Like this city itself, the gigantic international exhibition of contemporary art known as the Venice Biennale is an enduring public spectacle. No matter how much the show and its host adapt to the temper of the times, they retain their unique identities.
Never mind the constant ringing of cell phones and one-way conversations heard on the city's streets, the $500-a-night hotel rooms and the Madison Avenue-style boutiques, all of which make Venice seem so up-to-date. The 1,300-year-old city is essentially a historic artwork composed of astonishing centers of interest--San Marco, the Doge's Palace, the Palazzo Grassi and the Accademia, to name a few--connected by an improbable network of canals and bridges.
The Biennale is only 104 years old, but it's also a venerable institution. The mother of all international contemporary art extravaganzas periodically staged in other cities, the Venice exhibition has suffered a couple of wartime interruptions. But it soldiers on as a prestigious showcase for what's new, hip, politically correct or in favor with the powers that be. While adjusting its form and completely changing its content every two years, the multifaceted show is nonetheless a resilient artistic creation that infuses the city with an unruly sampling of social commentary, political criticism, poetic musing, naval gazing and aesthetic expression by artists from all over the world.
This year's Biennale, the 48th, runs through Nov. 9 and offers a daunting list of attractions for art lovers equipped with sensible shoes, a good map and a penchant for treasure hunts. Most of the 44 national pavilions--including Ann Hamilton's mystical installation of cascading pink powder and whispered sound at the U.S. building--are clustered at the Giardini Pubblica, as usual. But several nations that haven't constructed permanent facilities in the garden have taken over sections of old buildings at various other locations. In a second-floor space near the Piazza San Marco, Taiwan has installed Buh-Ching Hwang's murals composed of spices and herbs, Chieh-Jen Chen's large black-and-white photographs of nudes fleeing disasters and Tung-Lu Hung's flashy light-box imagesof sexy dolls. Photographer Jorge Molder is representing Portugal in the upper reaches of a palace in the Dorsoduro district.
Not far from the Giardini, a massive exhibition of extraordinarily large and ambitious works by 103 artists from 22 countries--including a strong contingent from Los Angeles--fills the cubicles, niches, crumbling rooms and vast corridors of an old naval and industrial complex known as the Arsenale. Expanding the relatively recent custom of providing a forum for cutting-edge work that does not bear the stamp of government approval, Swiss curator Harald Szeemann has assembled a huge compendium and changed its name from "Aperto" or "Open" to "d'Apertutto" or "Open to All." This year the show occupies not only the Italian pavilion and the Corderie, a former rope factory that has been used in the past, but also two additional buildings, a covered shipyard and a dock area in the Arsenale.
As if that weren't enough to satisfy the art crowd, some two dozen exhibitions, installations and performances of works by other artists are scattered around town and on nearby islands. And finding their work can require a bit of sleuthing and travel time. A collaborative project called "Dreams" turns out to be a little paperback book of writings by artists, handed out at the Giardini, while "The Last Judgment" is a massive, 25-part sculptural environment by British artist Anthony Caro, installed on the island of Giudecca. Disembarking at Zitelle and making their way to a former granary on the island, visitors find that Caro, who is known for pure abstractions, has reacted to the horrors of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo with a powerful installation of ceramic, wood and steel constructions that evoke broken people and symbolize entrances to heaven and hell.
Still other works pop up unexpectedly, surprising visitors who are headed for the Biennale's primary venues or simply taking a pizza break in an outdoor restaurant. Printed sheets of artists' poetry, containing verses such as "If this wall were not here a bull could stand here peacefully" by Maria de Alvear, are posted on boats that ply the Grand Canal. My personal favorite of the rogue artworks, Slovenian artist Matej Andraz Vogrincic's whimsical "Dressed-Up House," is a two-story building covered with old clothes, which sits in the middle of the Campo Santa Margherita. You can't miss it in the heavily trafficked public square, yet it's so improbable, you're not entirely sure it's really there.
Once visitors arrive at the traditional heart of the Biennale--the national pavilions at the Giardini--they find everything from Slovakia's makeshift tattoo parlor to strikingly complicated, well-crafted works designed for specific buildings. Representing France, with painter Jean-Pierre Bertrand, Huang Yong Ping has "planted" towering trees in the French pavilion's central room, positioning barkless logs so that they seem to pierce a skylight as they project into the sky, and sprout metal topknots in the shape of animals.
Among other wonders, "Simultaneous," one of Roman Singer's pieces in the Swiss pavilion, was created by suspending 117 iron balls to a grid of ceiling light fixtures, directly above 117 blocks of wet clay. A charge of electricity simultaneously burned the cords holding the balls, causing them to fall on the clay blocks, which have subsequently dried and curled around the metal.
Hamilton's work, "Myein"--referring to a Greek term for an abnormal contraction of the pupil of the eye, as well as the root of the English word "mystery"--incorporates Braille text of poems by Charles Reznikoff (from "Testimony: The United States 1885-1915 Recitative") and a soft voice reciting Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address in phonetic code, letter by letter. At a press conference, Hamilton likened the work to "a series of landscapes" or "a series of veils" but also said the piece is "ultimately about air."
To the horror of those who are sensitive to the nuances of Hamilton's intensely private, labor-intensive work, some visitors simply can't stop themselves from writing in the bright pink powder that mysteriously drifts from the top of white walls down to the floor, forming small tufts of pink on Braille verses on walls and piling up around baseboards. It's a bit disconcerting to come across "I love Harry" scrawled on the floor of an installation that seems to be designed as an ethereal, untouchable and unknowable experience, but, hey, this is the Biennale.
Varied as the national presentations are, the pavilions offer something for almost every taste--gloomy photographs of a men's bathhouse by Polish artist Katarzyna Kozyra, vividly colored paintings of middle-class domestic interiors by Australian artist Howard Arkley, a seductive, mist-filled environment by Belgians Michel Francois and Ann Veronica Janssen--but there's relatively little to excite the hard-core art crowd.
Most of the critical buzz of this year's Biennale emanates from the Arsenale, where compelling video installations by Los Angeles artist Doug Aitken and Shirin Neshat, an Iranian artist based in New York, and a politically charged assembly of 50 life-size clay figures by Cai Guo-Qiang, a Chinese artist who lives in New York, captured the exhibition's top honors.
Aitken's work, "Electric Earth," is projected on walls of three rooms, surrounding viewers with images and sounds of the bored frustration and desperately frenetic activity of a young black man in a poverty-stricken urban environment. Neshat, known for using film to denounce discrimination against Muslim women, captivates visitors with the hauntingly beautiful sound of a female singer in her piece, "Turbulent." Cai's "Venice's Rent Collection Courtyard" is a work-in-progress that will continue to evolve during the Biennale as the artist and his assistants rework his familiar theme of Chinese forced labor.
Exploring the Arsenale buildings and grounds is almost as alluring as looking at the art, but many of the artists have risen to the challenge of creating works for the enormous spaces and architectural remnants of the industrial complex. Chinese artist Chen Zhen has built an enormous circle of drums by stretching leather over chairs, tables and beds, lashed together and suspended from a wood framework. Buddhist monks periodically appear and play the drums; otherwise, visitors take out their aggressions and express their musical longings by banging away on the peculiar instruments. Dreadful as this description may sound, being there and hearing the drums is a mesmerizing experience.
Elsewhere in the Arsenale, in video works by Spanish artist Antoni Abad, visitors find themselves walking amid a crowd of projected photographic images of people and under an image of a nude who appears to be walking a tightrope near the ceiling. Los Angeles-based artist Chris Burden has constructed a series of bridges from wood and a giant erector set, while Tim Hawkinson, also from L.A., has constructed a huge tree-like form, in which sporadically moving parts of life-size figures cause unseen objects to clatter through the hollow "branches."
Looking for thematic strains of continuity amid all this variety, the most obvious contenders are political polemics--most frequently seen in the Chinese work--commentary on social issues and "special effects," as artist Mike Glier put it in a conversation about the show. Given the prevalence of video and multimedia installations, not to mention the attention captured by Hamilton's drifting pink powder and the mist-filled Belgian pavilion, occasional appearances of plain old painting and sculpture seem to be aberrations.
But there's another interesting subtext to this year's Biennale: the increasing presence and rising importance of sound in contemporary art. Over and over, visitors find that works traditionally lumped together as "visual art" have acquired an audio component. On the subtle side, consider the whispered text in Hamilton's work and occasional bursts of a recorded child's voice in the Belgian pavilion. In sharp contrast, there's so much noise in the Danish pavilion--where L.A. artist Jason Rhoades has collaborated with Peter Bonde, a Dane, to produce an installation based on stock-car racing at Willow Springs--that earplugs are dispensed at the entrance. Between those extremes of decibel level, sound is essential to works ranging from Aitken's and Neshat's videos to Hawkinson's kinetic sculpture and Cai's drums.
San Francisco artist Bill Fontana makes the point most cogently in "Acoustical Visions of Venice," a piece that is nothing but sound. It's a live audio collage of sounds picked up by microphones at 12 historical and cultural sites in Venice and simultaneously broadcast on the Punta della Dogana, the point of the Santo Stefano district.
Apart from the activity along the Grand Canal and in major squares, Venice is a place of profound tranquillity, blissfully free of traffic. But listening to Fontana's work while walking along the point and looking across the Grand Canal to the heart of Venice, visitors are surrounded with sounds that effectively unify the city with the huge art show that comes to town every two years. There's nothing to see, in the usual artwork sense, but Fontana's work may be the best metaphor for the 48th Venice Biennale.