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THE PLATEAU: View from the high plains of art

Venice Biennale 2001, 10 June - 4 November 2001

Reviewed by Nicola Triscott, Director, The Arts Catalyst, Toynbee Studios, 28 Commercial Street, London E1 6LS, UK.

Nothing at this year's Venice Biennale would make one think science and technology were considered central to the Biennale's title: 'Plateau of Humankind'. In the many written interpretations by curators and reviewers of this overarching topic, scientific discovery and technological development were neither mentioned nor seen as omissions. The curator, Harald Szeeman, insists his title is not a theme but a dimension, responding to the artists' ideas rather than used to select artists. Suffice to say that few artists this year addressed science or technology directly.

Conspicuous use of new technological media was notable in a few works scattered through the sprawl of national pavilions and curated international exhibition. The Austrian pavilion had long queues for Granula=Synthesis' dazzling audio-visual installation Gelatin. Granular=Synthesis are innovators in the use of audio-visual media in art, creating hardware configurations that enable them to play with video as a "music-instrument". Blinded by the blackness as one enters the pavilion, the spectacular colours and electronic sound 'static' from the giant screens overwhelms and threatens the senses.

Carsten Nikolai's imposing sound sculpture, Frozen Water (2001), at the heart of the International Exhibition, incorporated a large acoustic wave cannon which, through its base tones, changed the shape of the water in a spherical glass flask, making waves that remain suspended on the water's surface. The water in the larger flask - 500 litres - remained unaffected, whilst the viewer's body vibrated with the deep frequencies.

Entering a small room in the Arsenale, one can make an encounter with Max Dean and Raffaello D'Andreas' robotic table, a table that will not interact with everyone in the room but selects just one viewer with whom to attempt a relationship. In The Table: Childhood (1984 - 2001), an object is empowered and the selected viewer becomes absorbed by their interaction with the table. Raffaello D'Andreas has created a code for the table's behaviour, continuing to develop its repertoire of complex capabilities. The table will try to get its chosen one's attention - with a wiggle perhaps - and attempts to show them that they are the one selected. Each chosen person is treated differently, depending on their movement, speed and responses to the table. If they are unresponsive, the table tries harder. It may try a little dance or start a game of chase. When the person leaves, the table may try to follow. But the doorway is too narrow. It remains in the gallery, unable to escape into the Venice sunlight.

Response to science as a theme was uncommon at the Biennale. A criticism of the European worldview that has permeated Asian cultures through the premise of science was provided by the work of performance artist Ho Siu-kee, in the China-Hong Kong pavilion. In his performance Golden Proportion he transforms himself into a standard of measure, hammering a gold pin the length of his head into the length of his body. Keith Tyson's prodigious drawings in the International Exhibition follow his meandering reflections on the contemporary sense of the ineffable framed through science as the new, secular "faith".

With little overt commentary on science, I saw 'science' where a work responded to recent Arts Catalyst preoccupations. Our current interest in investigating balance and the control of movement of the body with the Biodynamics Group at Imperial College and dancer Kitsou Dubois in situations of altered gravities therefore drew me to Lars Siltberg's mesmerising video triptych Man with Balls on Hands and Feet (1998 - 2001). The piece intrigued me not so much as a poignant reflection about futility, but a study of balance and control in extreme physical environments. A man in a bodysuit, whose hands and feet have been encased in huge balls of polycarbonate, attempts to stand up and remain standing in three treacherous - seemingly impossible - situations: on ice, water and in a wind tunnel. A straight-faced, unperturbed individual, he struggles endlessly to complete his task against the odds. Splashing into the water, crashing onto the ice, shaking in the fierceness of the wind, when he is finally triumphant on the ice, his face cracks into a fleeting smile before the video loop mercilessly takes him back to his starting point: a man who would find some welcome respite in zero gravity.

One might have expected more artists to make a commentary on biotechnology. But, if it was there at all, it seemed only to exist in the beautiful crudity of Xiao Yu's life cycle of created creatures, suspended in clear preserving fluid in glass jars. Counterfeit hybrid monsters: the 'adult' form Ruan (1999) was constructed from a premature foetus's head, a rabbit, a cat, a rat and condoms for the eyes.

Biotechnology may not have had its tragedy yet. In media debates about the ethics of biotechnology developments, we may be missing the real tragedy to happen, concerning ourselves instead with aspects that may turn out to be purely the benefits that many scientists predict. The tragedy that was the legacy of the dream of clean, eternal energy was Chernobyl. Ukrainian photographer Viktor Maruscenko has spent 15 years since the explosion chronicling a tragedy that has destroyed the reality of the inhabitants of this contaminated area, leaving behind empty villages, deserted cities and a cement sarcophagus encasing a nuclear disaster.

Szeeman, in his introduction to 'Plateau of Humankind', highlights some of the other major problems of the world today: birth control, the nuclear arms race, the air pollution "desired by U.S. presidents" and the hunger crisis. In all these areas, scientists and engineers have interests and vital contributions to make. So too, suggests Szeeman, do artists.

This led him to an interesting theme in art that moved the function of art away from the ontological 'What does art mean?' to the pragmatic 'What can art do?' Just off the quay outside the Arsenale, there was a white container bobbing placidly on the quite water. It wasn't possible to enter it - Atelier Van Lieshout (AVL)'s construction was a floating gynaecologist's clinic, a treatment room for women who live in countries where terminating pregnancies is illegal. Commissioned by the Women on Waves organisation from Joop Van Lieshout's art and design co-operative, AVL, it is designed to be towed by ships and anchored in waters outside legal jurisdiction. On it recent visit to Ireland, which precipitated widespread media coverage and much debate, thousands of enquiries were made by women about using it, but the crew could not get the required permits to dock.

The piece Global Heli Art Tour initially seemed out of place at the Biennale. Conceived by a cosmetic dentist and implantologist, Dr Michael Schmitz, rather than an artist, it existed alongside the artworks and also beyond them. Schmitz is planning a world helicopter trip to find sponsors for a children's home with an occupational school in the country most afflicted with AIDS in the world: South Africa. During the exhibition of the helicopter at the Biennale, artists would decorate it with greetings and sponsors be signed up.

These unusual inclusions in an international art exhibition point to functional and process-invested art that fits with the ethos of a number of artists working with science and technology.


Updated 7 September 2001.

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