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La Biennale di Venezia
50th International Art Exhibition
"Dreams and Conflict. The Dictatorship of the Viewer"

by Francesco Bonami
June 15th - November 2nd, 2003

Reviewed by Yvonne Spielmann,
Institute of Media Research,
Braunschweig School of Art,


The 2003 Venice Biennale focuses on a variety of themes which are loudly presented as headlines, as if an art exhibition would present competing labels in a contemporary fashion show. While director Francesco Bonami subsumes his view of the state of art under the banal polarity of "Dreams and Conflict" and - with the gesture of provocation implies an antagonism that sounds interesting but does not realize in the shows. Basically, Bonami assumes that through this Biennale the spectators will feel released from any dominating and restricting 'curatorship' of the past. Bonami obviously believes that viewers must have experienced curators' concepts as nagging so that now he wants to liberate us from any conceptual intervention into the, of course, idealized view of an 'unmediated' relationship between works of arts and any viewer. Not only is this an extreme narrow perspective on curatorial practices, but it certainly can not be the case in any show that there would be no guidance, selection, and positioning at this year's Venice Biennale.

The expressed resolution sounds highly pretentious not to 'dictate' the viewers' mind and let them sort out 'dreams' and 'conflicts' by themselves through perceiving a 'polyphony of voices and thoughts' (as the director describes his project). To say the least, the statment is utmost banal, in particular when we consider that curators are interpretators who necessarily always need to make propositions which hopefully will demonstrate interventions, reflect on the issue of mediation and communication in order to address the viewer and challenge his/her understanding and preconception of what is art. Needless to say, this is no 'dictatorship of the viewer'. In fact the viewer is asked to critically react and interact with an exhibition concept, and s/he will be very critical in particular where the 'interpretations' of so many different curators fail to bridge the distance between the themes and topics announced by curators and the actual presented works at Venice Biennale (for convenience I use 'work' as short term). Moreover, the topic of intermingling dreams and conflicts does not work out as overriding theme. It is hard to figure out the major interst, motif, or leading question of this exhibition series that is subdivided in multiple sections under differing curatorship/dictatorship that hardly interact, merge or point out a common focus. The diversity and multiplicity of shows could produce interesting connections and reflect a variety of facets, views and approaches towards 'urging topics' and eventually provoke discussions on 'urging' topics such as the West and the East, borders, space/territory and the new colonialism that is replacing postcolonialism through recent wars fought by US empire on the military, economic, and cultural fronts. Too bad, none of this is happening in Venice where the refusal to develop conceptual direction maneuvers the exhibitions into boring aestheticism and sometimes kitsch à l'art pour l'art - this larger tendency that is highlighted by Mathew Barney and his successful strategy of self-referential product placement. Plus, the individual shows are not even interrelated, but rather manifest each curator's struggle for attention through trying to supersede one another in placing allusive, politically and cultural pretentious labels instead of naming concepts that in one way or another would be worked through and acted out in the actual presentations. So, the initial impression of this show that aims to abandon what curators and directors are usually supposed to do and instead praises an unspecific openness of anything and fosters the directive of no interference with free spirits of the viewer gets more and more confirmed when we walk through the sections. Together the individual shows and the fancy titles form a very ambitious attempt of the Biennale to act politically super correct, but the parts are not strong enough to stand for themselves and never build one piece or a vision, they simply fall apart.

On the whole, Venice Biennale manifests a complete misunderstanding of Joseph Beuys' struggle to intersect art and politics and to provoke critical awareness and discussion of the state of art through taking position in the field of arts. Curiously enough, director Bonami heavily refers to Beuys, but it is hard to see where this Venice Biennale would inherit the legacy of art as democratic practices, which, of course, involves standpoints, discourse and controversy. So what is different from previous Biennale exhibitions is the stress on diversity of curators who, not unlike Bonami himself, enter the arena with fashionable headlines that appear as slogans that must sell well: they are short, easy to understand, and use cutting edge language. The poor level of naming reveals where the titles simply soak up issues and terms which are currently at stake in the media, the cultural, and the political debates: "The Zone" (Massimiliano Gioni), "Clandestine" (again Bonami), "Fault Lines" (Gilane Tawadros), "Individual Systems" (Igor Zabel), "Zone of Urgency" (Hou Hanru), "The Structure of Survival" (Carlos Basualdo), "Contemporary Arab Representations" (Catherine David), "The Everyday Altered" (Gabriel Orozco), and finally "Utopia Station" (Molly Nesbit, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and Rirkrit Tiravanija). All of these art labels in their exhibitionist tone superficiality remind one of strategies of aggressive advertisement that result in setting up assumptions and promises which are never meant to represent any real product. Similarly, curators who refer to African, Asian, and Arabic cultures raise high expectations and create interest in for example how digital and global processes are manifest in different parts of the world, but the aestheticized photographs, video and film installations that are squeezed into the spaces of the Arsenale are rather shinning surfaces or endless storytelling (the 6 screen interactive video installation by Danish Eva Koch lines up many layers of epic narratives of family life during Spanish War but fails to bring the materials into a form that would transgress the level of a one to one account). In particular, media/video/laptop installations lack an appropriate form of expression to transmit deeper understanding of the reality they deal with, and on the whole there is no satisfying re-presentation of non-Western cultural-aesthetic standpoints to counter-balance some mannerism and repetition.

Rather, emphasis lies on how the individual curator expresses fascination towards these new, multifaceted and often tenuous phenomena, regardless of any link to the discourse on content and context where the works come from. Political correctness is an important internal leitmotif of the series of shows and means that once we address non-Western aesthetic practices we can now comfort ourselves because we are dealing with the issue. But how, in the three screen video installation "Ruptures" by Salem Mekuria the violent colonial history of Ethiopia and the actual HIV infection rates are intermingled in a portrait of the country that is poorly projected on the screen and where viewers have no place to sit and settle in the room. The presentation rather is a 'walk through', squeeze yourself in the midst of the screen installation, not necessarily inviting the viewer to stay and watch the whole 'story' - would too much comfort evoke suspicion of dictatorship on the viewer, one is left asking oneself. However, this is just one example of how badly works are presented that one would like to see under better conditions. But the majority of presented works do not unfold a deeper, conceptual level that would explain why specific works were selected. "Utopia Station" presents itself in a post arte povera manner where sheets of papers are glued on walls, writings, projected in wooden cabinets are assembled in a well ordered messiness that, in its ambitious avoidance of dictating, does not express anything else of interest. This is so partly, because works overlap, are not set up in adequate viewing conditions and curators like Catherine David seem to think that the more that is in one room the better. Her show is an Arabic dark chamber, simply a black box with free standing screens onto which films/video on DVD are projected that deal with Afghanistan, Lebanon, Palestine and related issues that reflect today's fashionable concern with Arab cultures. The problem is that here the 'dictatorship' of the curator favours a mix of all such images and sounds in one room - no place to sit nowhere - so that we get a colourful audio-visual kaleidoscope of surface impressions where everything appears equally important, banal, and not at all commented. But why are seeing this, for what purpose and what is the relation - I assume those question would disturb the aestheticization of politics. This is in particular problematic as the Atlas Group (already shown at Documenta Kassel last year) presented alleged authentically statistic material on car bombs, first-hand narrative of hostages, but all this supposedly 'archival material' is deliberately made up - a fact one should be aware of. Again, some explanation on the materials presented would be very useful to the viewer. In the adjacent room photocopies of book pages that describe a project directed by Catherine David were precisely glued on large tables and resembled the allusive gesture of conceptualism of several decades ago, but this attitude carried on in 2003 does not fill the gap of missing conception.

Aside from the 'real' world of art, the concept of "Dreams and Conflicts" was much better presented in the hands of the Italian coffee company "Illy" that ran a coffee for free shop at the Arsenale where 'viewers' could test by themselves a new type of espresso machine, make their own espresso, drink it and not pay for it. The company had literally transformed the motto of the Biennale into its advertisement policy, "Dreams" and "Conflicts" turned into writing on coffee cups and no viewer was 'dictated' to but everyone could experience the multiplicity of individual coffee making. There was no pressure on interpretation, except the uniform water pressure in the machines. This was an excellent strategy to connect the arts to the market.

Apart from this exception, Bonami's Venice Biennale nowhere reaches a level of self-reflection, but the obvious meaninglessness of the effort can get even worse where Bonami himself in the show entitled "Delays and Revolutions" at Giardini in a strange reference to Pop Art presents a kind of art supermarket without price tags in an internationally acclaimed mix of accepted, well-known and famous artists, a voluntarily incoherent neighbouring of names and pieces, even historical masterpieces are not missing. We all like to see the film, but there is not even the attempt to reason why Andy Warhol's film video installation "Inner and Outer Space" of 1965 is screened. And in this particular case framing by information would probably have been a revelation to many viewers, since Warhol used video in summer 1965 for recording Edi Sedgwick and then played the video back while recording her a second time with a film camera. This double-portrait is presented in double projection, a self-reflection on the mirroring effect, of course, and it is precious as one of the first, probably 'the' first video recording that was done 'before' Paik later the same year. But not many people know the story, and the Venice Biennale does not help to spread the word. It seems, information and concept are 'out', but escapism and l'art pour l'art are 'in': a prominent and large space is dedicated to Richard Prince's photographs exclusively of cowboy life in the American West. In the viewer's mind this after-Marlboro 'campaign' clearly represents the counterpart to Illy's: here brand name and advertisement is transformed into art, while reversely Illy's mechanism of 'show' is to transform marketing into aesthetics. But as the obscurity of director Bonami's 'dreams' and 'conflicts' is not suggesting conceptual associations, the mind keeps wandering to avoid compulsive meaning.

It would be unfair not to describe contributions that successfully manage to transgress the limitations of the poor exhibition concept and articulate standpoints relevant to contemporary aesthetics, cultures, media, and politics. Surprisingly, we find these strong positions mostly under the 'dictatorship' of the national pavilions, maybe because the traditional idea of the Venice Biennale to present works according to nations provokes response and critical reflection in the age of global flow. But the artists here were more interested to point out borders and zones of conflict. The Spanish pavilion was completely blocked: its entrance was closed with a brick wall. Santiago Sierra's intention was to keep out non-Spanish citizens and only allow people with a valid Spanish ID to enter the (empty) pavilion through the backdoor. This excellent comment on the issue of passing borders (which, as the piece underlines, is a question of having the right passport) unfortunately could not be carried out by real Spanish customs officers. Obviously, it was not possible to have Spanish officers control passports on Italian territory, so that Italian officers were standing at the backdoor of the pavilion and asked for your Spanish passport. However the conceptual statement became clear and the paradoxes of guarding and controlling borders were further explored in the installation of life size passports throughout the Giardini gardens.

Sandi Hilal (Palestine) and Alessandro Petti (Italy) reflected on the possibility that viewers usually wander freely in the garden from 'nation' to 'nation' and juxtaposed this neighbourhood in the realm of art with symbolic settings of passports that serve sometimes as door-opens and other times as barriers in the real world of political-cultural relations. The enlarged passports from different nations brought important insights to evidence that we may not know, because we have never seen these passports. For example, in most Arabian passports the wife was included in the man's passport meaning she has no travel documents of her own. And the Palestinian refugee passports were all issued by different countries (Lebanon, Sryria, Egypt) so that the official documents through their visual exhibition explained to everyone that there is no Palestine nation. A more subtle critique could be seen on the level of languages, because most Arabian passports were in French or English - the colonial language - , whereas for example the Italian passport (before EU) read Italian and French, but not English. And the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen seems to have no interest in having their citizens travelling outside Arabian nations, the passport is monolingual and again the wife is included in her husband's document.

Such "lessons" about identity, national affiliation and cultural differences are not all disconcerting in an art exhibition, because Hilal/Petti and Sierra were smart enough to incorporate the political message into the existing structure of the art spaces at Giardini. Similarly, the Netherlands (curator: Rein Wolfs) present artists who create inner spaces and zones that deal with borders and transformations in the social-cultural arena. The renown architect/artists Bart and Eric van Lieshout had built a wooden cinema structure in front of the Dutch pavilion where they screened a video portraying drug traffic, racial and sexual identity within youth groups inhabiting the streets of Rotterdam. The title "Respect" referred to what was needed to avoid violence and racial 'wars' and the underlying social-ethnic tension was also highlighted in the lyrics of hip hop music that accompanied the video. Moreover, the effect of roaring hip-hop sounds from a hut gave another impressive example of the interrelatedness of art, culture, and politics. Another installation by Atelier van Lieshout outside the Arsenale spaces consists of dysfunctional mobile toilet systems that associate digestion and excretion, suggesting biting criticism of the Arsenale shows in particular because the toilets were placed outside the section "Utopia Station" that was so hard to swallow.

Inside the Dutch pavillion the topic of identity was further pursued in the tension between art and fashion by Alicia Framis' collection "Anti-Dog", a videofilm staging models who perform fashion show in the streets and contrast the make-up of woman's beauty with the real dangers of dark street corners and domestic violence. The presentation was not at all didactic: Framis had built a temporary interior tent in the pavillion, a shelter, viewing and fitting room in one, where the dresses were displayed and the models could be seen on screen to enjoy the fashion while at the same time contrasting a crowed of males leaving a football stadium or bearing embroidered ribbons bearing the inscription "beauty beats violence". Another facet of cultural criticism from a woman's point of view was presented in the Bellgian pavillion by Valérie Mannaerts and Sylvie Eyberg. Their mulitmedia installations including DVD projection and photographs in subtle ways caused disturbance in viewing images of everyday cultural practices. Sylvie Eyberg enlarged clippings so that the presented photographs focused on spaces between, for example a man and woman on a table, and other not very noticeable details which through enlargement and subtitles led the viewer's attention to space as territority that one person occupies and the other not, in short, power relations were revealed in apparently inconspicuous images. In the same way Valérie Mannaerts refers to public images and through cut outs and layers reveals 'dark' zones in fashionable girl's culture where tattoos, diets and eventually plastic surgery are considered possible tools to transform oneself.

There was also a work of conceptual art highlighting cultural transformation based on international economics. Simon Starling had driven a red Fiat 126 (built in 1974 in Italy) from Turin to Cieszyn, where Fiat 126 is still produced, but in white not red, and there he replaced red parts of car with white ones and drove the car back to Italy. Thus the car exhibited at Venice not only symbolised the fusion of old and new EU countries, but also subtly imports the colours of the Polish flag into Italian car industry- an inversion of exporting Italian car industries into Poland. So here, the state of art and the so-called the real world merge into one piece, the suture remains visible.




Updated 1st November 2003

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