Welcome to the Pearly Gates: The 49th Venice Biennale
by Emma Bedford
The 49th Venice Biennale opened in June to the usual clamorous press previews with 14 000 people a day crowding through the Giardini, the Arsenale and environs. Having negotiated a deal whereby he would curate the central show for the 1999 and 2001 biennales, director Harald Szeemann roused much curiosity as to what he would deliver in his central exhibition.
His 'Plateau of Humankind' begins in the Italian Pavilion with what he calls the 'Platform of Thought'. On an enormous pink mound Rodin's Thinker, that paragon of Western Humanism, sits pondering the surrounding figurative sculpture which is, significantly, erotic or, more pointedly, phallic. From Africa there are simplistic painted wooden figures several of which draw attention to the scourge of AIDS, from Asia beautiful Indian temple friezes writhing with copulating figures, and from Europe primitivist sculptures. What can have been his intention? If this is the director's idea of the West contemplating the arrival of artists "from different cultures, which have moved from their exile", as Szeemann puts it in the catalogue, it is an embarrassing and offensive display of the most patronising arrogance and ignorance.
It is unfortunately the above tableau that sets the scene for the much-vaunted 'Plateau of Humankind' (formerly Mankind) and not "the positive, utopian spirituality of Beuys" with which he had intended to launch this biennale. Aside from the "African idols" (Szeemann's words) on the 'Platform' the only other artists from Africa are Tracey Rose, Minnette Vári and Sunday Jack Akpan, the latter exhibiting one of his cement sculptures of Nigerian chiefs. The oddly named Sarenco l'Africano turns out not to be African at all but an Italian "art merchant" (amongst other things) who last exhibited in 1972. This only served to heighten the impact of 'Authentic/Ex-centric: Africa in and out of Africa', the exhibition featuring artists from Africa and the African diaspora. As associate curator of that project I can't review it, but can mention the overwhelmingly positive response we received in Venice. As the doors opened on the first day of the press preview the deputy editor of a leading US-based art journal was there to see the show and interview artists, and our press conference the following day was packed to capacity with international journalists. In addition politicians - a minister of culture, the mayor - pledged their support in future. Glowing reviews are beginning to appear internationally (see highlights below). This enthusiastic feedback is essential for the sponsors, in particular, if this project is to continue as it was intended, giving African curators and artists the opportunity to participate in the Venice Biennale on an ongoing basis.
From Ron Mueck's five metre high crouching boy at the entrance to the Corderie to Richards Serra's 12 metre wide forged spirals at the end of the Arsenale, the message is clear: not only does size count but it is everything. The sheer scale of the exhibition is overwhelming. Vári's small video piece Mirage, eventually placed at the entrance to the Italian pavilion after a protracted series of setbacks, hardly stands a chance. Her two larger projections, Oracle and REM, fare better in the Arsenale and prove that Africa can deliver work that is complex and draws on cutting-edge technology. (See June News.)
Similarly Tracey Rose's three-screen projection not only holds its own in terms of scale but its beauty, humour and technical innovation ensure that it shines among many indifferent videos from the world's richest nations. In contrast to the apparent simplicity of her earlier TKO, this ambitious work is a tour de force. Entitled Ciao Bella, like the famous Italian song, it presents a table akin to that of the Last Supper surrounded by characters all played by Rose herself. Each is astonishingly transformed in costumes made by the artist, whether a mermaid's tail from bubble wrap or a Marie Antoinette in fabulous décolletage fashioned from bin liners. From the demure schoolgirl, to the deliciously leather-clad La Cicciolina exposing and flagellating herself, to Saartjie Baartman, made whole again from her dismembered parts in the Musée de l'Homme and here seen ascending to heaven, Rose has gathered the stereotypes of women from history and revels in these many guises. But the boxer catatonically beating herself up with alternate black and white gloves while intoning "Love me. Fuck me. Love me. Fuck me" gives the lie to any of these women who might have imagined that they are free from the bonds of sexism, racism and a broader global oppression whose ranking order is as ruthless as it ever was. And all this is interspersed with the delicate strains of Panis Angelicus, making the work as beautiful and funny as it is hard-hitting. While the work could have benefited perhaps from more rigorous editing it is undoubtedly a major work in her oeuvre. In the opinion of Dan Cameron, senior curator at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, it is one of "the most exciting installations by young artists" at the Biennale (read his diary on www.artforum.com).
Given the broad theme of humanity it wasn't surprising that numerous works explored historical, social and political issues. Many were powerful, stark and moving but none so beautiful as Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi's films. The March of Man utilises ethnographic footage slowed down to a majestic pace, overlaid with splendid colour and punctuated with penetrating texts. The robed and turbaned figures moving slowly across a sepia ground on the first screen are drawn from an 1895 film entitled Homme Negre: Marche. The text reads: "The great scientific and human hopes in knowledge". The footage on the second blazing red screen is drawn from a 1910 film showing a great white bwana shooting a pelican and then pushing a cowering black man into the water to collect his bounty. Other scenes show groups of black men semi-naked but sporting top hats. The text: "Is he passive? Is he suffering? What does he feel? Is he compliant? How long will he be submissive?" The final searing yellow screen shows 1960s footage of a man handing a token to Ndebele maidens whose offended expressions indicate their distaste. The text: "The subject is considered insensitive, studied like an insect, sexually available". Projected on three screens one after the other they force one to walk at a slow pace through them and consider one's own movement through and complicity in these kinds of scenarios.
Ken Lum's posters against xenophobia are immediate and arresting in contrast to Stan Douglas' haunting double projection of a black woman searching a dark house with a torch as if returning to a scene of some terrible trauma. Other impressive videos included Magnus Wallin's terrifying images of stunted humans struggling in urban nightmares and Chris Cunningham's explorations of auto-eroticism, desire and brutality, as compulsive as they were nauseating, but always full of eager watchers. By contrast the modest monochromatic work of Anri Sala, born in Albania and living in France, is poignant. Uomoduomo presents an impoverished old man asleep on a cathedral pew. With extreme economy of means this solitary figure encapsulates the urban terror of superannuity, garnering for Sala one of the Special Awards for Young Artists.
There were pockets of welcome relief from the predominance of video such as Do-Ho Suh's glass floor supported by thousands of tiny men and women fashioned in fine social realist style. Likewise outside the Korean pavilion his colossal empty plinth supported by minute figures was a powerful (and humorous) comment on the subjugation of the individual to the collective. Also highlighting the power of the state was A1-53167, the nom de guerre of a Guatemalan artist who needs to protect his identity. He displayed a series of small photographs documenting his guerrilla tactics. Under cover of darkness he deposits charcoal on the roads on the eve of significant military parades. With its associations of burnt land and razed towns, the charcoal is trampled underfoot by the militia who spread the evidence of their complicity in these acts throughout the city.
In contrast an amusing approach was offered by Francis Alÿs who in his absence chose to be represented by strutting peacocks, encapsulating so much of the puffed-up pretensions of art stars one encountered daily in Venice.
Thanks to Cai Guo-Qiang, Rikrit Tiravanija and others the exhausted visitor emerging at the end of the Arsenale can relax in the shade of a refreshment station overlooking the open sea while waiting for the shuttle boat to take one to the Giardini di Castelli where the national pavilions are located.
That Szeemann's show failed to live up to expectations was confirmed when Frieze magazine's first SMS hot tip to subscribers on the opening day advised visitors to queue for the Canadian and German pavilions and to see Africa (in the show 'Authentic/Ex-centric'). This was corroborated when all three were amongst the prizewinners. In the Canadian pavilion Janet Cardiff and Georges Bures Miller offer visitors a cinematic journey saturated in sensual stimulation, which blurs the distinctions between fiction and reality. The Golden Lion for best exhibition in a National Pavilion was awarded to the German pavilion. Gregor Schneider managed to transform this epitome of Third Reich architecture into a discomforting warren of claustrophobic rooms and dead-end passages. Yinka Shonibare won a mention for Vacation on 'Authentic/Ex-centric'. The installation presents an imagined nuclear family, clad in African-print space suits, colonising the moon.
Pierre Huyghe in the French pavilion was the deserved winner of a Special Award for his video projections and participatory digital media that are as astonishing for their technical virtuosity as they are for their scale of production. In the Japanese pavilion Masato Nakamura captured in exquisite style both the seduction and the awful inevitability of globalisation through the repetition of yellow M-forms akin to those of McDonald's. Belgium presents a brave examination of its own colonial history through the medium of Luc Tuyman's paintings of Patrice Lumumba, allegedly murdered by Belgian agents soon after independence. The harsh white light of the pavilion washes out the pale paintings as if this history were threatened by denial or indifference.
And at the end of the Giardini's broad leafy avenue Mark Wallinger welcomed visitors to the British pavilion by erecting an Irish flag in front of it, typical of his unique and iconoclastic sense of humour. Within the pavilion works rich in biblical allusions include Threshold to the Kingdom, a video projection. To the rousing soundtrack of Allegri's choral Miserere weary disoriented travelers emerge through the doors at International Arrivals as if they were confused souls arriving at the "pearly gates". For anyone who has ever had to stand in those interminably long non-European Union queues, the experience of being excluded from "the Promised Land" is very real. As Kim Levin says in her incisive review, "The demographics of the biennale ... are as myopic as ever ..." (see "Panic Attack", June 25 2001 at www.villagevoice.com). I can't help wondering if it isn't going to be easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than it will be for artists from Africa (in significant numbers) to breach the gates of the Giardini di Castelli.
Emma Bedford is a curator at the South African National Gallery and was associate curator of 'Authentic/Ex-centric: Africa in and out of Africa'