Venice's Biennale: A cultural city-state
59 nations show off contemporary art at biennial exposition
June 4, 1999
By Porter Anderson
(CNN) -- As surely as pasta comes with your entree, drama comes with everything in Venice. And in a curious way, that may be why this north-Adriatic Italian city seems the perfect spot for the world's premier art exposition.
There's the architecture and the colors, of course, rose and peach and terra cotta. Being built on more than 100 islands in a lagoon all those centuries ago doesn't hurt, either. Fascinating.
But the Venetian drama runs deeper. Any place singular enough to have developed its own form of government -- with a headstrong doge at the helm, no less -- has a special edge as the site of a recurring exhibition of personality. And that's what La Biennale di Venezia really is: A summit of state-sanctioned individualism.
Countries show off their artists' creativity in Venice, much as they might show off their athletes at another big get-together. The Biennale just has more color. And fewer allegations of bribery.
Let the games begin
The 48th doing of the Biennale (say "BEE-ehn-ahl") is scheduled to be inaugurated on June 12. Its offerings are there for you to see through November 7. Fifty-nine nations are set to parade their artists' work.
Thirty of those countries have permanent pavilions in the Giardini di Castello. So does the Serene Republic of Venice, itself. That's one of the perks of being a host town with bitter memories of the glory days of city-statehood. It all went to hell in 1797. What made it worse was that Napoleon was French.
Never mind, throw the past into the Grand Canal along with everything else being tossed in there. The Biennale is the be-all and end-all of world art exhibitions. Many countries that don't have permanent pavilions want them. Many more artists who haven't exhibited at the Biennale want to. And even more art lovers who don't have their flight tickets and pensione reservations for the last Biennale of the 20th century now are kicking themselves.
Don't worry about Biennale president Paolo Baratta and other organizers talking "renewal." That sort of pronouncement is a historical hazard when you run a city that's been around since the year 697. You tend to fear the world will think you're a done deal, as if Visconti's 1971 film of Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice" said it all -- been there, chased that.
What Venetians don't realize, lucky water-bound souls that they are, is that the rest of us will always look for a reason to come back and visit them. And not for anything new. The last thing we want is "renewal" happening in a place prized because it's old.
Rest assured, what the Biennale's Baratta is talking about is expansion of the best kind. In order to "breathe new life into the new Biennale," as Baratta puts it, the program has developed more sites for exhibitions.
There's almost twice as much space this year as in the past at the Arsenale. Some 4,000 square meters (4,800 square yards) have been added to the 6,000 (7,200 square yards) previously used at the old rope-making area of the city's Arsenale, the Corderie. It was built in 1303 and reconstructed in the late 16th century. See? Nothing to worry about on the "new" front. And one area being opened for this Biennale is the covered shipyard, the old Gaggiandre, designed by architect Jacopo Sansovino and built between 1568 and 1573. Think of Antonio Canaletto's paintings of old Venetian splendor. This kind of "renewal" we can live with.
There's a little traveling to be done from the Giardini to the Arsenale, true. But it's by vaporetto, a water bus -- take your Dramamine and enjoy. The Biennale has set up a shuttle for you, with an approdo acqueo, or dock, near each of the two major sites. Art being the very human thing that it is, and that means fallible, you'll find a few of those shuttle trips more fun that what you see when you get there.
Not to worry. Anchovies might not be your fave, either. At the Biennale, there's always something else to see, to hear, to try, to talk about or refuse to discuss -- right around the next corner.
At the U.S. pavilion: Ann Hamilton's water works
United States artist Ann Hamilton is known for what sometimes are called "site-specific" artworks. Those are works developed specifically for the places in which they'll be seen. Earlier this year, for example, her "whitecloth" at the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art in Ridgefield, Connecticut, used architectural features of a 1783 building to inspire various treatments of the exhibition space.
In Venice, Hamilton has made the U.S. Pavilion in the Giardini, "both object and subject," of her work, titled "Myein."
"I want to engage the references of it as both a civic and public building," she says during a break in the set-up in Venice, "and blur the edges of it; distort its image; call into question its structure, its meaning."
The pavilion has a Jeffersonian air to it. Designed in 1929, it has a domed rotunda, a central courtyard, and flanking galleries. It's neo-classic in the traditional-Americana mode crystallized by Thomas Jefferson's Monticello. Smaller in scale, it's a little structural ambassador in Venice, if you will, for beloved U.S. concepts of democracy and social order.
"I thought an interesting thing," Hamilton says, "was to see it as an American icon in this Italian setting."
To "call into question" that icon's "structure, it's meaning," Hamilton has erected a 90-foot-long (27-meter-long), 18-foot-tall (5.4-meter-tall) wall of wavy glass, called "water glass," in front of the pavilion. "The central entrance normally used in the courtyard is liquified by the surface of the glass," she says. "Just to come into the courtyard, you have to walk around." And once inside, when you look back -- the Giardini will have gone all woozy on you, too.
Hearing voices: Audio subtext in Hamilton's installation
Once you're inside the pavilion, listen up. That's a recording of Hamilton whispering parts of Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address: "With ... malice .. toward ... none; ... with ... charity ... for ... all ... ." Don't listen for words. She's speaking it in an international code.
"We're installing in the corners of the rooms, a speaker, with the recording of me reading it -- it moves as sound like an air current."
Then there's a red powder "that we're installing, through a system built into the walls of the four adjacent galleries," she says. "It'll slowly sift down the walls, this powder, catching the air, smoke-like. As it courses down the walls, it leaves a pattern on raised dots in the surface, a kind of Braille that catches the powder -- if it works."
The artist is at that wry stage of gallows humor you reach after weeks of preparation and installation work on a piece of this magnitude. Hamilton has a team of 18 that comprises people she calls "preparatives from MIT," as well as engineers in New York, an architecture student, contractors, an assistant and others.
A 43-year-old native of Lima, Ohio, Hamilton's probably best known for her installations at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. She's a 1993 recipient of a coveted MacArthur Award and of grants from private foundations including the Guggenheim and the Tiffany, and from such public-funding sources as the beleaguered National Endowment for the Arts. At Biennale, Gucci is providing Hamilton with a corporate sponsorship. It's the first fashion house to support the U.S. Pavilion.
Nevertheless, for all the support and acclaim and a solid track record, each installation is a big question mark until you see it work. "We still have a way to go," Hamilton says, noting that a truckload of materials has just pulled away from the pavilion. "We're inserting a system including some complex lighting into the building. We have to fit these motors and lines and air systems into the actual conditions here. We've even taken out the suspended false ceilings in the building to reveal skylights."
Just talking about it seems to remind Ann Hamilton of how much can go wrong in trying to put such a complex assembly of modernity into so aging a building as the U.S. pavilion. The healthy worry that drives most artists back to work has crept into her voice. Is it all coming together the way she envisioned it?
Pictures at an exhibition: Enigmatic photos from Jorge Molder
A far less ambitious installing job is being made by Portugal at the baroque 17th-century Palazzo Vendramin dei Carmini in Venice's Dorsoduro district -- but the art at hand has no less personal investment than Hamilton's. Lisbon would like to join Washington in having its own permanent pavilion at the Biennale. Portugal even has an architect, Alvaro Siza, chosen to do the deed if and when things are arranged.
For now, what's going into place is, happily, less involved to set up.
The installation, you might say, has already gone on -- in artist Jorge Molder's head.
Molder (he pronounces his first name "George") specializes in self-photography. That means that if Ann Hamilton's subject and object are her pavilion, Molder's subject and object are himself.
"The name of the work, 'nox' is Latin for 'night,'" he says. "I deal with qualities of oneself, the quality of the world around us, the idea of a second kind of world within myself. Mine is a work of art, finally, dealing with myself -- as art."
The result has a film-noir look to it. In 36 black-and-white still photographs, you see Molder capturing in his own face and posture the unease he feels in the world, things he's been thinking about, he says, "for seven or eight years."
This series of photos deals with fading, fainting, falling. In a preparatory collection of photographs -- made in color -- Molder says he was dealing with "disappearing. The things that disappear around you, things that fall away, vanish around oneself. The state of sleep -- you wake up well or in bad shape: You see the world totally different."
Molder, 52, is a curator of other artists' work, himself, in Lisbon, at the Centro de Arte Moderna. And indeed he's represented in Portugal, perhaps most auspiciously, at the renowned Gulbenkian Foundation, as he is at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Artotheque de Grenoble in Switzerland and Rio's Museu de Arte Moderna.
He's influenced, he says, by the work of pioneering Vienna-born film director Fritz Lang ("Metropolis," 1926-'27 and "M," 1931). And having begun looking into the lens in 1987 with a series he aptly called "Autoretratos," or "Self-Portraits," he now has brought the technique up to a level in which he considers himself a kind of actor.
"I've never acted on stage," he says. "I could never face the public as an actor on a stage. I'm too shy. But I act for myself."
And so it's Molder's unique performance -- of a role only he knows in a medium only he produces -- that Biennale visitors will see in Venice this summer.
As different as his work may be from Hamilton's installation over at the U.S. pavilion, Molder finds the connection between them, in a way, by voicing his own insecurity, as she did. This guy's on both sides of the camera at once. Not easy.
"I'm dealing with doubt," Jorge Molder says, and returns to his preparations for the exhibition.
Close call: Australia squeezes in a swipe at suburbia
The Australians were among the last granted a permanent pavilion space in the Giardini, in 1988. And when architect Philip Cox had the thing designed and prefabricated, it was rushed to Venice and assembled just 11 days before the 1988 Biennale opened.
That home-away-from-home for Australian aesthetic expression, especially with its history of a "prefab" creation, now becomes an ironic home to a canny statement about Australian aesthetics. Artist Howard Arkley's "The Home Show" is named for the popular suburban house-design exhibitions that capture the fancy of many of the artist's fellow citizens.
In fact, as with Hamilton and Molder's entries, there's a two-way comment here. Not only is the work at hand about a middle-class aspect of Aussie lifestyle, but also about the Biennale's collection of pavilions in the Giardini: Arkley has created an artificial suburb of idealized culture.
Look at the bright, cheery, heavily patterned colors used by Arkley to capture the fabrics and furnishings used to attract Australian homeowners. As you study Arkley's interpretations of them, you start to realize that the pop-brightness of these colors, almost cartoon-like, is taking the images out of the realm of reality and into a special little "home" of riotous, bourgeois excess.
Like electronic musicians whose work often involves "sampling" sounds that are manipulated and embellished, Arkley uses a kind of sampling in his work. Swatches of fabrics and color, for example, are juxtaposed to each other in jarring, perspective-fighting ways.
Timothy Morrell, curator for the Australian entry in the 1999 Biennale, writes, "The photographs on which he bases his suburban interiors and exteriors are usually cut from the slightly crudely reproduced and luridly colored glossy brochures inserted into newspapers. These publications are a real fact of life, but what they depict is not quite real. Instead they represent a kind of suburban Platonic ideal, created for the camera. An alien quality already exists in them, and Arkley systematically develops it."
And so it is that the insecurities Arkley brings to Venice are those of whole cultures. The Australians aren't alone in this fixation on the decor and comfort of the suburban life. Americans and many Europeans, for example, consider these to be key criteria in "standard of living" issues.
"Howard Arkley's works are based on a visual language of popular culture that is almost universal in Western and Westernized countries," Morrell sums it up.
Just think, then, how many visitors to the Biennale -- from no matter how far away -- might find themselves confronted with Arkley's work at the Australian pavilion and feel, uncomfortably, right at home.
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