The Burlington Magazine, Sept 2003
50th International Biennale, Venice (extract)
Simon Wallis - Institute of Contemporary Arts, London
An Exhibition of Exhibitions' is how official press describes this year's 50th International Biennale in Venice, thereby unwittingly putting its finger on a major problem of the event. With some notable exceptions, many of the exhibitions gathered together in Venice are ill conceived, reflecting adversely on the works of art placed within them. These issues of context and content also marred some sections of the last Biennale when innumerable rooms of video work vied for the viewers ever-diminishing attention. Last year Documenta in Kassel suffered a similar overload and seems to have set a new level for the amount of art that can be shoehorned into any major international curatorial endeavour, as if sheer quantity provides a form of legitimacy.
Another problem facing this Biennale is accommodation of a high percentage of works that might once have been called social documentary, offering sometimes partial and partisan insights into various political problems. This largely archival mentality sits ill in such a huge international art event where attention spans are severely tested and prolonged engagement hard to achieve.
In order to reflect the complexities of contemporary art, the Biennale director, Francesco Bonami, has taken the highly unusual step of inviting eleven other international curators to contribute their own exhibitions to the Arsenale section of the exhibition. The most successful of these, entitled The Everyday Altered and curated by the Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco, has quiet and intimate aesthetic qualities, unconcerned with curatorial rhetoric and political posturing. Orozco's statement in the Biennale guide reads, " I admire the artists that work everyday to attest things for themselves. Artists that work not for the life spectacle, but for the spectacle of life", an admirable sentiment that allows this show to stand apart from much else in the Biennale. In The Everyday Altered, Damian Ortega's dismantled VW Beetle is suspended from the ceiling rafters by nylon threads to resemble a technical diagram in a car annual. The work shows reverence for the vehicle's design and engineering and an insatiable desire to know how one part connects with another. Fernando Ortega has wired up the electrical power supply to the gallery space so that it cuts out each time a fly is electrocuted in his fluorescent-lit fly killer. The sudden loss of light creates a suspended moment for an event one would otherwise barely register.
Another well-orchestrated show in the Arsenale, curated by Bonami, is Clandestine. Here, Dryden Goodwin's two screen video installation shot in Durham Cathedral features a double viewpoint: one from the top of the interior of one of the cathedral's towers, the other looking upwards from the floor. The camera rises and falls, lingering on the momentary expressions of awe flashing across the faces of visitors as they crane their heads heavenwards. The beautiful ceiling vault and the black and white floor tiles are used to great effect in the visual composition of the work. This architectural setting adds formal rigour to a highly emotive piece exploring the connections between aesthetic and religious experience.
Further on in this section of the Arsenale, the other outstanding contribution is by the young American painter Dana Shutz. She presents five expressive and weirdly off-kilter figurative paintings that have indecipherable and intriguing narratives rendered in garish but skilfully combined colours. Her handling of paint is impressively eclectic and has an assured swagger that is a much-needed antidote to the cautious, photo-derived painting on offer elsewhere in the Biennale.
The real gem in the Arsenale is a video by the Japanese artist Tadasu Takamine presented in a section entitled Zone of Urgency, curated by Hou Hanru. God Bless America is a time-lapse video partly about making a giant sculpted clay head lip-synch to the anthem of the work's title, while also being an autobiographical bohemian love-story unfolding during the sculpture's construction. For eighteen days in a row, Takamine and his female assistant spent twenty-four hours a day living and working with two tons of clay. They struggled with the gigantic head to make it assume a bewildering array of inventive characteristics while it appears to sing continuously a halting static-ridden rendition of the patriotic song. The film is speeded up to that the viewer sees brief snippets of the everyday activity of the artist and his fellow worker sleeping, reading, eating and having sex, interspersed with intense periods of work to animate and transform the clay sculpture. God Bless America is both intellectually captivating and extremely funny in its engagement with the creative process.