160 more put up posters. All this activity contained few traces of the history of the idea, ideologies fixed or otherwise, or anything recognizable as a hope for a better future. The dominant spirit seemed an etiolated nostalgia for the 1960s—not the real years of political struggles and experiments, but a weirdly contentless idea of them. In fact, nothing placed “Utopia Station” more firmly in the gloomy present than its emblematic object, souvenir tote bags eagerly grabbed up by visitors, announcing “Utopia” on one side and discreetly displaying the logo of its provider, “agnes b.,” on the other.
Not only this tedious affair but the whole mess of the Arsenale provided yet one more example of the most curious paradox of contemporary art: the saturation of the most chic products of the high-culture industry by a vaguely leftish politics. There are limits: apparently curator Catherine David’s wish to present an anti-zionist display of Palestinian art was modified under pressure into an anodyne exhibition of materials largely drawn from Lebanon under the heading “Contemporary Arab Representations.” But the fragrance of politics was omnipresent. The Dutch pavilion in the Giardini, to take a prominent example, presented the work of five artists, under the heading “We Are The World,” with as central theme “the issue of political equilibrium within the current social and political framework.” One installation presented a mock maquiladora, in which visitors were invited to cut out pieces of leather and sew them together into shoes under the slogan “Work for fun! Work for me!” An artist of African origin served ginger drinks in a boat-shaped bar, “thus trying to revive elements of his African roots.” As the organizers explained in a handout, these artists’ use of politics is “a kind of politics lite.”
The same heading would fit others of the national pavilions: Chris Ofili’s transformation of the British exhibition space into a fantasia of black, red, and green that combined the color-scheme of Marcus Garvey’s "Back to Africa" movement of the 1920s with a primitivist vision of black man and woman as embodiments of sensuality and love. Its unimaginative ugliness bothered me less than the thoughtlessness of monumentalizing a European fantasy of Africa with no visible relation to the actual misery of that suffering continent. (On the other hand, the eruption of African political reality, in the form of a three-screen video presentation of recent Ethiopian history under the title “Ruptures: A Many-Sided Story,” with its images of starvation and shootings, was almost unbearable in the context of the artistic triviality of the Arsenale.)
The American pavilion presented more politics of this nearly meaningless sort: a beautifully designed and produced installation, directed by Fred Wilson, of materials bearing on the place of blacks in Venetian history, from the statues of Moors holding up an altar decoration in the church of the Frari to the chocolate-flavored cakes sold as “mori,” the cinematic portrayals of Othello by Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles, and present-day immigrant workers. But aside from noting that Africans have been present in Venice over many centuries, Wilson had nothing to say, either about the history of Africans in the city or about the cultural significance of blacks in Venetian art and kitsch. The press release used the standard language of artistic politics: Wilson “intends to address the role of black Africans,” he “engages his host city’s past to explore diversity site-specifically.” It is an addressing and engagement without content. But then more than this was hardly to be expected from an exhibition sponsored by the U.S. State Department, along with a slew of foundations (and a few wealthy individuals).
Politics has never been absent from the Biennale since its founding in 1893 in an effort to promote Italian art on the world market. In the 1920s, Mussolini, interested in art as an aspect of modernization, sponsored a prize for the film festival associated with the exhibition, and he and Hitler made a famous joint visit to the Giardini in 1934. Dormant from 1942 to 1948, the Biennale recommenced after the war with an explicit bow to the new order of democratic freedom. But the current mode of artistic politics, with its variously progressive orientation and its origins in the late 1960s, seems to come from artists rather than from the institutions of the state.
Perhaps the centrality of politics lite to contemporary art can be traced to the decay of the avant-garde that came with the success of postwar American art and its adoption as the official art of the West. The nearly immediate commercial success of Pop art in the mid-1960s, when collectors bypassed lagging critical sanctification to buy novel work just because they liked it, spelled the end of the traditional cycle of rejection-and-eventual-approval central to the avant-garde idea. But modern art remains tied to the concept of criticality in relation to some status quo or other. To be modern, and a fortiori to be contemporary, art needs to be confrontational and “edgy.” Without an aesthetic academy to overthrow this is, apparently, best accomplished either by the traditional modernist means of explicit sexuality or by politics. (The combination of the two in the form of sexual identity politics is obviously irresistible.) The apparent nonexistence of any political opposition posing a real threat to the existing social order gives politics an agreeably theoretical quality, and sex and politics offer a chance for the professorate to join hands with the glamorous (and financially dynamic) world of art. Paradoxically, at the hands of the present-day academy, it is under the sign of Walter Benjamin that the aestheticization of politics is celebrated: the very move Benjamin himself associated with fascism.
Two exceptions to the bleak picture of the Biennale sketched here must be mentioned: the French pavilion, devoted to the work of photographer and sculptor Jean-Marc Bustamante was not only air-conditioned, which made it highly popular in the 100ºF heat, but offered a thoughtful set of works that repaid looking. His theme was “Amazons”; the central element of the installation was a set of four very large color photographs of young women, posed outdoors. Beyond their interest as explorations of the problem of the photographic portrait—can this medium, to which both the snapshot and the mass-commercial image are basic, be used to make pictures of individuals with the power that, for instance, keeps people looking at paintings of long-dead people we don’t know?—they were at once analytical and empathic appreciations of modes of young womanhood combining independence and vulnerability in historically novel ways.
The other installation I liked was Santiago Sierra’s treatment of the Spanish pavilion. A glance through the front door revealed a floor-to-ceiling cement-brick wall. The only entrance to the building was from behind, where the art-loving visitor was confronted, like the Africans who stream illegally towards Spain in search of work, by border police. Only bearers of Spanish passports were admitted. What they got was a room full of debris left over from the demolition of the previous installation. Sierra is a dark and angry artist, willing to admit his own implication, as a provider of art to state and private collectors, in the exploitative social order his work comments on. He’s inside the system like everyone else; he just says what he thinks of it.
But in any case the art, good and bad, was swallowed up by the ongoing party of insiders who constitute the international art world. One thing a visit to Venice makes clear is how small this world is: only a few thousand collectors, curators, artists, and critics, plus hangers-on, greeting each other as they arrive from New York, Paris, Tokyo, Brussels, Moscow, Beijing, Warsaw, and points South and East. They complain about the heat, looking forward to the next stop, the cooler temperatures of the Basel Art Fair. They complain about the art too, though there’s something for everyone to like. But nobody really takes the Biennale too seriously as a place to see art; it is, rather, as critic Lawrence Alloway said long ago in his book on the history of the exhibition, a “fishbowl,” in which we all swim around, passing each other repeatedly, pausing to drink, dine, and chat, with one semi-dutiful eye on the décor. It’s fun, actually—especially the city, which will be there, as beautiful as ever as it slowly sinks into the sea, when the art and art lovers are gone
PAUL MATTICK'S book, Business as Usual: The Economic Crisis and the Failure of Capitalism (Reaktion, 2011) is based on articles written for the Rail.