The enemy is in the house
The meek circus of the 50th Venice Biennale

Stefano Pasquini

We're entering the age of quantity, and this year's Biennale shows it. Whilst two years ago the participating artists were about 300, this year they are over 500, without counting all the unofficial participants at Utopia Station and the other exhibits that overwhelmed Venice in the atrocious heat of the opening days.
After three days of openings and press conferences and parties, when I was about to leave Venice I thought to myself: "a circus, that's what this year's biennale felt like".
Which made me wonder if it makes any sense nowadays to build up such a huge event, where the fruition of the works become impossible due to the huge quantity of them: we're talking about at least a thousand works of art to view and judge and relate to. Yet it was still a fulfilling experience; one that made me ponder much more about the role of the curators than the artists themselves. Which is, in a way, a paradox, as a paradox is the fact that the Italian artists invited at the biennale were not given any money for the production of the work, no cash token for accepting to participate, no catalogue. "What? No catalogue?" I asked one of them when he told me so. "No, just a 20% discount on the price". "Ok, here's my 40% press discount for you". That was the least I could do to someone who spent two weeks in Venice (ok, the hotel was paid for) to install a work that was not paid by anyone, since the artist in question doesn't have gallery representation.
"Dreams and conflicts" had a subtitle, "the dictatorship of the viewer," and I didn't quite like that: I don't think in any given time contemporary art has been so distant from the spectators. Of course, the figures tell you another story, but ask people in the street and you'll find that no living artist is known as much as the crappiest pop star or TV presenter. These issues are dealt with in the catalogue essay of Francesco Bonami, this year's curator. He did a good job, but my main question is about quality; no particular work stuck in my mind after the three days, no masterpiece that moved me as much as Gary Hill's installation two years ago. So many works resembled pieces by other artists, and some were just blunt copies. Is it possible that the overall quality of contemporary art in the world is so low?
Yet his essay convinced me and made me think of Venice as a utopist island that can make a change in a wrongful world, a possible alternative or, in fact, utopia.
The arsenale was a diligent mess, work after work after work in distinctive rooms, with a title and a clear curatorial view, that peaked in what I really found amusing: Hou Hanru's Urgency Zone. It starts off with a funny installation by Yang Zhenzhong, "Let's puff", a specular video installation where a girl blows towards the other screen, making a cityscape fast-forward. Then it starts, works all over the place, pamphlets, videos projecting from all over the place, a huge weird sculpture and a strange wooden staircase. As I climb it the imponent classical music peaks and I'm on top of the world, I'm the master of the circus, a perfect reflection of today's surreal world, with all these art people puffing and sweating to hurry and not miss anything. Almost a masterpiece.
The Arsenale show goes on to finish in Utopia Station, messier than anything else, yet quite disappointing. Only Yoko Ono's little room, where you could stamp anywhere the sign "imagine peace" with an inkpad was nice and refreshing.
The Giardini this year was probably the most interesting part of the Biennale. I particularly enjoyed the Korean Pavilion, the Japanese one, Olafur Eliasson's strange architectural world in the Danish Pavilion, but also Egypt's Ahmed Nawar and his almost naďve installation about violence and peace, Czech and Slovak Republic's installation of an Olympic Christ by Kamera Skura and Kunst-Fu, and outside the Giardini a mention has to go to the Taiwan Pavilion with a well thought video installation by Daniel Lee and photo-based works by Yuang Goang-ming. Also the Kabakovs' show at Querini Stampalia was great, if you go to Venice it's a must, and should need a review of its own.
The Italian Pavilion wasn't particularly exciting, or maybe just too crowded to be appreciated. Some high quality works were there together with remakes of other artists' works and a tiny little cherry on the massive cake: Warhol's Screen Tests of 1964-66, with Marcel Duchamp behaving just like Marcel Duchamp would.
Probably the most thought out pavilion of them all was the US one. Fred Wilson's exhibition was all focused on the presence of black people in Venice throughout the centuries: from Veronese's paintings to the tacky racist glass ashtrays everything was there to remind you that not much has changed all this time: it's 2003 and xenophobia is still part of everyday life.
At this point I noticed where I was: Venice is the capital of Veneto, the land of the xenophobic Northern League Party, in a government coalition together with the new fascists and Berlusconi's Forza Italia. And we all know what Berlusconi thinks of other countries, like the Arab world or the Germans, just to mention a few of his gaffes.
This is when I realized the true strength of this year's Biennale: in a world that is boldly going toward the wrong path this is the utopical island: 500 people saying, all in their weird arty manner, no.

Useful Links:

From top to bottom:
Athanasia Kyriakakos & Dimitris Rotsios, "Intron", 2003, Greek Pavilion.
Rirkrit Tiravanija, "Less oil, more courage", 2003.
Vladimir Dubossarsky and Alexander Vinogradov, "Under the Water", 2003, Russian Pavilion.
Stanislaw Drózdz, "Alea", 2003, Polish Pavilion.
Daniel Lee, "Origin", 1999-2002.
Martin Kippenberger, "Luftschacht METRO-Net World Connection", Venice, 1993/2003, Ph. Nic Tenwiggenhorn, © Nachlass Martin Kippenberger.
Motohiko Odani, "Berenice", 2003, Japanese Pavilion.
Yuan Goang-ming, "Human Disqualified", 2001-2003.
Andy Warhol, "Screen Tests", 1964-66.
Hou Hanru's "Zone of Urgency", exhibition view.
Kamera Skura and Kunst-Fu, "Superstart", 2003, Czech Republic and Slovak Republic.
Pedro Cabrita Reis, "Absent names", 2003.
Chen Shaoxiong, "Various ways of anti-terrorism", 2002-2003.
Fred Wilson, detail of installation at the U.S. Pavilion, 2003.