Hubbub and Stillness: The 2009 Venice Biennale
Birnbaum's choice of artists, and above all his installation of their work, demonstrates an appealing empathy for all that is intelligently fluid and spontaneous in the contemporary art mainstream. This is especially notable at the Corderie, which has always seemed a deeply unsympathetic venue because of its long, narrow structure. Walking through the exhibitions here has felt a bit like strolling through a pedestrian shopping street, glancing at the wares to one's right and left. There was never any sense of flow between one artist's work and the next. But by reducing the number of artists, Birnbaum has not only been able to grant them more space; he has managed to carve out spaces of different dimensions, more intimate or more expansive as their art demands, and in such a way as to create a path for the viewer that feels not strictly rectilinear but serpentine and organic. And while the art that Birnbaum has chosen is quite various--within the limits of what is currently presentable as sophisticated contemporary art--the predominant aesthetic recalls that of the New Museum's 2007-08 exhibition "Unmonumental," which favored assemblage-based work that is (as the New Museum curators put it) "materially provisional and structurally precarious." In the Corderie, painting, photography and even self-contained sculpture are not entirely absent, but they are overshadowed by makeshift arrangements of objects and images. Grids and straight lines are out; scatter and unpredictability are in. At the New Museum, the choice of works and their installation in its cramped confines had the unfortunate effect of undermining one's sense of the distinctions among the various artists' projects. Birnbaum succeeds in sharpening the distinctions, even if the accompanying rhetoric is cramped and confining. "For Pascale Marthine Tayou," one reads, "the ceaseless movement between places and contexts, forms and media, has become a permanent condition," but the same might have been said of most of them as easily as of the Ghent-based Cameroonian Tayou.
But ultimately, the rhetoric isn't a big problem. More so is that, subsumed into the artwork, the "ceaseless movement" of its context becomes an artifice, a fiction, even a mannerism, because as soon as the random matter of daily life is given a form, a name and a date, it takes on a kind of permanence or at least longevity, albeit one that costs more effort to maintain. In any case, it is easier to note that many artists today want their work to acknowledge impermanence, flux and multiplicity than it is to put words to the visual evidence of their distinct and characteristic ways of doing so. But what the rhetoric doesn't acknowledge is that this art is not so much about the "permanent conditions" within which today's artists find themselves working as about the sensitivity, spontaneity and idiosyncratic élan with which they react to them--about the artist's "genius," though the word is taboo. Just as much as with the neo-Expressionist painting of the '80s, though perhaps more intelligently, the assemblage sculpture of the present decade has been about the power of artistic subjectivity. If Rachel Harrison is in many ways the midcareer artist of the moment--and her appearance in "Fare Mondi" is merely one more reminder of that--it is because of her uncanny ability to put images and materials together in a way that not only always seems to have a hidden logic but also outstrips the viewer's ability to explain it. That viscerally experienced distance between the artist's awareness of the possibilities inherent in her material and one's own gives the work its sense of surprise but also marks its exemplary status. And the funky, offhand look Harrison cultivates is a permanent reminder that she didn't have to sweat over creating that oblique logic; when intuition and intelligence are one and the same, it all comes naturally.
Still, if the test of genius today comes in the encounter with the condition of multiplicity, what's apparent in Venice is that the attempt to counter multiplicity with more multiplicity is at best merely an inspired stopgap. The opposite strategy, facing multiplicity with singularity and blankness, flux with stillness, is just as valid. Among the best works in "Fare Mondi" are a group of large-scale paintings on paper, made in the early '70s by Tony Conrad, who is better known for his structuralist films and minimalist music (he was a member of Dream Syndicate with La Monte Young, John Cale and others). All titled Yellow Movie, their imagery of a white or yellow rectangle framed by a roughly painted black border in turn surrounded by yet another color suggests a blank movie screen in a dimly lit space. The artist's conceit was that, painted with inexpensive, unstable paint, the rectangles would gradually yellow, and this imperceptible change would make them the slowest motion pictures ever made. Conrad mixes media in the mind, not in the gallery space. But just as he renders the distinction between movement and stillness moot, so does his minimalism undo the distinction between multiplicity and singularity, since the simplest differences of color, proportion and touch are sufficient to give these works all the complexity they need to linger in the mind, not as generalizations but as concrete particulars.
This is not to say that Conrad's reaction to the condition of art is inherently superior to that of Harrison, or Tayou, or of many other good artists Birnbaum has included. It's only to say that it stands out by standing against the exhibition's presiding aesthetic; because art teaches us to value the anomalous, a dominant aesthetic always undermines itself. If there's one thing you can depend on, it's that assemblage will not be the main event at the next Venice Biennale, because it will be felt to be too familiar, too easy.
In a Biennale in which the national pavilions seemed extraordinarily flat, the best of them was the one that the Biennale itself rightly awarded its Golden Lion, the mini-retrospective of Bruce Nauman in the American pavilion (with two off-site supplements), curated by Carlos Basualdo and Michael Taylor of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I say this with some regret as I believe that a survey of such a well-known artist is not necessarily the best use of a pavilion; I'd have been happier if a chance had been taken on a younger, unconsecrated figure such as Harrison. Or at least if the Nauman show had consisted entirely of recent work. For Venice, Nauman produced a new sound installation in two versions, Italian and English, Giorni and Days. Each is a space filled with a hubbub of words that soon turn out to be a variety of voices enunciating the names of the days of the week, but not in order. There is a logic to the sequences, but unlike the logic behind Harrison's works, it's not beyond one's grasp; it just takes a little time and concentration to catch on to it. That logic is of no particular interest in itself; it simply serves, I think, as a way to introduce a certain sense of irregularity into the texture of the words. A close contemporary of Conrad's--both artists are nearing 70--Nauman shares his intuition that stillness is always already in movement, minimalism already dense with detail. In Days, clamor and multiplicity resolve into clarity and simplicity and then fall back again: this, according to Nauman, is the structure of time.