Culture: I went to the Venice Biennale

And all I brought back was this lousy diary

12-6-03

I’m in town to cover the opening of the 50th International Art Exhibition, AKA the Venice Biennale, AKA the largest and longest-running art spectacle in the universe. Specifically, I’m here to cover the participation of the Czech Republic’s Kamera Skura and Slovakia’s Kunst-fu, two art collectives who have temporarily merged into one “art corporation” for a joint project in the “Czechoslovakia” pavilion. Superstart is a site-specific installation that may or may not be a satirical commentary on the sacredness of the art spectacle. A turnstile, similar to those found at the entrance of sports stadiums, has been installed at the entrance of the pavilion with a digital counter on the wall up above to track the number of visitors. I enter the pavilion and am confronted with a massive sculpture of Jesus Christ with arms outstretched crucifix-style, only he’s hanging not on a crucifix but from a pair of gymnastic rings from the ceiling, and is clothed in athletic garb. The skylight ceiling has been covered in black and filled with blue planets and stars to evoke a permanent nighttime, and on either side are video projections of a crowd of spectators at a sporting event. Every few minutes, a yellow light flashes on Jesus and the crowd cheers, enlivened by his stellar performance. But Jesus doesn’t actually move - he just hangs there as an emblem, a sarcastic shrine to the art-going public’s self-serious perception of art’s spiritual and material omnipotence.

Since founding in Ostrava in 1996, Kamera Skura has remained serious in their dedication to the anti-serious. In the words of curator Michal Koleček, most would characterize Kamera Skura’s collective activities as “ ‘non-art,’ ‘stupidity,’ ‘arrogance,’ or, in the best case, ‘a gag’...the individual members of Kamera Skura wouldn’t really be bothered by such evaluations, and perhaps they would even agree with it...”

Their artistic output has mainly been performance-oriented, such as a 1998 project in which they promoted themselves as a boy band, putting up posters around Prague and announcing an autograph session on a TV Nova morning broadcast. Other activities include 2001’s Trade Mark, in which they produced brand-name sports clothing at various events by using colored tape to form logos, and an exhibition called Grass at a museum in Košice in which they displayed joints 20cm long and 200cm wide. It could be said that the work of Kamera Skura reveals a deep commitment to the absurd - one that extends beyond humor and into the realm of pathos. Through both their agitation and their members’ insistence on anonymity, the Kamera Skura entity represents a fierce refusal to accept contemporary art’s status as an elite institution.

Kunst-fu is the project of Slovak artist Erik Binder, who works in a variety of mediums and shares many of Kamera Skura’s anarchic inclinations. Vladimír Beskid has used the terms “humor, irony, paradox, naiveté of expression and thoughtfulness” to describe Binder’s work. Kunst-fu is “an open platform for open people”; some of these open people have included DJ Čejka, artist Zbyněk Baladrán, photographer Petr Huba, student Erik Schille, and “specialist on the psychology of hens” Tomáš Agat Blonski. Binder also collaborates with his wife Gabriela Binderová under the name Kunst-fa. Together, they recently made a video called Sunday Army, documenting the traditional Sunday schnitzel cooking in a Slovak apartment building.

KS and KF are but two (actually, four) of the several hundred artists invited to participate in this year’s Biennale under the somewhat retarded theme of “Dreams and Conflicts: the Dictatorship of the Viewer.” In addition to the 64 national pavilions, the official Biennale program includes 11 large-scale group exhibitions, 50 small exhibitions, several outdoor installations, a daily lecture series, and an Asian guy flying kites. At the opening, there are numerous unofficial performances and happenings as well. Today I saw some naked dude with Styrofoam taped to him walking around like a robot. I also noticed a sign advertising an “artist/curator lifting competition; the winning pair will be invited to all the most prestigious parties!” And Iraqi artist Al Fadhil has been walking around in a t-shirt reading “I’m the Iraq Pavilion at the 50th Venice Biennale.”

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13-6-03

I arrive at the official opening for the Czech-Slovak pavilion to find the artists posing for photos in front of Jesus. The nice man behind the refreshments table outside pours me a glass of water, even though I’m five minutes early. The opening is a modest affair compared to, say, Denmark’s opening yesterday. The Czech Ambassador to Italy gives a short inaudible speech. The Slovak Minister of Culture praises the successful collaboration of Czech and Slovak artists, the magnanimity of their choice to remain anonymous, concluding with the somewhat startling pronouncement that “these artists are not extraordinary” (being merely representative of a burgeoning Czech-Slovak scene). True to form, the artists choose not to speak or be identified during the proceedings. Instead, they allow Koleček to speak on their behalf. He points out the irony of a representative art exhibition for a country that does not exist (the city of Venice has ceased building national pavilions, so, at least in Venice, Czechoslovakia will remain a country for eternity), concluding his short speech by quoting a joint statement from Kunst-fu and Kamera Skura: “We are willing to die a natural death for art.”

Afterwards, I talk to Koleček at length about the project, which came about as a result of collaboration on a smaller project between KS and KF last year at Prague’s Jelení Gallery. By the time the competition for the Biennale was announced in Prague, they had already conceived of this second, larger project, so they submitted it to the committee.

Binder wanders over with a glass of wine in his hand and a huge smile on his face. He’s a young-looking 29 with a neatly groomed mustache, decked out in jeans and a t-shirt with a baseball cap on his head. I ask him if he’ll collaborate on any more projects with KS in the future.

“Manana!” he proclaims. “Today is fiesta, tomorrow we work!”

Binder wanders off. I ask Koleček if he foresees another collaboration between the Superstart anti-artists. “For them,” he says, “I think there is no future.” Just as I’m starting to think he’s either a bit demented or making fun of my haircut, he qualifies this statement: “They have been doing nothing in the last six months but working on this. I think they will need to rest for a very long time before talking about another project.”

So will Praguers get to see Superstart at home? “We would like to show it in Prague, probably at Veletržní palác, and also the National Gallery in Slovakia, but most likely in a different form, since this is a site-specific installation. This will be up to the artists.”

I walk past the crowded official opening of the nearby US pavilion, where artist Fred Wilson is seated at a table next to some official looking G-men types, who are surrounded by a bunch of FBI agents. It’s about 8 times more crowded than the opening to the Czech pavilion; they actually need microphones. I happen to arrive in time for the Q&A. A young American journalist raises her hand and addresses Wilson. “I was, like, wondering, like, what your thoughts were on, like, globalization.” He stares at her quizzically before stating, “Actually, globalization has nothing to do with my installation.”

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I move on before it gets any worse, meditating on the fact that, now that artists seem to be largely moving away from the overtly political subject matter that has played a major role in so much of the art produced in the last 30 years, the general public’s comprehension of art is limited to a political platform. (At a press Q&A earlier today with Biennale director Francesco Bonami, the majority of the questions revolved around politics. Among the more idiotic ones posed, was “Why is there an Israeli Pavilion but none for Palestine?”)

Political art is, of course, the most disingenuous art; whenever art carries the burden of a message, its ambiguity - that which guarantees a multiplicity of meanings, a window into the unknowable - is lost, depriving the viewer of a transcendent aesthetic experience. Political art is most effective when its political content is discreet, not readily identifiable; yet the problem with this approach is it merely encourages the liberal mass to seek out political meaning in every work of art they encounter, often in vain.

The only viable solution to this problem is terrorism. Never before has looking at art been such an ordeal. The entire country is experiencing an awful heat wave, it’s 40-something degrees, and only one of the venues is air-conditioned, so that’s the one I head to. Pittura/Painting: From Rauschenberg to Murakami, 1964-2003 is one of the central exhibitions in this year’s Biennale, and is housed in the Museo Correr on the Piazza San Marco, where pigeons shit all over squealing tourists. At the last Biennale, the critics all complained about having to sit through room after room of boring video installations, leaving many of them nostalgic for the good ol’ days before “the death of painting.”

You can’t help but feel that this year’s Biennale, which features remarkably few video installations and a clear focus on painting, is largely a response to the critics. Pittura/Painting is also Bonami’s attempt to make the Biennale for more user-friendly and attractive to a general, non-specialized audience by offering them a concise idea of the evolution of the medium in recent years, up to the present day. The show opens with Robert Rauschenberg’s Kite, which won the coveted Golden Lion at the Biennale in 1964, making Rauschenberg the first American to ever win the award. The painting resonates with the passion and violence of Americana and undoubtedly makes a completely different impression on the viewer today than it did 39 years ago, shortly after Kennedy’s assassination. As for the more recent works on display, Jenny Saville’s Knead was a pleasant surprise: the face of a dying woman, blood tones mixed into the beiges and whites to evoke a sickly flesh color, with bleeding eyes, staring into nothing. Equally disturbing is Margherite Manzelli’s Nottem, a hyperrealistic portrait of a homely young girl in a transparent floral dress, seated with legs dangling off a yellowish cube, her huge eyes staring directly at the viewer with a pained expression.

By the time I arrive at Delays and Revolutions, the other major exhibition, the place is mobbed. Curated by Daniel Birnbaum and Bonami, this show aims to present a complete survey of contemporary art, and nearly all the big names are here. Matthew Barney is showing his first major piece since the completion of his celebrated Crememaster series, there’s a rare Andy Warhol film from 1965, a nude sculpture-in-progress by Charles Ray, a monumental 1989 piece by the reclusive Cady Noland and Damien Hirst’s epic of pharmaceutical meditation, Standing alone on the precipice overlooking the Arctic wastelands of pure terror. And it’s all quite exciting, the fleeting glimpses I’m allowed through the hordes of journalists and photographers.
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14-6-03

The bigger exhibitions are overwhelming, so I decide to stick to the more concentrated path of national pavilions and smaller exhibitions. For the Spanish Pavilion, Santiago Sierra has covered up SPAIN with plastic wrapping and built a concrete wall inside the entrance to the pavilion, effectively blocking the entrance. Only those with Spanish passports are allowed in through the back door. The wall could be read, along the lines of Superstart, as a huge fuck-you to the spectacular hype surrounding the Biennale, but the artist’s granting entrance only to his compatriots serves as a provocative commentary on the Biennale’s contradictory stance on national identity; on the one hand, the Biennale wishes to dissolve all differences, propagating an “all are equal” stance in its inclusion of international artists in its major group exhibitions, while simultaneously encouraging nationalistic chauvinism by granting an award for best national pavilion.

While competing in the arts is about the dumbest thing I can imagine, it seems evident that Olafur Eliasson’s experiential installation for the Denmark pavilion will probably win this year. He’s turned the entire pavilion into an extra-optical experience, The Blind Pavilion, which includes, among other things, a room illuminated by an orange light and a fountain inside a sort of tube with a flashing strobe light.

Among the smaller exhibitions, stand-outs include ReShape!, featuring Swedish artists and designers, and Italian Factory, representing the up-and-coming generation of Italian artists (mainly painters). At the end of the day, I try to get into the Awards Ceremony. I’m informed that only the famous and those with a lot of money will be permitted to enter. I head back to the sweatbox that is the press office to check my e-mail when I am handed a press release announcing this year’s winners: Lifetime achievement awards have been given to two elderly Italian artists no one’s ever heard of, the Golden Lion was given to the incredibly boring collaborative efforts of Peter Fischli and David Weiss, and Luxembourg won the National Pavilion. Obviously, this year’s judges intended to shock the public with the mediocrity of their decisions. This only reiterates the inherent absurdity and pointlessness of granting “best of” awards at a time when public indifference to art is at an all-time high. Evolution is a painfully slow process, I remind myself as I leave the press office for the final time. Anyway, as Kamera Skura and Kunst-fu have proved, Christ wins every time.

I find an osteria and treat myself to a sit-down meal of lasagna and beer. It’s all been great fun, but I’m glad it’s over. The Venice Biennale runs through November. Know before you go: check www.labiennale.org.

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