Published  08/07/2003

50th Venice Biennale

50th Venice Biennale, 2003

The 100th anniversary this year of the Venice Biennale will probably not be its last. But then it’s a good opportunity to call it a century, with the 5oth Biennale creaking, bleeping and glitzing along

Every Biennale is a celebration, and this one no less than before, with a title cooked up by Chef Francesco Bonami, as 'Dreams and Conflicts'. Is it art? Is the whole event not some kind of Chapmanesque mise en scene, waiting to subside into the flotsam and jetsam of the lagoon? Indeed, it is the totality that pulls in the crowds, from the quaint old 'national' pavilions at the Giardini, to the pseudo-sadomasochism of the 'texts' in the themed presentation in the Arsenale.

In 1972 there was sprightliness in the exhibits, and one could claim evidence of precursors as well as rebels – concepts that have enriched modernism, and lasted through postmodernism. As Hans Hollein wrote in Studio International (June 1982, Vol. 195, No 995) on the occasion of Walter Pichler's 1982 exhibition in the Austrian Pavilion, 'Twenty years during which Pichler's attitude has not changed'. The same could be said of Hollein's own work, exhibited there a decade earlier. The work of both stands today to testify to the long perspective on individual artists whose integrity, commitment and talent remain powerful. Such cannot perhaps be said of Barry Flanagan's work, as exhibited in 1982 in the British Pavilion – quaint objects for a quaint pavilion. Chris Ofili's exhibition there this year provides a kind of 'Blinky Bill' optical refocusing, which has even more effect than Bridget Riley's current wave of optics in Tate Britain. In Ofili's case, the profusion of black, green and red offers sensations for the eye which continually push and pull the retina, and with it the mind's eye. But given the classical 'gravitas' implied by the lofty spaces of this former tea pavilion, and the sub-colonial theme of Ofili's lush Afro figures, a few large Flanaganesque yappy dogs might have enlivened the ground spaces for visitors.

Most of the usual suspects from the critical and gallery worlds were to be found struggling on the vaporettos at the jollity of the British party, or the American dream. There the conflict was notably without the dream, but lodged laboriously at the Arsenale, entitled by Catherine David, the French curator, 'Contemporary Arab Representations' where the shades of Foucault and Derrida infused the numerous 'texts' with their melancholy. Or was it just plain boredom? Like troubadours, such famously provocative individuals as Howard Jacobson, visibly wilting from 'My Venice Biennale Hell' and Richard Demarco, totting up the names to drop, effusively yet somehow unchanged since 1982. All were flattered and relieved to surge across the red carpet into the consoling hospitality of the traditional Guggenheim party, where ghosts of the 1950s still linger among the dedicated graves of numerous canine pets and Peggy Guggenheim's own memorial. Surely this should have been the hour of the 'comedy terrorist' Aaron Barschak, but then he may not have been able to fulfil his ultimate engagement at Windsor Castle. And even Silvia Ziranek (who first worked with Bruce McLean in the 1970s) was not there to add more roses to the grave. Come back Silvia. Venice needs you.

In Studio International, Summer 1984, Mario Amaya could say of the 41st Biennale, 'Cracks were noticeable this summer, lines under the eyes, double chins, much too overweight - late middle age spread has definitely set in'. Now in 2003, it is the wheelchair for a city described by the late-lamented Mario for Studio as 'voracious beyond belief - the room mongers and food-hawkers charging well above what the traffic can and will bear. The whole experience leaves one with distaste and distemper. Yet, the Venetians assure us, with gold-filled toothy smiles, to wait till next time. You will see'. Such an indictment was all the more valedictory given that Mario Amaya was, apart from being an outstanding critic, a welcoming, effervescent figure of the serious art scene and would have been, long ago in the post-war years if he could, Venice's greatest champion.

Now, nearly two decades later, a new tendency threatens to bury Venice as a serious art event. This is the Plague of the Curatorium. Yes, the curators are taking over the works from the artists, which means that although the subtitle of this Biennale is 'The Dictatorship of the Viewer', it is not the viewers, but the curators who are behaving as dictators. Bonami was assisted in this regrettable coup d'etat by a cohort of ten extra curators, and in the case of the least popular exhibition, "Utopia Station" (a kind of bariada settlement of squatters) 18 senior and junior curators were actually deployed by Bonami.

Instead of such parading, couldn't the curatorium have actually come up with some new, topical ideas? One cannot deny that the Biennale today is currently rather political. Could there not have been a Baghdad-style extravaganza entitled 'Museum Plunder', where the curators themselves actually do the removals in the same way? Or else, what about 'WMD' - a game for all to play on the checkerboard? These and many other ideas for curator-cum-audience participation should be developed quickly. For time is the Biennale's winning hand – time and memory.

Typically perverse of Bonami was the exclusion of Jasper Johns from the panorama at the Museo Correr, which he himself curated, on grounds that 'by the 1960s he was beginning to look inward'. Which is surely of course the whole basis of Johns' work. Bonami's own appointment raises a number of questions for the future selection of Chief Curator. The banality of the works by Patricia Piccinini at the Australian Pavilion suggests that only an established figure such as Robert Hughes could apply a proper selectivity in future and return the Biennale to the artists themselves. Oops! The Russian Pavilion actually entitled their exhibition 'The Return of the Artist', but it has not happened yet at the Biennale.

Bruno Flyte

Editorial Note
During July, Studio International will include in-depth coverage of a range of Biennale exhibitions. Particularly noteworthy are the British Pavilion (Ofili) and those from Sweden, America, Russia, Taiwan and the Netherlands. In addition, 'I Love Museums' (as if it needed to be said), a new journal from Milan, will be reviewed. 

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