Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 1, 2006
The 51st Venice Biennale: The Experience of Art (Giardini) and Always a Little Further (Arsenale)
Venice, Italy, June 12–November 6, 2005
Runa Islam. Be the First to See What you See As You See It. 2004. Video installation. La Biennale di Venezia. 51 International Art Exhibition. Photo: Giorgio Zucchiatti.

The themes of parent-child relationships, migration, and colonialism resonate throughout the exhibition spaces of the two-pronged Venice Biennale, as well as in the national pavilions. Curated by María de Corral, the Experience of Art at the Giardini and the Italian Pavilion joins forces with Always a Little Further, curated by Rosa Martínez at the Arsenale, to engage visitors in an overall exhibition that cuts across several countries and time periods. Despite the often incongruous juxtapositions, viewers can self-curate a selection of works, making the overwhelming Biennale a more manageable exhibition. What follows is this reviewer’s attempt at lending some coherence to the Biennale.

With its forty-two artists dispersed across thirty-four rooms, The Experience of Art provides a varied selection of works ranging from paintings by the American painter Agnes Martin (1912–2004) to a video installation by the British artist Tacita Dean (b. 1965). “Contemporary themes,” to quote Corral, abound in the exhibition; however, many of them are more general and perhaps of an older vintage than Corral might admit. For example, Stan Douglas’s (b. 1960) video installation Inconsolable Memories (2005)—a loose remake of Tomás Gutiérez Alea’s 1968 Memories of Underdevelopment—documents the experiences of those who stayed and those who left Cuba at the time of el Mariel (1980). Although the work might have been more compelling in Spanish than in the Cuban-accented English in which it was presented for the Biennial’s international audience, Corral’s placement of the work in the early part of her exhibition successfully sets the tone for a number of pieces that deal with politics. Tania Bruguera (b. 1968) explores the circuitous relationship between colonizers and colonized in a tunnel of brewed teabags dotted with teabag-sized video screens in Poetic Justice (2002–03). Less clear is Corral’s decision to show João Louro’s (b. 1963) Blind Image #47 (2003), principally concerned with Brigitte Bardot, in the same room as Poetic Justice. In a power relationship of another ilk, Candice Breitz’s (b. 1972) work about the ways in which Hollywood represents parenthood in Mother + Father (2005) is put to good use, forging a parallel between parental relationships and the global relations of producer and consumer that mimic them. In one room, six male actors in scenes from different movies lay their claims to why they are good parents, while in a parallel room six female actors do the same.

Despite the strength of many of the works in The Experience of Art, their display prohibits potential meanings. Furthermore, amid the many video installations, the sections of paintings, photographs, sculptures, and drawings seem out of place as if entirely overwhelmed by the spectacle of the projected image. Paintings by the likes of Francis Bacon (1909–62), Philip Guston (1913–80), Martin, and Antoni Tàpies (b. 1923) appear cloistered in their self-contained galleries, positioned one after the other. These mini-museums interrupt Corral’s “labyrinthine” path, severing the already tenuous connections between artists throughout the exhibition. The pauses, however, allow for lengthier contemplation of works by individual artists. Bernard Frize’s (b. 1954) paintings, for example, provide a refreshing rest in the otherwise frenzied pace and visual overaccumulation. More time in a room featuring works by Thomas Schütte (b. 1954) allows the viewer to free associate, perhaps even to connect his twenty-five nyloprints of Sophie with Henri Matisse’s production centered around Lydia Delectorskaya. The political themes in many of the other works disappear with Schütte, recipient of the Golden Lion award, but the return to the body that his work provides is substantial and gratifying enough that the lapse seems forgivable.

Whereas the majority of Corral’s artists are more established, Martínez chose younger and edgier participants. For Always a Little Further, Martínez uses the high ceilings, stone walls, and cavernous, dark spaces of the Arsenale to her advantage in displaying the exhibition’s forty-nine artists. In some instances, the distance between video installations proves distracting, but in most cases this does not detract too much from each video. Works by the Guerilla Girls and Joana Vasconcelos (b. 1971), with their pointed emphasis on the relationship of women artists to the history of artmaking, welcome the viewer in the first room. Statistics about the exclusion of women artists in the Biennale and across museums in Venice set the tone for what one might think will be an exhibition that will dwell on female artists. So much greater then is the surprise that only Regina José Galindo (b. 1974), recipient of the Golden Lion Young Artist prize, tackles women’s issues with ( . . . )golpes (2005), a sound recording of the artist undergoing over two hundred self-inflicted belt lashings, one for each woman killed in Guatemala during 2004, along with Piel (2001), ¿Quien Puede Borrar las Huellas? (2003), and Himenoplastia (2004), video recordings of the artist’s performances in Guatemala. Galindo’s visceral interventions demonstrate Martínez’s aim to shock her audience into questioning societal conventions.

Diango Hernández (b. 1970), for example, revisits Cuba’s relationship to the United States in Palabras (2005). Behind an installation of downed electric poles, the names of prime ministers of the former Soviet Union, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and numerous other countries appear as if in the credits of a film projected on the brick walls of the Arsenale. Palabras works well as a pendant to Douglas’s video at the Italian Pavilion, creating a specific link between the two exhibitions. Such geopolitical concerns figure frequently in the exhibition’s repeated investigation into the relationship of the United States with other nations. Emily Jacir (b. 1970) plays with the differences and similarities between grocery stores, restaurants, and travel agencies in Ramallah/New York (2004–5), where it proves difficult to differentiate between the two cities. Office equipment, products for sale, language (although the volume is quite low), calendars, and the presence or absence of credit card logos provide clues as to the exact location. Jennifer Allora (b. 1974) and Guillermo Calzadilla (b. 1972) use the island of Vieques in their video work Under Discussion (2005), where a man surreptitiously enters the territorial waters of the island located to the southeast of Puerto Rico aboard an overturned table rigged with a motor. The placement of Under Discussion across from the artists’ Hope Hippo (2005), made from mud dredged from the Venice canals, is incongruous, but at least the large sculpture is somewhat amusing and an incredible feat on the part of Allora and Calzadilla.

Hope Hippo is but one example of works that appear playful. Rivane Neuenschwander (b. 1967) [ . . . ] (2004) lets visitors to the Biennale use typewriters that have had their fonts altered, so that what results from the viewer’s typing are odd combinations of numbers and symbols. Participants can then post their typed papers up on the wall, where one sees that some people took the time to render the otherwise incomprehensible typed text into words by repeatedly typing a particular letter or set of letters into large text. In Quest (2005), the collective Blue Noses (founded in 1999) mockingly performs a multitude of sexual positions, all to the tune of chipper music broadcast from twelve television screens, each inserted face up in a cardboard box. Mariko Mori (b. 1967) probably meant Wave UFO as a more serious piece, but in Venice it turns into a game. Two attendants donning white clothing and white clogs instruct (and in some cases entertain during the hour-long wait) participants. They then wipe one’s forehead with astringent before applying three nodes all connected to a USB cable linked to a master computer within the futuristic vessel. Initially the colors produced are the individual participants’ brain waves followed by a video composed of the waves of the three people aboard the vessel. Whether successful or not, Mori’s Wave UFO definitely remains the most attention grabbing of the works at the Biennale.

But that is not to say that Mori’s is the only work that surrounds viewers. Carlos Garaicoa (b. 1967) does not demand as much interaction as Mori, but he envelops those who walk through De como la tierra se quiere parecer al cielo (2005). From a distance, the lights that dot the room resemble stars, but when examined more closely reveal themselves as projections of houses and buildings from across the globe. Martínez keeps these works close to one another and avoids making a jarring transition from one dark space to the next.

Rem Koolhaas (b. 1944) brings any enjoyment to a halt with his critique of the growth of museums. At this juncture in history, most Biennale visitors are well aware of the veritable explosion of museums across the globe, and so Koolhaas’s piece comes off as trite, especially when so many other things in the world (war, global warming, economic crises, etc.) have proven themselves to be engaging topics in the rest of the exhibition. In the Spanish Pavilion (Giardini), Antoni Muntadas’s (b. 1942) piece engages themes already treated in Always a Little Further and the Experience of Art. Similar to the Guerilla Girls’s strategy of focusing on those excluded from the exhibition, Muntadas provides a list of all the non-participating countries within a room designed to look like an airport waiting lounge. Globalization and the lines in front of landmarks and non-landmarks alike serve as Muntadas’s other subjects, but it is this prescient critique of the Biennale that proves the most effective.

Power relations, whether familial or political, dominate the Biennale. Miyako Ishiuchi’s (b. 1947) mother’s 2000-2005 – traces of the future (Japanese Pavilion, Giardini), with its photographs of objects belonging to the artist’s mother, encapsulates much of the mood at this year’s installment. The photographs of the delicate lacework of her mother’s nightgown, the careful rendering of her shoes, lipsticks, comb, and other quotidian objects link Ishiuchi to her mother. The accompanying text leads us to believe the two had a difficult relationship, but the photographs show Ishiuchi’s desire to archive her mother’s belongings and the memories that accompany them. The hair on the brush in one of the photographs has an effect similar to that produced by Bruguera’s tea bags. Despite treating different subjects, both artists can be said to dwell upon the past, its remains, and its reinterpretations.

Despite Martínez’s and Corral’s claims not to have inserted works to follow predetermined pathways, Always a Little Further and the Experience of Art—in combination with pieces in the national pavilions at the Giardini and those dispersed around the city of Venice—prod visitors to question, if at least minimally or distractedly, prior geopolitical circumstances that continue to resonate today.

Leslie J. Ureña
PhD candidate, Department of Art History, Northwestern University