Jerry Saltz, the New York Magazine art critic, whose columns also appear on artnet, apparently boycotted the openings of Documenta and Venice this year. In his most recent column he suggests that these large international exhibitions are “outmoded,” arguing that biennial culture leads to “copycat behavior in a sphere that prides itself on independent thinking.” Saltz also rails against the fact that these big shows are put together “by one czarlike curator with absolute dictatorial power.” He continues, “These curators, however earnest, can simultaneously be annoying and sanctimonious while foisting their own pious, profligate or shaky taste on everyone else.” When Francesco Bonami attempted to do away with the “dictatorship of the curator” by letting a cadre of eleven artists and curators program the event four years ago, Saltz acknowledges that the Venice Biennale was generally regarded as a mess, but he somehow believes it altered the paradigm. While Saltz’s criticisms have some validity, I’m not sure where else one can see this sheer amount of work in a week, even if you happen to live in London or New York. At least these large-scale exhibitions provide a more serious atmosphere for taking in large amounts of art than the major commercial art fairs.
The 52nd Venice Biennale was curated by Robert Storr, formerly of the Museum of Modern Art and now Dean of the Art School at Yale, with the theme “Think with the Senses, Feel with the Mind.” The two shows put together by the veteran curator – one at the Italian Pavilion, the other at the massive Arsenale – are an eclectic mixture of political, conceptual, and more formal works. Many of the political works are clustered in the first section of the Arsenale: Gabriele Basilico’s photographs of burned-out buildings in Iraq, Emily Prince’s small detailed portrait drawings of American soldiers killed there, Tomoko Yoneda’s photographs of “borders” between areas of conflict, Adel Abdessemed’s circular wall pieces of barbed wire, Tomer Ganihar’s medical installation for treating war-trauma victims, Rosemary Laing’s photos of ominous-looking prison exteriors, Nedko Solakov’s impressive drawings of AK-47 assault rifles – the source of an intellectual property dispute between Bulgaria and Russia, and Neil Hamon’s photographs of soldiers from various conflicts. If you didn’t feel as if the whole world was on the verge of falling apart when you entered, you quickly lapse into that mindset under this grim bombardment of such images. At least Romanian artist Dan Perjovschi, whose work and sensibility reminds me an awful lot of David Shrigley’s, has a wall installation in the entrance-way of his funny doodles, which provides some much-needed comic relief.
By contrast, Storr’s show at the Italian Pavilion is put together like a major museum exhibition. Unlike Documenta 12, it consists of mostly blue-chip Western artists. Whereas the Arsenale contains lots of film and video and installation, which I will get to shortly, this show has much greater emphasis on painting. Several weeks ago, the New York Times Sunday edition ran a spread on Sigmar Polke in which the paintings were described in troubling mystical terms. They are so much better in person, which is why reproductions often do not do justice to work of any subtlety, such as these paintings, whose brown resin surfaces are all about texture and shift with changes in light. There are other groups of large paintings by Gerhard Richter, Robert Ryman, Ellsworth Kelly, and Susan Rothenberg. It was a real treat, however, to see the much more modest-scaled, abstract paintings of Raoul De Keyser and Thomas Nozkowski – two “painter’s painters” – more than hold their own in such company. A political note is interjected by Emily Jacir, who personalizes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through an installation of letters and other personal memorabilia of Wael Zwaiter, the Palestinian translator who was gunned down by Israeli secret agents on October 16, 1972 on suspicions that he was connected to the infamous Black September attack at the Munich Olympics.
In the national pavilions in the Giardini and around Venice, Australian artist Callum Morton rebuilds his father’s destroyed modernist house in three-quarter scale. While the exterior looks like a virtual ruin, its marbled, corporate interior – with its low ceiling, rumbling sound, and elevators that don’t open – is appropriately sterile, cold, and downright eerie. The Swiss artists Urs Fischer and Ugo Rondinone turn a church into a white cube. Fischer prints images of debris on aluminum panels with accented drips of color, while Rondinone casts aluminum bare trees that are painted white. He also has created a small hole in which a stick of incense burns, causing a scorched image to form above it. With art stars – Isa Genzken, Tracey Emin, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres – in nearby national pavilions, it was gratifying to see two young sculptors, David Altmejd and Monika Sosnowska, rise to the occasion. David Altmejd represents Canada with a Modern Gothic hall of mirrors, while Monika Sosnowska takes an oversized modernist steel structure and reconfigures it to fit inside the Polish Pavilion. The effect is an elaborately intricate piece that collapses geometric line into an expressionistic maze.
Amidst the intense competitive energy of the Giardini, the utter simplicity and unpretentiousness of Ernesto Vila’s exquisite little mixed-media paper pieces, delicately hanging from a clothes line in Uruguayan Pavilion, makes its own subtle statement. I found it humorous that so many people would take a free huge Felix Gonzales-Torres print or poster from one of the stacks in the American Pavilion and then carry it around with them all day long. Four years ago, while I was viewing Fred Wilson’s installation, I watched a rather straight-looking young woman deliberately step into a pool of oil and then proceed to track it around the American Pavilion, causing it to be closed. I guess she thought the piece was intended to be interactive!
In comparison to Documenta, there is plenty of interesting video and film at Venice. In the Italian Pavilion, Sophie Calle has a video that documents her mother’s final hours. These are difficult times for Calle. Her installation, which includes an entire wall of video monitors and several scattered throughout the massive French Pavilion, obsessively fixates on an email she received from her lover, abruptly terminating their relationship. She turns her pain into art by subjecting the missive to 107 female professionals: a dancer, singer, sharpshooter, signer, and clown. The clown ridicules the lover’s rhetorical flourishes; the signer struggles to interpret the letter’s intricate nuances. Video plays a more minor role in Nedko Solakov’s AK-47 patent dispute. The Bulgarian official reluctantly offers a very brief “non-statement” on one monitor, while the Russian one never bothers to appear on the other one, so that we mostly view the outside of the embassy.
In the Belgian Pavilion, Eric Duykaerts uses video as part of his labyrinth of glass and mirror panels to parody intellectual conferences. Next door, Los Torreznos employ video to document their energetic, absurdist performances; Rubén Ramos Balsa somehow projects the image of a spider on a small light bulb; and José Luis Guerin incorporates an interesting experimental film from the 1930s into his room-size installation. In Belgian artist Sophie Whettnall’s Shadow Boxing, an unflinching woman stands while a boxer throws hard punches at her face. A few too many video works come across as anecdotal one-liners. Chinese conceptual artist Yang Zhenzhong has a ten-screen installation, consisting on various people saying the phrase “I will die.” Like a massive casting session, there is interest in how each participant interprets the line. Some people, especially younger folks, simply concentrate on being able to say it for the camera, while oblivious to its meaning. There is an especially poignant moment when an elderly woman visiting a graveside in a cemetery repeats the line, which lends a somber note to the work.
There are several animations in the show. One prominently displayed in the Italian Pavilion by Tabaimo involves a struggle between hands placing furniture into a dollhouse and an unruly sea monster, which seems to serve as a metaphor for the superego and id. Much weirder is Joshua Mosley’s dread, in which digitally rendered, three-dimensional figures of Pascal and Rousseau engage in a philosophical debate in a forest. The Belgian artist Francis Alÿs creates a primitive animation from a series of drawings of a shoe being shined with a red cloth. Columbian artist Óscar Muñoz employs five synchronized monitors in Proyecto para un Memorial to make a political statement about his native country. We see human portraits being drawn with water on concrete, which then slowly distort and eventually evaporate from the heat of the sun. Kara Walker has a five-screen video installation in the Italian pavilion. It utilizes silhouette animation of cut-out stick puppets on strings, photos of historical figures (Abraham Lincoln), maps, and multi-layered superimpositions that create links between sexuality and slavery.
Steve McQueen’s Gravesend (2007) cinematically explores the associations between coltan mining in the Congo, its high-tech refinement in Nottingham, and an extended shot of Gravesend, the setting of Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness. Coltan is one of the most sought after materials in the world because of its use in cell phones, laptops, and other electronic devices. It also has been the source of civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which has already resulted in the loss of nearly four million lives. McQueen has a poet’s sensibility, as well as an implicit trust in the power of images and sounds. Like Muñoz’s piece, McQueen’s film achieves the rare feat of being truly political without being didactic. Gravesend is one of the most haunting works at Venice.
Another highlight is Aernout Mik’s multiple-screen installation in the Nethelands Pavilion, which consists of three separate works. I saw Mik’s multichannel Refraction at the MCA in Chicago nearly two years ago, but the two-screen Convergencies (2007) has more tension and better pacing, which takes his work to another level. In it, Mik incorporates staged and actual events of police actions against illegal immigrants or refugees, cleverly blurring the distinction between the two. These rivet the viewer for the same reason we’re voyeuristically attracted to accidents, public disturbances, and other crisis situations. We gawk because we’re naturally curious and want to figure out what’s going on. The video consists of various vignettes of such events, but Mik doesn’t provide any context for what’s occurring. We watch the police attempt to control a group of Middle-Eastern men in a field, training exercises of prisoners being escorted onto an airplane by officials in yellow jackets. We see prisoners of African descent being transported, people being frisked, mobile prisons, men caught hitching trains, crowds running in areas where there are massive electric power lines. We watch police in riot gear, reddish night shots of a train station, a train car being moved, scenes of immigrants detained in cafeterias, and a guy lying on the ground. It’s always the white people who are in a position of power and control, while it’s the people of color, who are being subjugated, hence the title of the installation.
There’s a disturbing image of a drowned body being dragged from the water as groups of men mill around on the shore. There are images of shantytowns where refugees live. The police confiscate toothbrushes, razors, and various plastic products. We see prisons holding Muslim women, a white woman with a bloody nose and another with blood on her forehead, followed by police herding a group of demonstrators. We watch police in riot gear with barking dogs and shields, bombings, accidents, fires, car accidents, and Hazmat control. We see the police escorting a ramshackle boat containing African refugees into shore. The boats alone present a striking contrast between those in power and those who are powerless. Mik’s video captures the dynamic tension between Western nations and the Third World and the seemingly unsolvable political issues that confront them, especially over borders. Mik’s video suggests a grim future, namely, that without some type of radical intervention, security issues and various perceived threats are moving Western nations ever closer towards becoming police states.
I saw the first two parts of Yang Fudong’s Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest at the Carnegie International several years ago. I also programmed both of them this past spring at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art as part of the Spotlight Film and Video Series I guest-curated there. The five parts can be viewed in separate small black boxes that are interspersed throughout the long exhibition hall at the Arsenale. These makeshift venues are not particularly conducive to viewing Yang’s work. They were extremely hot and not air-conditioned for one thing, and the print quality and projection – at least for the first three sections – left a lot to be desired. Part One appeared to be several generations away from the original, and Part Three had numerous scratches, as if it had been copied from a workprint rather than the 35mm original. The final two parts (four and five) look much better. The running times also turned out to be much longer than indicated. Unless clock-time suddenly became elastic within the confines of the Arsenale, Yang Fudong’s epic ran much closer to five hours rather than four. Adrian Searle of The Guardian couldn’t fathom why anyone would bother to sit through such a long work at the Biennale, but I managed to view the film in its entirety. I haven’t seen much mention of it in reviews, which is surprising, because it’s the single best work I saw at the exhibition.
Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest (2003-2007) is based on a group of intellectuals – artists and poets – who retreated into the bamboo forest to escape the pressures of life during the ancient Wei and Jin Dynasty. Yang Fudong updates the tale to depict the young people of China today, who find themselves caught up in the almost overnight cultural transformation, as the country has shifted from being an agrarian society to a post-industrial one while skipping the intermediate industrial stage through which most Western countries have passed. The effect has been a kind of radical social dislocation, leaving young people caught precariously between tradition and modernity, and resulting in a kind of anomie that Yang links to the Taoist notion of “wu wei” or non-action. Without clear goals, the seven intellectuals wander from place to place like lost souls in search of some type of meaning or direction. The formal style of their outdated clothes sets them apart. They appear alienated and unable to fit in wherever they go.
Because Seven Intellectuals has a collective protagonist, the film seems more like an accumulation of individual vignettes rather than a causal narrative. There’s no real dramatic arc – no sense of progression or development – and very little happens in terms of action. Certain motifs are repeated, both within individual parts and the larger work. With the exception of the main characters – the guy who wears glasses and his two different female lovers – it’s not really even a character study because Yang continually disrupts their story by including other multiple strands of action. In addition, he situates the more prominent characters within the anonymous larger group of seven intellectuals, so that we lose our sense of identification with them. None of the characters even have names, and consequently remain oddly anonymous for the most part. Yang does, however, provide character motivation in Part Two, when the sad woman tells another female about being molested in middle school by an older man. He also employs an odd bit of characterization in Part Four by portraying the guy with the glasses as a fool in a previous life. Characters also change, namely the sad woman, who disappears after the first two parts. This is foreshadowed, however, in the very first part through her giving voice to her self-destructive feelings and her realization that her relationship with her lover is doomed. Too bound by traditional beliefs, she seems unable to adapt. She is replaced by the woman with short hair.
Seven Intellectuals moves from nature (the mountain) to an urban area, to a rural farm, to a deserted island, and finally to Shanghai, with much of it taking place in an art-deco restaurant or hotel. The first part employs voiceover; the second part has sync-sound dialogue, while the remaining three parts are silent. Parts Three and Four move back and forth in historical time; the setting of part five is unclear. It’s obviously present-day Shanghai, but it references Chinese films of the 1930s or 1940s, suggesting a previous era: pin-striped suits, antique cars, Venetian pools, rooftop baseball, and retro dances. In Part Five, Yang even seems to take liberties with the number of intellectuals – one of the women rarely appears, and more often than not there are only six (or sometimes more than seven). Yang switches from a more casual impressionistic style in the first two parts to one that is more deliberately mannered. The film also moves closer to spectacle, especially in its culminating scene of Part Five where a fight breaks out on the dance floor and hundreds of chefs emerge from the kitchen and clap in unison.
My notes on the film read like a series of non-sequiturs. In a sense, this is not so inaccurate because Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest seems to aspire to Jonas Mekas’s notion of a plotless narrative – a film that works primarily through visual rather than narrative connections. Yang is most of all a visual stylist. In Part One, Yang provides striking black-and-white images of Mount Huangshan shrouded in mist that recalls the look and texture of classical Chinese landscape painting. There isn’t a bad shot in the entire film. Some are spectacular, such as the woman walking by the water at night to the sound of croaking frogs in Part Three, or the underwater shot of the two intellectuals moving through fish-filled water in skin-diver outfits in Part Five. Despite Yang’s use of repetition – such as the fact that the intellectuals inevitably will appear naked in each section – the film is never predictable. Part Three begins with a prolepsis: the decapitation of a water buffalo, but it nevertheless comes as a total shock when the farmer suddenly bludgeons the animal to death towards the end of the film. In the last three parts, Yang employs abrupt temporal shifts, so that the same characters appear simultaneously in both the present and past, thus formally mirroring the subject matter of the film. Without resorting to a more conventional use of narrative, it’s hard to keep an audience interested for such a long stretch of time, but Seven Intellectual in Bamboo Forest manages to do it through the sheer strength of its images.
I admit that it’s extremely taxing to watch a nearly five-hour film within the context of an extended art exhibition such as the Venice Biennale. Yet I remain grateful for Robert Storr’s openness in premiering a long, complex, and challenging work, such as Yang Fudong’s Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest. What’s a little mental overload when you’re already slightly jet-lagged?