Debt in Venice

In the midst of one of the worst recessions in history it was always going to be interesting to see how this year’s Venice Biennale would fare.

The work presented under the aegis of curator Daniel Birnbaum on the theme “Fare Mondi” (“Making Worlds”) somehow encapsulates the present climate. The massive Polkes and Ellsworth Kellys of 2007 have given way to a cacophony of sometimes impressive, often harsh and unbeautiful endeavors.

Splattered paint cans and canvases are strewn across the floor just inside the main entrance, as if the show were not quite ready yet; what seems at first a bucolic Chinese garden, in one display, is thrown off with the shrillness of the atonal Shanghai cabaret songs playing there.

The task of the curators-or commissioners, as they are more pompously known-mirrors that juxtaposition: it is here in the midst of paradisiacal Venice with its smells of lush honeysuckle and ancient palazzos that they find themselves negotiating their artistic vision against the chaos of Italian bureaucracy.

In the Giardini, a Yoko Ono instruction piece in this case “instructs” the viewers to follow their dreams and wishes; less feel-goody were the works presented by the Japanese avant garde group Gutai whose members created performances, artworks, theatre and dance events in the 1950’s. Further along, two site-specific installations by the African artist George Adeagbo deploy an array of found and newly made objects ranging from a Hello magazine cover of Michelle Obama and Carla Sarkozy to African masks and combat fatigues. It’s fun to look at, and it’s about political and cultural appropriation, colonial violence and postcolonial obligations.

At 46 years old, Daniel Birnbaum is the youngest curator in Venice Biennale history.

“My goal was not to confirm anything,” he said in an interview outside the pavilion.  “It is not an annual report.”

But it is about more than art-it is about society, and about politics. He said he was keen to showcase the work of the German artist Wolfgang Tillmans who he believes “encapsulates social and political engagement with art.”

Classic Kunsthalle stuff, an art-critic friend remarked: Mr. Birnbaum is the head of a major art school and exhibition space in Frankfurt.

His rough and ready style works pretty well in the main pavilion. But by the time you get to the Arsenale, the whole thing begins to feel a bit messy, in contrast to the rigorous curation of former Museum of Modern Art curator Rob Storr in 2007.

Entering the Arsenale is an impressive experience, to be sure: one walks into a vast darkened room showcasing a magnificent piece by the Brazilian artist Lygia Pape. The sculpture looks like a mass of golden thread shot through with light, though it is constructed of fishing wire. Further on there are some fairly predictable Carsten Höller photographs and Michaelangelo Pistoletto’s broken mirrors. At the end of the exhibition at the Arsenale there is a slick, sponsored show from the United Arab Emirates that resembles nothing so much as a presentation for a Manhattan condiminium offering. Contrasting with that predictability is the off-site exhibit, titled “East West Divan,” offering works from Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan-and quartered in the Old Jewish Quarter of the city.

In the national Pavilions in the Giardini, video artist Steve McQueen, a darling of the art world and winner of the Camera D’or at Cannes for his film “The Hunger,” presents a new video entitled “Giardini” at the U.K. Pavilion. Its practiced ambivalence about the art world ends up being monotonous, not least because it is presented in a hot, crowded theatre, and boils down to some 30 minutes of dogs picking at garbage. Rumors that the artist had initially wanted to lock the audience in the theater couldn’t be confirmed.

Humor is the important thing in artsy self-mockery, and for that on ehad to visit the Nordic and Danish Pavilions, where a single hilarious exhibition curated and staged by artist duo Elmgreen and Dragset was presented.  With contributions from 24 international artists and artist groups they transformed the pavilions into domestic environments, some of which are apparently for sale.  One should not miss the tour conducted by Vigilante Real Estate whose motto, the agent tells us, is DIE: Discretion, Integrity and Efficiency.  Wandering through this rather Bergmanesque setting of crumbling stairs and Victorian vitrines, visitors are informed that the family is leaving due to a divorce.  Eventually the tour leads into a stark pavilion meant to be the home of the neighbour, a Mysterious Mr. B, whose body can be seen floating face down in an outdoor pool.  Visitors are free to lounge on modernist furniture, don headphones, listen to music and look at a framed collection of “an ex-lover’s swimwear.”

The current economic downturn was, at times, addressed directly, though differently from one country to the next.

The U.S. Pavilion, dedicated solely to four decades of Bruce Nauman’s work, was defiantly optimistic and the show titled “Topological Gardens” was more reminiscent of a boom rather then a bust.  Spread over three sites it displayed Nauman’s iconic neons, gorgeous hand sculptures and “three headed fountain”.  Most of the installations were a retrospective of this very blue-chip artist’s work, but he did present one new sound piece created for the Biennale in which voices echoing from seven pairs of speakers recite the days of the week in a sort of Gregorian chant while visitors make their way down the corridor of a former 15th century Gothic Palace.  It was simple and haunting, like so much of Nauman’s work.

Meanwhile, Japanese photographer and video artist Miwa Yanagi, of “Elevator Girls” fame, immersed herself in the darkness.  As billed, the Japanese Pavilion was swathed in black and all the works were in black and white. Titled Windswept Women:  The Old Girls’ Troupe, the show contained hauntingly beautiful works which dealt with the subjects of aging, beauty and female power through images that were lush, sexual and sometimes quite sad.

For some reason the Germans invited an English artist to build an installation of plywood cabinetry whose sole decorative feature if you could call it that was a stuffed cat sitting atop the edifice.  The Canadians, whose pavilion last time was a highlight. this year showed some seemingly pointless and boring video art.

But a visitor to the Biennale last time, and this time, could be forgiven for thinking the main characters are not always the artists. Francois Pinault, the French billionaire, for example. This year he once again placed himself front and center with the much trumpeted opening of his Punta Della Dogana at the Old Customs House in Venice.  The gossip surrounding the French tycoon’s efforts to further insert himself into the art scene by inaugurating a second major venue in Venice reached new heights this year even by art world standards. Everyone was happy to flock to the opening to drink the Bellinis and scarf down the canapés, but some were not so kind about the art.

Two who probably did not drink from the poisoned chalice and so were free to bite the hand that didn’t feed them were Chinese art critic and author Hou Hanru, the director of Exhibitions and Public Programs at the San Francisco Art Institute, and Rob Storr, the curator last time.

Mr. Hanru termed the collection “soulless” and a case of “just buying trophies.”

Mr. Storr, who was circumspect about everything else, pulled no punches either when it came to the subject of Mr. Pinault.  He noted that given that Pinault owned Christie’s and had both the “access and the funds to buy the best, it was surprising that in so many instances he didn’t seem to have the best examples of an artist’s work.”

Two years ago Kathy Fuld, Museum of Modern Art trustee and wife of then Lehman Brothers CEO Dick Fuld, hosted a glitzy A list dinner in honor of the artist Ellsworth Kelly.   This year the corporate end was held up by Deutsche Bank, whose low key but consistent support of the arts seemed more in keeping with the current mood.

At some of the parties one could feel the pinch of recession at others not at all.  The Prada party was a surprisingly dour affair in part because of an unexpected downpour but also due to a very unedgy and decidedly unPradaesque John Wesley retrospective. It was an interesting show, but one that would have better suited a more mainstream museum space.

By contrast, Eli and Edie Broad’s lunch in the antique garden of the Cipriani exuded optimism for the future and more specifically for LA MOCA.  The lunch held in honour of this recently beleaguered institution was fun and glamorous.  Naomi Campbell was there teetering on her stilettos with the requisite Russian oligarch in tow as was the ever mysterious and powerful art dealer Larry Gagosian.

There were parties at the Ukrainian Pavilion which was curated by an ex-boxer and in private Palazzos, and much networking was done in the lobby of The Danieli, where one could spy Yoko Ono sporting a jaunty red hat and her trademark black suit chatting with  son Sean Lennon-definitely an iconic moment!  The artist Jeff Koons was in Venice and it was reported that Jacques Chirac and Pinault were seen dining at Harry’s Bar.

There was at times a sort of class warfare feeling in the air-as in “we’re so glad to be rid of those hedge fund guys!”

But, in fact, little has changed here: the hedge funders have lost little more than their swagger in this world-not, in many cases, their yachts, with names like Kisses and Addiction, bobbing up and down in the tranquil water.

The 2009 Venice Biennale will be open to the public until November 22nd.
Debt in Venice