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A visual ‘Dictatorship’ along Venice’s canals

Special to The Times

The title of the 50th Venice Biennale, “Dreams and Conflicts: The Dictatorship of the Viewer,” might have a political ring that echoes through much of the exhibition. But Biennale director Francesco Bonami insists the title refers to the aspirations and difficulties involved in an exhibition such as this, and to his desire to empower the audience in interpreting the work. Hoping to further the viewers’ dictatorship by reducing his own, Bonami invited guest curators to organize seven sizable shows within the Biennale.

Those shows, along with one curated by Bonami, fill the Arsenale, a compound so large it once housed a ship assembly line. The Biennale also fills the Giardini, home to 31 pavilions, mostly dedicated to art from individual nations or multinational regions. Spread throughout Venice are 21 additional pavilions, 13 artists’ projects and a painting show. Though it’s regrettable that much of the Biennale isn’t worth crossing a canal to see, it also contains a handful of gems that would be worth crossing the ocean for -- even if they were the only things here.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Jun. 19, 2003 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 19, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Art review -- In a review of the Venice Biennale in Wednesday’s Calendar, artist Michelangelo Pistoletto was incorrectly referred to as an Arte Opera pioneer. He is an Arte Povera pioneer.

At one of the Arsenale shows, called “Utopia Station,” a synthesized atmosphere of recycled counterculture sentiment seems more like a bad trip while watching MTV than a contemporary channeling of the political spirit of May ’68 or the vibes of the summer of love. Amid a sea of leaflets and posters (some interesting ones, many not so) commenting on all things utopian and a string of half-baked larger projects, Yoko Ono offers viewers a little peace, allowing them the simple poignant pleasure of stamping the words “Imagine Peace” on walls covered with maps. Henrik Hankansson comes through with a soundtrack for a better tomorrow, distributed free on vinyl. The consistency that the best pavilions have in common would have benefited a number of others that, while promising -- even rewarding in some instances -- are spotty, disjointed and over- or underdone.

Painter Chris Ofili exhibits vibrant, visceral and ornate compositions in black, red and green, but you can barely see them under the tinted light and the black, red and green walls of the British Pavilion. Patricia Piccinini’s video, “Plasmid Region,” an arresting if slightly nauseating scape of cellular growth, and her sculpture of a sow-woman hybrid nursing her young could have carried the Australian Pavilion by themselves. Instead they wind up carrying the weaker tagalong works.

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And there’s no doubt that part of Fred Wilson’s project at the American Pavilion is about really making a mark. Presenting historical artifacts and snippets of verbiage on African figures in Italian culture, sendups of Moorish-themed Venetian decorative arts and custom-made mannequins inspired by African figures from paintings found in Venice, Wilson’s pavilion packs much of the punch of his other institutional and cultural investigations. But the punch is softened and the continuity broken by the inclusion of additional, tangential works in a presentation that could have run smoothly on less.

The displaced regions

Operating, in a way, as a default pavilion for regions that lack much representation among the pavilions are two shows in the Arsenale. The first, titled “Fault Lines: Contemporary African Art and Shifting Landscapes,” is an introduction to new work from the continent. Though spotty, it is energetic and focused on art, and finds strong highlights in Laylah Ali’s cartoonish and quasi-primitive gouaches depicting scenes of fear and conflict, and Moataz Nasr’s transfixing video meditation on the playing of the tabla drum. One of the most poetic images in the Biennale is here among Zarina Bhimji’s photos of a trashed Uganda: a view of a gutted meeting hall with seven white ceiling fans stripped from their mounts, resting on the floor like a cluster of crashed angels.

A show titled “Contemporary Arab Representations,” with its reading area and room of projected videos, is devoted to displacing reductionist views of Middle Eastern realities. But the tone is so forcedly educational that it undermines any thought-provoking potential.

Similar troubles befall two other shows in the Arsenale: “The Structure of Survival,” a consideration of art/design responses to poverty, density, need and oppression with a focus on Latin America; and “Zone of Urgency,” which aims to address the social, political and economic complexities of the Asia Pacific region. Both shows include engaging works: Helio Oiticica’s and Marepe’s sculptural meditations on architecture; Cildo Meireles’ jarring photo-based project addressing the aesthetics of violence; and Sora Kim’s and Gimhongsok’s rhetoric-spewing monument/beast cobbled together from fragments of heroic statues. But both feel like trade shows crossed with seminars, offering some good design, a lot of information and bits of spectacle but, in the end, not a lot of interesting art.

A show called “Individual Systems,” meanwhile, brings together artists who have adopted unique programs of activity. Some are quite interesting, like Marko Peljhan, who brought his portable Makrolab to an island in the Venice Lagoon and transmits gathered and intercepted information -- from weather conditions to what’s on TV -- to monitors in the Arsenale. But in too often valuing process over product, the show presents mostly works that seem like evidence of uninteresting obsessive tasks, or research findings of artists trapped in dull conceptual projects and couldn’t get out.

Also considering individual and unique perspectives but to a much more successful end, “Clandestine” is the Arsenale’s only show curated by Bonami, who wisely interprets his title broadly, focusing on artists who negotiate shifting boundaries, defy categorization and deliver the unexpected: in other words, interesting artists. Most of the show is pretty solid, especially the video work. Ghazel’s video fantasies about transcending the cultural limitations of Iranian womanhood are poignant and “I Love Lucy” funny, and Mircea Cantor’s documentary of a factory the artist commissioned to produce matches that light on both ends is proof that one-liners work when they’re good ones. Dryden Goodwin’s installation of floor- and ceiling-mounted video screens, which catches viewers between footage of churchgoers staring upward and abstracted images of a cathedral ceiling’s cosmic geometry, is almost enough to make you get religion.

Bonami takes the same focus on solid art and artists rather than a corseting theme into “Delays and Revolutions,” which he co-curated with Daniel Burnham for the large Italian Pavilion. It’s an eclectic, international, generation-spanning show of mostly rewarding works that is bound together mainly by a concern for the timing of experience and interpretation of art, and the ways in which ideas can fade in or come back around. The show includes a darkened room full of endless questions, from the absurd to the neurotic to the profound, projected on the walls as scrawls in light by artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss, who took the Golden Lion Award for an individual work of art.

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Maurizio Cattelan’s remote-controlled animatronic boy Charlie grows on you but also becomes a little menacing as he roams the Giardini grounds on his tricycle. Carmit Gil’s sleek minimalist sculpture is, in fact, an interpretation of a bus skeleton, and Ellen Gallagher derives punchy little abstractions from painting over the hairdos in ads for wigs targeting African American consumers. Matthew Barney’s ornate glass tables containing drawings that echo preoccupations of his past works, meanwhile, are so stunning and intimately gripping that you’re almost tempted to forgive Barney for the length of his three-hour film “Cremaster 3.” Carol Rama’s paintings incorporating dolls’ eyes and hypodermics, though decades old, still pull you in and put you off center, and 20 vintage Richard Prince photos of Marlboro cowboys, which initially seem an odd inclusion, have more of a kick now than back in their day."Clandestine” and “Delays and Revolutions” make you wish Bonami had curated more of the biennial, and he did, though his third show -- the Biennale’s only painting show -- is harder to find, tucked away in the Museo Correr, which brings one to another wish. While none of the Biennale exhibitions are going wanting for space, it would have been great had some growing room been afforded to what are the two most rewarding curated exhibitions. One of them is Bonami’s painting show. The other, located in the Arsenale, is called “The Everyday Altered.” The title says it all: Gabriel Orozco, an artist who made a fine contribution to Bonami and Birnbaum’s show, here acts as curator, bringing together artists who share some of his affinities.

Captivating and funny

Damian Ortega’s exploded view of a Volkswagen, made by suspending its components from wires, is the crowd pleaser of Orozco’s show. But there are no disappointments in this collection of pieces that derive captivating, often funny results from simple means. Bonami’s painting show includes interesting examples by the likes of Bridget Riley, Lucio Fontana, Kai Althoff, Lari Pittman, Marlene Dumas, Frank Auerbach, Chuck Close, Jenny Saville, Peter Doig and Vija Celmins, as well as an early Daniel Buren and a portrait of artists Gilbert & George that is one of Gerhard Richter’s most lovely paintings ever.

It’s a shame that a Biennale that squanders square footage on less-worthy shows and works didn’t use some of that Arsenale real estate to expand Bonami’s four-decade survey, and to give current painting a serious consideration the rest of the Biennale doesn’t provide. And it would have been terrific to let Orozco’s crowd spin a little more material magic, a fitting homage to the artists honored with lifetime awards at this Biennale: Rama, long an enthusiast of found objects and surrealist gestures, and Michelangelo Pistoletto, an Arte Opera pioneer.

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