Biennials are the exhibitions all art lovers love to hate, and the Venice Biennale (through November 22) is the one we wouldn’t miss for the world. The reason? Take your pick of clichés: Timing is everything; but don’t forget location, location, location. Born in 1895, the Biennale was the first of the great recurrent international exhibitions, but even if the Carnegie Museum of Art had been a bit quicker in kicking off the first edition (1896) of what is now the Carnegie International, it’s hard to imagine the prospect of another trip to Pittsburgh setting the aesthete’s heart aflutter quite like that of a visit to La Serenissima. Venice is pre-eminently the city of art, meaning not just that it houses a great many works of the highest order–like many other cities, including its old rival, Florence–but that the city as a whole is a superlative embodiment of art. Precisely because the art of our time is so deeply marked by an anti-aesthetic spirit, a suspicion of every quality that has already been certified as a guarantee of artistic value, seeing contemporary art in Venice–this “jeweled bathtub for cosmopolitan courtesans, cloaca maxima of passéism,” as it was denounced by Marinetti in 1910–is a perfect way of testing its ability to go against its own grain. As the Biennale’s tentacles spread ever more thoroughly into every part of Venice, we begin to experience contemporary art as a city in itself, overlaid on the existing one with which it is deeply in tension, as in some lost fable by Calvino.
Then what’s the problem? Clearly, the form of the mega-exhibition. The complaints are legion, and all in their way justified. The exhibitions have become too big, too crowded, too hectic; instead of qualitatively sifting the masses of art being produced, they simply follow a more or less arbitrary selection schema and toss the results back at the public to sort through. For many, the ne plus ultra of this tendency was Documenta 11 in Kassel, Germany, in 2002, curated by Okwui Enwezor. Thanks to its emphasis on video, the “650,000 visitors [who] came to appraise around 450 artworks on a surface area of 13,000 square metres” (according to the Documenta website) often left wondering if they could have sat through all that footage even if they’d stayed the whole hundred days of the exhibition. Of course, these complaints have been common since before the big exhibitions became as big as they are now, and well before the advent of “time-based art” (or, as I am tempted to rename it, time-consuming art).
Venice differs from most other such extravaganzas not so much in scale as in being a multitude of more or less self-contained parts that can be considered independently of the others, and some of which are more central than others. The central parts are found in the Giardini della Biennale, where the exhibition has been taking place since its inception, and in the nearby Arsenale. The Giardini houses thirty pavilions, twenty-eight of them belonging to the nations whose participation has been longest established–primarily European, as one might imagine, along with the United States and Canada, but also including several Latin American countries plus Japan, Korea and Egypt. Each country chooses its own exhibition program, usually a one-person show of a prominent artist or a small group exhibition. The twenty-ninth is the Venice Pavilion, while the thirtieth and largest of the pavilions, once called the Italian Pavilion, is now devoted to a large, curated international group show, in recognition of which its name has been changed this year to Palazzo delle Esposizioni. (In exchange, Italy has been given its own pavilion at the Arsenale; a shaky start has been made of it, with a group presentation that completely ignores the Italian artists who are actually making any impact internationally.) This group show is the component of the Biennale that is comparable, but on a global rather than a national scale, to exhibitions like the Whitney Biennial. But in Venice it is only one piece of the puzzle. As this curated part of the Biennale has grown more important, it has been given more space. In recent years it has been expanded beyond the original pavilion and taken over the Corderie of the Arsenale, a long, almost tunnel-like building about a fifteen-minute walk from the Giardini, in which the ropes for the Venetian navy were once made. This year the curator is the Swedish-born, Germany-based critic Daniel Birnbaum. Upholding the tradition of giving the shows vague but grand-sounding titles that have the aroma of a theme without actually committing the curator to including or leaving out anything in particular, his exhibition is called “Fare Mondi” (Making Worlds).