Many Facets, No Overview: On the Venice Biennale
That judgmental gaze, and the nervousness it induces in artists and curators alike, is a problem for any biennial. There’s something self-contradictory about exhibitions on this scale. Not conducive to focused, unhurried engagement with art, they demand a lot of triage on the viewer’s part: one has to check things out quickly and superficially, devoting more time and attention only to relatively few works, because they’ve simply caught your eye or because they’re by artists you already know. But as for the rest, they have a much harder time getting seen than they would in a typical art gallery show. Whatever else Curiger’s para-pavilions are supposed to be, they are also an attempt to solve the problem of scale by creating smaller, more intimate, self-contained environments within the Biennale’s visual melee and crush of people. That’s a good thing, but at the same time the effort can feel strained and artificial, and above all something of an imposition on the viewer. In the para-pavilions you can’t wander freely. Someone—the curator, the artist, whoever—is trying to compel you to move through the space in a certain way and no other, to see things in a given relationship and no other, to see and understand and experience the art in a certain way and no other. One naturally rebels, because the viewer’s liberty is or should be one of the basic givens of art. Not “the dictatorship of the viewer,” as Bonami claimed four Biennales back, but still less a dictatorship over the viewer. Art and its viewer should meet as equals.
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While Curiger merely gestures toward a scripting of the viewer’s experience, many of the national pavilions are in thrall to it. The idea is that “the viewer turns into a performer, the pavilion into a closed stage,” in the words of Eva Schlegel, the artist who curated the Austrian Pavilion’s one-person show by Markus Schinwald. Along with a couple of videos, Schinwald has presented paintings that seem to be remakes of obscure nineteenth-century portraits but with odd prosthetic devices added to the figures. Some of the paintings are vaguely disquieting, but the concept is pretty thin and hardly needs to be reiterated so many times. All the worse, then, that the artist has contrived a mazelike structure for the interior of the pavilion to lead the viewer from piece to piece, as if each one were so unusual it deserved its own chapel. Instead, each strains for the same effect, and isolating them from one another doesn’t hide it.
Another maze is to be found in the Danish Pavilion, and it doesn’t convey much about the doings of contemporary Danish artists. The Danish Arts Council has put the Greek curator Katerina Gregos in charge, and she has chosen eighteen mostly very good artists from ten countries—only a couple of them are from Denmark—for an exhibition called “Speech Matters,” part of whose purpose, she says, is to show that “the essence of visual artistic practice…fundamentally entails conditions of freedom of expression.” It’s pretty to think so, though I suspect that art may thrive just as well under conditions of restraint as of freedom; but in either case, what does any of that have to do with the complicated multileveled scenography through which the various artworks are disposed throughout the Danish Pavilion? It’s hard not to see the pavilion as a rambling art installation by Gregos that has less to say about her announced theme than most of the individual works do on their own.
The competition between art and curating is even more intense in the German Pavilion, where there is a one-man show devoted to Christoph Schlingensief, a film and theater director who recently devoted himself to installation art. He’s a big name in Germany, although less well-known abroad. In August 2010, a few months after he accepted the invitation to exhibit in Venice, Schlingensief died of cancer. He was not yet 50 years old. Thus, as the pavilion’s curator, Susanne Gaensheimer, explains, “What was conceived as his personal project now turned into a collective reconsideration of his existing work”—although it looked less like a reconsideration than a canonization. The pavilion has been turned into a sort of church in which Schlingensief’s films function as altarpieces. Its inspiration is a Schlingensief installation called A Church of Fear vs. the Alien Within, but it feels like a chapel devoted to Schlingensief himself, erected to encourage not disinterested understanding but devotional pathos. Is this what the artist would have wanted? There’s no way of knowing, but we can be sure that had he lived he would have done it differently. He might well have wanted to create a single immersive installation out of many of his works, which is essentially what Gaensheimer has done—but it all would have been his work, however collaborative. What we see in Venice seems instead to be Gaensheimer’s unacknowledged artwork in homage to Schlingensief, using his works as raw materials—a very different proposition altogether, and one that is inappropriate in this context, above all because of that lack of acknowledgment.
A different way of reappraising the works of the dead can be found in the Czech Pavilion. There, Dominik Lang, until this year’s Biennale an artist hardly known outside his homeland, offers a cool yet poignant look at a personal history that is also a social and artistic one. What one sees in this exhibition, “The Sleeping City,” is a sequence of installations built around plaster sculptures, some of them broken, done in a somewhat generic style of abstracted figuration redolent of the 1950s, and encompassed by pieces of furniture and other everyday objects; for example, a statue of a girl leaning over to pet a dog breaks through a wooden table as if it were the surface of a pond. The plaster sculptures were made by Jirí Lang, Dominik’s father, but never exhibited. The young artist looks back at his father’s efforts with equal measure of irony and affection; he honors him without heroizing him. Here is an artist who has succeeded in his aspiration to “deeply explore the past to be able to understand the present whatever risk it takes and whatever disturbing or disappointing facts it might reveal.” The relationship between past and present in art, in families, in nations is always bound to encompass a lot of regret; but there are ways that regret can be made bearable and even, in some way, usable. Wit and tenderness are chief among them, as Dominik Lang shows.
Tenderness is not among the eminent virtues of “Crystal of Resistance,” Thomas Hirschhorn’s work for the Swiss Pavilion, and while there is a lot of wit, it takes the form of the most scathing irony. But the intensity of passion made manifest is truly extraordinary. Here, if anywhere, the strategy of immersive installation—which seems so creaky in Curiger’s para-pavilions, and in the Austrian, Danish, German and many other national pavilions—redeems itself. Hirschhorn speaks of how “the ‘crystal’ motif helps me to consciously point out just one single facet or several facets. Because it’s only as facets, with no overview, that things don’t lie.” More than in any work of Hirschhorn’s that I’ve seen, this installation gets the balance just right between vivid, sometimes unbearable details and the swirling reality that encompasses them without any resolution, so that all the elements work to intensify one another to the utmost. Kurt Schwitters meets CNN in the hyperbolic cross-reflections of this cavern of foil and plastic, in which everything is held together by brown tape. Information overload becomes a concrete corporeal sensation, yet individual details never stop arresting your gaze. One that sticks with me is a bank of video monitors showing close-ups of a finger flicking through images of war atrocities on an iPad. The frantic movement of the finger gives a new sense to Al Held’s famous remark that conceptual art is just pointing at things. Hirschhorn draws his imagery from the most traumatic political matter of the present, in all its mass-mediated horror, but he’s made a kind of beauty from it because he’s made it out of the honest desire to know, and to find a form, however makeshift, for that knowledge.