The Venice Biennale is the United Nations of art exhibitions. It represents high ideals and noble aspirations, and reliably shows itself incapable of fulfilling them. This year’s edition, the fifty-fourth, on view through November 27, is even more disappointing than usual, which is a bit of a surprise because its directorship was entrusted to Bice Curiger, the Swiss curator of Zurich Kunsthaus and editor of the au courant magazine Parkett. Her broad familiarity with contemporary art across the world should have been ideal preparation for the many difficult tasks she faced at the Biennale, above all the organization of its vast main exhibition.
As usual, this year the main exhibition is uneasily divided between the Central Pavilion in the spacious Giardini della Biennale (the former Italian Pavilion) and the old shipbuilding warrens of the Arsenale, a fifteen- or twenty-minute walk away. For a long time the trend was to keep expanding the curatorial section of the Biennale—ever more space, ever more artists. The unwieldiness spun out of control in 2003, when Francesco Bonami’s sprawling exhibition, “Dreams and Conflicts: The Dictatorship of the Viewer,” took the form of a sort of conglomerate of exhibitions, some curated by Bonami and others farmed out to various colleagues.
Since then, the successive curators have reined in the shows’ centrifugal tendencies, but only to some degree. None have thought to bypass the Arsenale or the Central Pavilion and make a unified exhibition in a single location, but the urge to encompass more and more artists seems to have been stifled. On the other hand, the compulsion to give the exhibitions grandiose titles that don’t commit the curator to any particular aesthetic or intellectual program has remained irresistible. Curiger has offered “ILLUMInations,” evoking light both in the literal and the intellectual sense (not to mention the inevitable references to Arthur Rimbaud and Walter Benjamin), while also insisting that within the global art world, the idea of the nation is still an important and relevant one. No kidding: as always, nationhood is everywhere at the Biennale, no more so than in the pavilions of dozens of countries ranging alphabetically from Albania to Zimbabwe and in size from the Republic of San Marino to the People’s Republic of China, not to mention the “collateral exhibitions,” of which several represent such peoples-without-a-nation as the Scots and the Roma. While every artist at the Biennale is somehow or other ascribed to a nation, for what that’s worth, if you read their biographies in the catalog you’ll learn that many of them reside outside the country of their birth. What does that suggest about Curiger’s contention that “the idea of ‘nations’ can be taken in metaphorical relation to the community”? Art relates to a different, more dispersed and more ambivalent form of community than that of the contemporary nation-state. It somehow associates at once with the global circulation of capital (and of capitalists) that occurs somewhere in the stratosphere above the terrain of the state, and with the vast underground migrations of people, whether legally or otherwise, across borders always more permeable than the governments that police them would like to believe. But art often relates antagonistically, if at all, to the sovereign states that claim to divide up the earth’s landmass among themselves. It sometimes seems that the cultural values of developed countries, at least, can be manifested only through antagonism, by artists biting the hand that feeds them.