Fueled by politics

Times Staff Writer

It has been years (who knows how many) since the Venice Biennale has mattered much as an international art exhibition. Born as an aesthetic world’s fair in 1895, the dowager has struggled to find purpose as the world grows ever smaller.

This time it has found its footing. The current installment, which opened June 12 for a five-month run, is the most thoughtful and, in several instances, bracing Biennale in ages. Visitors in search of a synthesis of trends, an inventory of stars! stars! stars! or even a comprehensive overview of today’s hugely cosmopolitan international art scene will be disappointed. And the presentation, which includes a sizable share of formulaic art that is frankly derivative of more compelling work by familiar predecessors -- call it academic -- is by no means flawless.

But it does have something more important: pithy relevance.

Maria de Corral and Rosa Martinez, the Spanish curators invited to direct the 51st Biennale, made two smart decisions. First, they slashed the number of artists in the two special exhibitions to 91 -- far more manageable than the several hundred that bloated many former shows. Second, they chose an open-ended but crucial theme -- one that resonates because it is so broadly contested in daily life today.


That theme is liberty.

Less stated as an ideological scheme than simply embedded in their choice of particular artists, freedom comes in two forms here. In the sprawling rooms of the Arsenale, the city’s ancient and abandoned shipbuilding factory, Martinez focuses on personal politics. In the smaller, tighter venue of the host pavilion maintained by Italy, Corral puts public politics in the foreground.

Each show begins with a knockout installation ranking among the Biennales’ best.

Across the entire facade of the Italian pavilion, American artist Barbara Kruger has installed a digitally printed vinyl mural that she wryly calls a tattoo. Aside from the familiar meaning, tattoo has another, older connotation. It is a signal sounded to summon soldiers or sailors to their quarters at night.

The militaristic edge is apt. Kruger divided the building facade into three parts -- green at the left, red at the right, white in between. It mimics the Italian flag. The background is a tangle of lines, suggestive of the dynamism of a Jackson Pollock painting and a snarl of coaxial computer cable. From this abstract muddle of crossed wires comes the mural’s blunt declarations, spelled out in blaring English and Italian.

The words “money” and “power” climb the portico’s columns, which symbolically support the structure. The left wall says, “Pretend things are going as planned,” while “God is on my side; he told me so” fills the right.

The center features a boisterous litany: “Admit nothing, blame everyone. You make history when you do business. No questions. No doubt. Go it alone.”

Kruger’s tattoo makes no mention of the Iraq war, the Bush administration, Christian or Islamic fundamentalism, Osama bin Laden or any other topical subject; yet the blunt allusion to these and more is inescapable. What makes the inference so devastating is its context.

The pavilion facade was rebuilt in 1932 in the architectural style of “stripped classicism” favored by Mussolini. Italian fascism represented the calamitous takeover of the state by corporate interests, a modern fusion of money and power that the artist brings up to date. Kruger’s politically incisive graphic art has considered the nature of authority for more than 20 years, and she pulls no punches here.

Nor do the curators -- who, as Spaniards, know a thing or two about the brutalities of life under a fascist state. On the strength of this remarkable work they chose Kruger as the recipient of the Golden Lion Award for Lifetime Achievement. Their pick pokes a stick in the eye of the United States, whose standing in the world surveyed by the Biennale is at rock-bottom; but it also applauds an individual voice of dissent, which is a historic centerpiece of American patriotism.

At the Arsenale, Martinez opens her exhibition with a double-whammy. The surrounding walls of the entrance gallery sport colorful vinyl banners by the Guerrilla Girls, the anonymous artists collective that uses billboard and other advertising techniques to chronicle sexism in the worlds of art and popular culture. Here, with the raucous help of busty images of Pamela Anderson and Halle Berry they take on everything from the museums of Venice, with their dearth of art by women, to Hollywood, which the Girls say has given 92.8% of its Academy Awards for writing to men.

An enormous, phallic chandelier dominates the room. A closer look shows that young Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos assembled this commanding yet visually delicate source of aesthetic illumination -- wickedly titled “The Bride” -- from thousands of store-bought tampons, rather than pendants of cut crystal. The phallus, drooping rather than erect, is slyly constructed as an object of decorative brilliance and sensual delight. Vasconcelos, an artist who is new to me, effectively turns the tables on centuries of sexualized artistic representations of women.

That Corral and Martinez, the first women to organize the Biennale, have chosen art by women to introduce their shows of personal and public politics is telling. So is the unspoken fact that Biennale officials apparently thought that it would require two female curators to accomplish what a single male curator has historically managed. (Former New York Museum of Modern Art curator Robert Storr is expected to be named curator for the 2007 Biennale.)

Among the absorbing works in the Arsenale is a junk sculpture by Jimmie Durham, which lines up street detritus in an odd evocation of life and death. (Reflected in a mirror at one end, the timeline doubles back on itself to create an “afterlife.”) Stephen Dean shows large video projections of densely packed events, including sports and religious rituals, which tremble between ecstasy and chaos. Louise Bourgeois has contributed a lively pair of suspended whorls of highly polished aluminum, shimmering like apparitions of tornadoes.

Valeska Soares built a mirrored “Folly” out by a canal; enter the enclosed room and a ghostly projection of dancing figures is reflected into infinity. Mariko Mori built an enormous isolation chamber whose swooping, iridescent teardrop form crosses an egg with a sperm. Visitors are invited to have brain-wave sensors attached to their forehead and climb up into the meditation room, three at a time, like guinea pigs in a close encounter.

Christoph Buchel and Gianni Motti have launched “The Guantanamo Initiative,” which traces the surprising history of the American military base in Cuba and proposes replacing its legally questionable military function with a cultural one. (The idea echoes the Arsenale itself -- a Venetian naval installation now given to cultural pursuits.) Because the Cuban government has refused to cash the U.S. Treasury Department’s annual rent checks for the base -- framed copies of all 47 checks issued since 1959 are on display -- the artists have entered into negotiations with Cuba to become the new tenants at Guantanamo.

At the Italian pavilion, a large group of uneven historical works by established painters -- Francis Bacon, Antoni Tapies, Agnes Martin and, most happily, Philip Guston -- create uncertain ground for an equally shaky assembly of newer artists. Gabriel Orozco’s signature abstract disks are dull. Marlene Dumas’ reclining heads owe too much to Gerhard Richter’s famous paintings of German terrorist Ulrike Meinhof. Matthias Weischer is one among a group of heavily promoted “Leipzig painters,” of whom Neo Rauch (not included) is the most gifted.

Other established artists with impressive works here include Stan Douglas, whose brief but pungent video vignettes tell a nonlinear story of alienation, misgiving and discord; Rachel Whiteread, whose monumental white-plaster cast of the space around a two-story stairway creates an unexpectedly ominous construction (think surveillance tower); and William Kentridge, the celebrated South African animator whose evanescent films are improbably composed from Expressionist charcoal drawings.

The pavilion’s dazzler, however, is a raucous short film by a young Milanese artist, Francesco Vezzoli -- a five-minute “Trailer for a Remake of Gore Vidal’s Caligula,” with a cast that includes Helen Mirren (from the original, notorious 1979 movie), Benicio Del Toro, Courtney Love (“I am Caligula!”), a grinning Vidal and assorted unnamed orgiasts. Its pungent, secular sentiment is summed up in the breathless promotional voice-over, which declares that only three worthwhile stories can be told: the innocent birth of Christ, the untimely death of Christ and, of course, the debauched Roman emperor.

And which of these do you really want to see?

Vezzoli is also showing a stunning, hour-long masterpiece in a space next to San Giorgio Maggiore church, across the Grand Canal from Piazza San Marco. It’s inspired by Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Comizi d’Amore” (“Love Meetings”), a 1965 documentary in which Italians from various walks of life speak about sexual mores. Vezzoli concocted a mind-bending contemporary version, in which the slickly produced pilot for a reality television dating show -- “Comizi di Non Amore,” or “Non-Love Meetings” -- is the format that incisively examines current sexual customs.

With audience help, celebrity female contestants choose dates from among assorted male strippers, a drag queen, a butch lesbian, various bodybuilders and oily lounge singers. The competitors include a shaken Catherine Deneuve, an impish Antonella Lualdi (from Pasolini’s original film), a sly Marianne Faithfull and a world-weary Jeanne Moreau. (She only wants to watch her suitors eat dinner, not strip, because putting something in your mouth is as intimate as life can get.) Like the Caligula trailer, this jaw-dropping TV travesty -- produced with enough professional skill to be broadcast tonight -- grows from a conviction that “life is a gift, but happiness is an achievement.”

Another notable off-site presentation is a hypnotic film loop by Colombian artist Oscar Munoz, at the Palazzo Franchetti. A stationary camera focuses on a hand holding a paintbrush, which rapidly sketches a watercolor face on a highly absorbent surface. The paint evaporates before the image is finished, but the hand keeps working feverishly, in a futile effort to capture a full likeness. In its perpetual yearning in the face of inevitable loss, poetic truth emerges.

Munoz’s format -- a stationary camera recording action -- repeats all over the Biennale. (In Willie Doherty’s case the composition is reversed: His camera endlessly circles a stationary human head.) This device is not new, but it reaches something of a critical mass here, with at least a dozen examples. Perhaps derived from a generation raised on the pseudo-documentary qualities of television news, where the camera rarely moves and “real life” unfolds, it gets its artistic patina from the even older convention of still photography (not to mention Warhol).

The two best national pavilions are Austria’s and Great Britain’s. The young Viennese sculptor Hans Schabus encased the building inside an enormous mountain -- a homemade Alp -- fabricated from lumber and roofing paper, and through which a visitor can climb to lofty heights. British veterans Gilbert & George show a poignant suite of photographic self-portraits in which ginkgo leaves, their bilateral symmetry creating a formal echo of the artistic duo, establish an exotic decorative element.

Australian sculptor Ricky Swallow’s Realist carved wood is impressive. Especially compelling is a bulbous bean-bag chair, into which sinks a meticulously crafted human skull. Death by nostalgia?

Ed Ruscha’s paintings in the American pavilion are also strong: Five minimalist landscapes from 1992 are on one side of the symmetrical building, and five updated versions are in galleries on the other. The new paintings show mostly dilapidation and decay, with scant moments of hope. Such is “The Course of Empire,” a title (and theme) derived from Thomas Cole’s famous cautionary cycle of American paintings on the rise and fall of civilization, circa 1836.

I didn’t see the Romanian pavilion, which Daniel Knorr left empty in an odd rerun of 1960s Conceptual art (he was born in 1968). The gallery was closed when I got there, and I couldn’t tell whether that mattered or not. What did seem to matter, if only in a minor way, was awarding the best pavilion prize to France, where Annette Messager has installed a crowd-pleasing if vacuous theatrical display, based on the trials and tribulations of Pinocchio, the puppet that wanted to become human.

What might matter more is the almost total absence of Los Angeles artists from the Biennale, outside the American pavilion. Except for Kruger, a part-time resident, the Corral and Martinez shows include not one. L.A.'s influence is everywhere in the galleries and pavilions -- Mike Kelley, Nancy Rubins, Paul McCarthy, Cathy Opie, Jason Rhodes, Lari Pittman, etc. -- but these are artists who were established 10 and 20 years ago. Current work is invisible.

Finally, the awakening dragon of China is on the horizon, with its first-ever official pavilion. A mixed affair, its most affecting work is by Peng Yu and Sun Yuan. They found a rural farmer who has spent years building a homemade flying saucer, and they brought both to “Oriental” Venice. The improbable contraption is at once an alien visitor and a vision of artistic escape to new worlds. Welcome, China.