The Oxymoron of Venice

The 49th Biennale di Venezia

Gary Hill        

Stefano Pasquini








"I am supersonic and alien. I have the feeling of being a fuselage. Am I walking? Dreaming? Sitting in a chair? Killing? Eating? Could it be any of these - any and all simultaneously? Where am I? I can't remember at will." These are the words pronounced by Gary Hill in his video installation "Wall Piece", the best work in this year's Biennale. The artist is shown jumping against a black wall while he pronounces a monologue between himself and his work. A stroboscopic light blinds the spectator at every jump: "It's always there; on again; on again. It waits without pathos", continues Hill.

As an artist, I was mesmerized. This is exactly what your work does to you: it waits for you, it hits you, it makes you pray, it makes you want to jump against a black wall, and makes you want to show it. Harald Szeemann, the director of this year's Biennale, defines this "the history of art of intensity", and his Biennale, his "Plateau of Humankind", is exactly this: a beautifully organized reflection of this time's energy in art. Regardless of some disappointing episodes and an overwhelming amount of video projections (easy to make, quick to produce, costless to install) this is a Biennial you cannot miss. So we have the Kabakovs question over the artist immortality in "Not Everyone Will Be Taken Into The Future", two stupendous unbalancing, displacing, Richard Serra steel spirals and some welcoming surprises, like Sarenco l'Africano, an Italian sculptor who spent his life in Africa, blending traditional local craftsmanship with his own ironical and existential visual poetry, or Fiona Tan's early colonial footage of Indonesian children smoking cigarettes. And then Beuys, ah, Joseph Beuys, with his "Voglio veder i miei montagne" (I want to see my mountains) and the amazing "Das Endedes 20. Jahrhunderts".

Mark Wallinger's British Pavilion is worth a mention: first he covered the ex-tea room with a huge print of the facade itself, as if builders behind were renovating it; then he hung a strange flag flying on the pole: "Oxymoron", where the Union Jack's traditional colors have been replaced by the complementary green and orange of the Irish Tricolor. Inside, a weird marbleized figure of Christ titled "Ecce Homo": cast from an individual, it has a sincere air of vulnerability. The piece was first shown in Trafalgar Square in London, and among the patriotic figure looked small and intimate, surely un-British. That's what's astounding of Wallinger's work, his restless questioning of everything and everyone, especially his native country. He does so with the wit of a child, like in the video "Angel", where he appear as a blind man reciting over and over the verses of St. John's Gospel. The video goes in reverse and it's shot in front of the escalator at Angel subway station, and it ends with the blind artist ascending the escalator, facing the wrong way and revealing the technique of the filming.

The Swiss Pavilion was taken over by a Damien Hirst-like installation by Urs Luthi. I liked this decision of appropriation: it's as if the master wittingly accepts the failure of the efforts of his generation to give way to an acceptance of globalization's vocabulary: in a video titled "Run for your life" Luthi runs on a moving walkway after a cover girl who promises erotic adventures, with a skull tattooed on his back. A memento mori on the imbecility of our time.

The Korean Do-Ho Suh and the Taiwanese Shu-min Lin also had significant work on show: Do-Ho Suh won everyone's approval appearing both in the Italian Pavilion (with the amazing installation "Floor", a glass floor with thousands of tiny plastic figures holding it up) and in the Korean Pavilion where, in another floor piece, he inlaid numerous military dog tags that in the next room grow to become an armor-like coat. Shu-min Lin's "Glass Ceiling" presents a collection of images of people from around the world. They are holograms looking up at you from a tiled floor. What is poignant is the expression on their faces: prisoners, second class citizens, genetically engineered humans laborers? The answer is up to you.

Ene-Liis Semper, Eva Marisaldi, John Pilson, Paul Pfeiffer, Regina Galindo, Barry McGee, Ron Mueck, Georgina Starr, Gavin Turk, Salla Tykka, Yinka Shonibare, Edith Dekyndt are just a few names for whom it's worth coming all the way to Venice. Where else can you see so much high quality contemporary art all at once? The beauty of this year's Biennale lies in the thought provocation process that work after work after work do to you. And for a start you get a beautiful red cake (a mound, really) which is the work of director Szeeman himself: sculptures of naive Adam and Eve, Indian Gods and human genitalia are lead by a small yet imposing "Thinker" by Rodin, whose work was on show at the Biennale of a hundred years ago. So we look at this spectacle and think: is this were art is going to? Who, out of all these artist, will survive the next century?

For sure the late Alighiero Boetti, for whom the press room was transformed in a retrospective of his work. In the midst of it all, a masterpiece: "I, catching the sun in Turin on January 26th, 1969", a mass of rubble (hand held pieces of clay, really) form a human shape laid on the floor. The sun of today's art was caught in 1969. In 2001 we see the results.