[Editor's note: Two years ago I wrote a wrap-up of the Venice Biennale for Rupert Murdock's iPad only publication, The Daily. The site folded about a year later, and is now off line, so I'm republishing the review as a refresher for those going into the show. We'll publish our preview shortly.]
If the Venice Biennale were a race, no one would finish. There’s too much art to see, which means people look at what’s talked about and make empty promises to return in the summer (the exhibition is up through November 27th).
But how effective a viewing strategy is following the buzz? Better than one would think. The national pavilions with long lines tended to house some of the stronger work including some clear standouts in Austria’s Markus Schinwald, Switzerland’s Thomas Hirschhorn, Japan’s Tabaimo, and Israel’s Sigalit Landau. Still, as a viewing plan, the method isn’t exactly foolproof. The huge lines outside Mike Nelson’s installation in the British Pavilion were because organizers only let roughly 50 people an hour walk through, not because it was any good. Nelson’s work—for which he gutted the building’s insides, remaking it in the shape of an abandoned workshop in Istanbul—required a lot of technical skill, but didn’t have much creative life.
Time-based media also tended to create queues, though these were often the better works. People rightly lined up to see Tabaimo’s “Teleco-soup”, a hand-drawn black and white animation based on a Japanese proverb. The conceit is a little lightweight—Tabaimo believes her isolated life in the mountains and life as an artist mirrors the proverb “a frog in a well cannot conceive of the ocean, but it knows the height of the sky”—so the attraction here is necessarily visual. Fast-moving clouds hang over an undefined landscape, while leaves that look like feathers fall over a village on the water. The piece is projected over sloping walls, mirrors, and even a well, each designed to reiterate its movement and form.
Nearly everyone at the Biennale had an opinion about Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla’s “GLORIA”, another pavilion with giant lines. Gripes about the “ugly American-ness” of its tank-mounted treadmill and ATM-controlled church organ were a constant refrain, from which the only escape was the tremendous racket they created around the pavilion itself. Despite the inevitable buzz, the tank and organ weren’t even the best works in their own pavilion—that honor goes to a series of gymnast routines on airline seats, performed roughly every fifteen minutes, and that used Olympic athletes as both appendage and counterpoint to the sculptural qualities of business class. The best moments came when the choreography mimicked the form of the seat itself—there’s a simple enjoyment of the human body here that escapes the heavy-handed political worries of other works at the pavilion.
After all the tank-related hoo-hah, the announcement of the Golden Lion winners came as a relief. Germany’s Christoph Schlingensief won Best National Participation, a surprise depending on whom you talked to, as Schlingensief was much more steeped in the world of theatre than visual art. An homage to the recently deceased director (he died last year of cancer at the age of 49), curator Susanne Gaensheimer had the stage of “Fluxus oratorio, A Church of Fear vs The Alien within” remade, complete with a church alter and a rose window picturing an anus. Gaensheimer has performed essentially the same function here as the British Pavilion’s Mike Nelson, though here the history is vastly more important. It’s also completely disorienting to a viewer without any German; a voice orating over the loudspeaker never speaks in English, and Schlingensief’s political activism—in the mid-nineties he formed his own party in which anyone could run as a candidate—would be unfamiliar to anyone living outside the country.
On the other end of the surprise (and political) spectrum, Christian Marclay shocked no one this year, winning Best Artist for his much-lauded piece “The Clock”. Synced to real time, the artist used thousands of film clips to create a to-the-minute time count. At five, for example, desert scenes pervade and cowboys check their watches. By six, people are starting to worry about when Dad will get home for dinner. Themes arise and disappear like tides, and the enjoyment of trying to catalog them in time is coupled with glimmers of recognition—every movie you’ve ever seen, from “Adventures in Babysitting” to “The 400 Blows”, is mixed in there somewhere. It’s fantastic.
The same cannot be said of the much-talked-about London-based artist Haroon Mirza whose piece, “The National Apavilion of Then & Now”, captured the Silver Lion for Promising Young Artist. In one bare-bones installation, Mirza placed speakers on the ground and on pedestals, throwing out a throbbing, buzzing sound that grew and transformed as it reflected off its environment. A small bit of gold set atop the speaker, for example, both vibrates with each throb and creates a throb with each vibration: sound begets more sound. Meanwhile, a companion piece in the Arsenale consisted of a humming neon light in a darkened sound room that seemed to react to the viewer entering or leaving. No connection between the two pieces is evident without reading a press release, which describes Mirza’s interest in melding sound and aesthetics. It’s a fine idea; it would be even better if executed.
And yet, several people spoke of Mirza’s work in the Biennale positively to The Daily, including New York Times critic Roberta Smith. Clearly there’s some pre-existing buzz at work here, which only goes to prove what is made plain by any art event: following the hype, as opposed to one’s own good sense, is certain to yield mixed results.