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ART REVIEW

Joke, spectacle at Venice Biennale

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By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / June 12, 2011

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VENICE — Contemporary art likes to pretend it has no past. Every year, artists shamelessly recycle conceits that established others’ reputations mere decades earlier. Aging geniuses are relegated to the history books well before their time is up. Amnesia reigns.

The situation reaches its apogee every two years at the Venice Biennale, where the world’s most important contemporary art event takes place in a setting that is up to its neck in the past.

The strategy of the show’s organizers has generally been to ignore the setting, along with Venice’s staggering artistic inheritance. The impulse is understandable: Venice itself can make you feel locked out of the present. Best, then, to pretend you’re not even there.

This year, however, Biennale organizers finally dared to acknowledge the past. At the heart of the group show, called “ILLUMInations,’’ director Bice Curiger took the unprecedented step of including three major paintings by the 16th-century Venetian Tintoretto.

Curiger explained her decision by pointing out that Tintoretto was a renegade, an innovator, a man ahead of his time. But in the end, as the juxtaposition made all too clear, his paintings simply have nothing to do with the prevailing modes — sardonic wit, academic obscurantism — that characterize so much of today’s art.

Curiger’s show, which is the center of the Biennale’s sprawling archipelago of exhibitions, is lackluster, although there are — as always — stand-out works. Among them are Boston-born R.H. Quaytman’s suite of small paintings and photographic reproductions, which have the silent, layered beauty of calligraphy in an unfamiliar alphabet; Christian Marclay’s 24-hour collage of film excerpts, “The Clock’’ (for which the artist deservedly won the Golden Lion for best artist); and James Turrell’s conjoined chambers flooded with changing colored light.

Gabriel Kuri’s set of sculptures made from dissonant, found materials makes a stronger case for this artist’s originality than his recent show at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art. And I liked, too, a display of 15 elaborately finished architectural models by the exiled Georgian Andro Wekua. The shabby but architecturally intriguing buildings were reconstructed from fragments of memory and Internet research; they hauntingly evoke exile and loss.

Curiously, several of the more compelling artists Curiger chose are dead, among them the great Sigmar Polke; the Ethiopian artist and healer Gedewon; the embroiderer, mystic, and psychiatric patient Jeanne Wintsch; and the US-based Frenchman Guy de Cointet.

A film by the late Jack Goldstein, converting the leap of a diver into a rapturous animation of disco-ball lights that flare up then flame out, won me over. And it was great to see reinstalled here “Spazio Elastico,’’ by the Italian Gianni Colombo, an installation that took first prize at the Biennale in 1968.

Colombo, too, is no longer with us. His work, a three-dimensional grid of taut, fluorescent elastic strings, fills a small darkened room. The angles of some of the threads shift, disturbing our spatial awareness. The work hints — in the most restrained, formal way — at parallel existences. A set of colored photographs by the late Italian Luigi Ghirri are bravura in their treatment of the line between reality and artifice.

Fine as the highlights are, they nonetheless feel anomalous in the context of a show that is clogged with flimsy, pretentious gestures, and has little of the unforced intelligence and casual coherence of Daniel Birnbaum’s 2009 Biennale.

The jokesters are out in force: Maurizio Cattelan reprises work from the previous Biennale, installing stuffed pigeons in the rafters. (The piece is called “Turisti,’’ or “Tourists.’’)

Urs Fischer has remade Giovanni Bologna’s iconic 16th-century marble sculpture, “The Rape of the Sabines,’’ in wax, and has lighted a wick protruding at the top. The whole sculpture will melt (and harden in puddles below) over the course of the exhibition.

Ryan Gander crops up throughout the show with little conceits, including a coin taped to the floor and a miniature sculptural self-portrait of the artist after falling out of a wheelchair.

Other works may not be intended as jokes, but they have the effect of ham-fisted one-liners. The painter Llyn Foulkes superimposes the head of Mickey Mouse on the face of George Washington. Klara Lidén installs a series of used public trash cans. And, tipping over the line that separates insouciance from pathos, Bruno Jakob has one of his so-called “invisible paintings’’ (in this case, an empty white card on a string suspended from the ceiling and twisting in the air currents) occupying the same room as the three Tintorettos.

Meanwhile, the national pavilions were their usual eclectic, schizophrenic selves. In these haunted exhibition buildings, erected over the past century with quantities of nationalistic idealism that no longer pertain, artists chosen by their countries pit themselves against expectations that inevitably warp their intentions. Only the best succeed.

This year, the best was Mike Nelson, who converted the interior of the imposing, neo-classical British Pavilion into a meticulously detailed re-creation of an abandoned Turkish workshop. His reasons for doing what he does are as labyrinthine and arcane as the interiors he re-creates. This piece, for instance, reprises a similar interior he built inside a 17th-century caravanserai, or roadside inn, in Istanbul, for a biennial there.

In the details of the new piece, Nelson hints at historical connections between east-facing Venice and west-facing Istanbul. But in the end, the work gains its charge from the fact that it neither looks like art, nor lends itself to the kinds of interpretation most art invites.

The effect, instead, is disorienting and visceral. One wanders through the space as if through an abandoned building out of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel, “The Road.’’ One feels not so much immersed in the past as dislodged from the present.

Evidence of habitation, of work and making do, are everywhere. Mysteriously, a photographer’s darkroom is at the heart of the labyrinth, with drying photos of subjects that are uncannily familiar hanging from strings.

Sometimes, it’s good when you can’t say what art means. Other times, it’s a sign that something is wrong.

And so it is at the US Pavilion, which is playing host to sculptures and performances by the young Puerto Rico-based duo Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla. Sniffing their big chance, Allora and Calzadilla have pulled out all stops — literally, in the case of their noisy organ-attached-to-an-ATM-machine.

But their work — which also includes US gymnasts performing routines on wooden replicas of business class airline seats; a copy of the sculpture known as “Armed Freedom’’ from atop the United States Capitol lying on a tanning bed; and an upside-down tank with a treadmill attached to the tracks upon which US athletes run at given intervals — is just as it sounds: embarrassingly overwrought.

To the extent that they are political, these works cloak their critique (of US imperialism, nationalism, consumerism) in a distracting edifice of conceptual chicanery. And to the extent that they are aesthetic gambits (sculpture, performance, and a tanning salon rolled into one) they are simply preposterous.

The US Pavilion was not the only one serving up pointless extravagance. Thomas Hirschhorn converted the Swiss Pavilion into one of his dizzying conglomerations of consumerist junk, brown tape, and reflective insulating material, interspersed with documentary images of extreme violence and suffering. The effect was impressive at first, but so over-the-top that you had to recoil.

Unlike many, I preferred the French Pavilion, where Christian Boltanski has built a multilevel factory conveyor belt churning out enlarged, black-and-white images of babies’ faces. The work was not just unsettling and spectacular; it had a lucidity that was in short supply elsewhere.

The Golden Lion for best national pavilion went to Germany’s Christoph Schlingensief. This was strange, because Schlingensief died last year, long before he came anywhere near finalizing his plans.

The curator he was working with took over, and created a multiscreen compilation of his films, as well as material relating to his life and death, all of it installed in a theatrical, church-like interior.

It was not the artist’s intended work. It should not have won.

The received wisdom is that contemporary art is mostly about ideas. In truth, however, it’s mostly about gestures.

Sustained engagement and the kind of mental activity that generates actual ideas are rare. In today’s art world, one gesture is completed, and a new one must be dreamed up. Curiger’s inclusion of the three Tintorettos in her main exhibit was an attempt at mitigating historical amnesia. But this, too, was ultimately an isolated gesture. As soon as you left the room, you left Tintoretto behind.

Clearly, if contemporary art is going to extend its hand to the past, less tokenistic models need to be found. Such models do exist, and they can be sampled easily enough in Venice.

On the island of San Giorgio, for instance, is an excellent show called “Penelope’s Labor,’’ which traces the history of weaving across many centuries, right up to ambitious present-day designs that rely on sophisticated computer programming.

Just a few vaporetto (water bus) stops up Venice’s Grand Canal, meanwhile, two palazzos have been converted into stupendous displays combining contemporary, modern, and ancient art in meaningful ways.

One is at the Ca’ Corner della Regina, which has been converted by the Prada Foundation into a set of galleries displaying highlights from the collection of Miuccia Prada and her husband, Patrizio Bertelli.

The collection focuses on postwar art by Italians such as Alberto Burri, Lucio Fontana, and Piero Manzoni, as well as by an international cast of modern and contemporary stars, from Donald Judd and Frank Stella to Charles Ray, Jeff Koons, and Damien Hirst.

What makes the show special is not just the uniformly high quality of the work, but the inspired pairings of past objects with contemporary pieces. Koons’s neo-rococo fantasy sculptures are paired, for instance, with a whole ensemble of actual rococo porcelain figurines. Brilliant!

Not far away, at the Palazzo Fortuny, the Belgian dealer Axel Vervoordt has mounted the latest of three breathtaking shows (timed to coincide with successive biennials) that mix together contemporary video pieces and light installations with works by old and modern masters (Mark Rothko, Pieter De Hooch), ancient classical or Asian sculptures, cuneiform tablets, textiles, furniture, and much else besides. The latest installation, called simply “TRA,’’ has, for instance, a room given over to theater models and stage sets (including by the palazzo’s onetime owner, Mariano Fortuny).

“TRA’’ is as good as either of Vervoordt’s preceding shows. Much of the work is for sale (as it effectively is in the Biennale proper, of course) and it carries with it the faint odor of a brilliant dealer’s display of “taste.’’ But informing that taste is a catholic intelligence, and a view of art that is infinitely richer and deeper than what is on offer in Curiger’s central show.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.

VENICE BIENNALE: 54th International Art Exhibition and affiliated exhibitions

Various locations, Venice. Through Nov. 27. www.labiennale.org