The "Luna" lies at anchor alongside the quay not far from the Giardini, generously cordoned off and strictly guarded from morning till night. The yacht belongs to the Russian oligarch and billionaire Roman Abramovich. It is 115 meters long and certainly does not look as sinister as the warship of one of the world-ruler-pretends James Bond tends to hunt down; although word has it (and the details are kept secret) that it is just as armed. The "Luna" is definitely not the only luxury yacht that has anchored in the lagoon during preview time, but it is certainly the largest of the super-riches' toys here and the highly visible landmark of the 54th Venice Art Biennial.
The dark yacht is no artwork and more a blemish. You will look in vain for a comparable signal elsewhere in the Biennial. Not even the veritable tank that Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla have positioned on its turret outside the US pavilion like some bug that has been killed, and on whose rattling tracks professional athletes in their national strip wear themselves out on treadmills comes anywhere near the symbolism of the "Luna". Along with some other factors, its presence impacts on art, above all on what we could term arts operating system or frame.
The art market's and collectors' power is tantamount everywhere
The super-yacht stands for power, for the power of money and the art market, and you needn't be an enemy of art or a cultural pessimist to see that under the given conditions no part of this huge spectacle can be harmless, idealist or simply art any longer. In light of this floating "moon" much has darkened, and it makes little difference if Bice Curiger, as director of the current biennial, calls her show in the Arsenal and the Padiglione delle Esposizioni in the Giardini "ILLUMInations". Neither does it exude that much light, nor does the show with pieces by 83 artists have the potential to enlighten the visitor on the darknesses and absurdities, the abysses, inconsequentiality, and schizophrenia of the present age, especially as here, too, you would only need to copy down the names of all the galleries who display "their" artists to be back at the power of the market.
It would be silly to try and make money and power solely responsible for the largely fatal harmlessness of this Biennial, with the exception of a few critical/political rays of light. There is no longer any ducking the question: Are not such exhibition events, largely driven by the art market and used by the oligarchs of the art business as the backdrop for the appearance they put in, out of date? The answer is clear: They are indeed – to the extent that they simply reproduce what they claim to reflect on or criticize. Or, put differently, the biennial as a whole in the phenomenon to be studied, and not the one or other artwork worthy of consideration.
Art has reached the pinnacle of its popularity
While 20 years ago people were still discussing whether art would dissolve into philosophy, the current biennial marks a caesura of another kind. It shows that art has reached the zenith of its popularity and has morphed completely into a spectacle and also a prospering part of a global entertainments industry. It is not as though there were a complete lack of individual pieces that are artistically persuasive and critical, such as Thomas Hirschhorn's decidedly immoderate and irritating total installation at the Swiss pavilion or Yael Bartana's confrontation with nationalism and anti-Semitism in the Polish pavilion. However, there critical thrust gets lost in the huge spectacle bubble that so ties down our attention. The main thing: to achieve a long queue in front of your pavilion. Thus, many of the works on show merely illustrate the one or other "opinion", offer well-meant advice or routinely visualize ideological leftovers, without finding the appropriate artistic expression for the joys, sensations, wounds, abysses or facts of current life; indeed, without even finding a condensed, valid and shattering image for part of our perceptible world. Is almost seems as if all the zest is gone and the aesthetic/artistic possibilities have all been exhausted for tackling the present in a manner that is not journalistic or "well intended". This constantly causes art to be reduced to posturing nostalgically or acting as the generator of diffuse feelings.
Any number of refined references
Just how touristy so much of it is designed to be, and made, can be seen from the swarms of (stuffed) pigeons that Mauricio Cattelan has spread across the entire central pavilion. He himself, and that itself is symbolic, lies in dual versions as a miniature comic figure in the bed of French luxury goods man and Gucci owner François Pinault , or to be more precise in the show "The Mondo Appartient To You" in the "Palazzo Grassi" the latter runs.
Bice Curiger, or so I read, wanted a show "without limits". The lack of concept underpinning the central exhibition that in part simply creates a row of high-end museum rooms without it becoming clear what is intended or what the goal is; but that is only surprising until you realize that the art business suffices unto itself. What is spread before us everywhere are formalisms, the one or other given a pretty poetic touch, or art auto-references, routine, sleek, free of grease or dust, presented with the usual media means of today, but with no urgency. Rarely do you find research that delves to the roots or changes of perspective that knock you out of your socks or even irritating translocations.
Bice Curiger's Biennial show deliberately opts for sensitive-refined, museum balance rather than excitation or agitation. It looks for the art in and behind the political statement, but it tends to lose its way in empty gestures or art-historical references that redirect us viewers on to the next piece, the next link, the next reference as if we were Internet users. That it is often precisely such pieces that bagged the awards, is demonstrated by Christian Marclay's film collage "The Clock", which you can watch on sofas in the Arsenal in an improvised cinema. Marclay has with great diligence cut countless sequences from movies in which clocks show precisely the hours and minutes that pass at that moment in the auditorium. The splicing or fictitious and real time remains, however, merely a banal, ready-to-consume misunderstanding as elaborate as it is without edge.
Tintoretto as a source of inspiration
Even Jacopo Tintoretto, of whom three works are presented in the Giardini, has to help out to upgrade the present – for example ostensibly as inspiration for Monica Bonvicini's "stairs" (which in itself is a successful piece) or as the partial source of the choice of colors for James Turrell's limitless light room. Urs Fischer then actually represents how inspiration by past art burns down like a candle – in the Arsenal, where he sacrifices a wax version of Giambologna's "Rape of the Sabines" (1583) to gradual destruction by fire. Along with another two candles – the one an office chair and a contemporary observer (who the initiate will recognize as a portrait of his fellow artist Rudolf Stingel), to mention another set of references.
And faces with all the ILLUMInations you find yourself constantly asking: So what's it all about? Poetry, painting, poetic painting, historical reflection, mere effects? Of course you can discover things in any mixture, but even if Dayanita Singh photographs mountains of files in archives in New Delhi, visually linking bureaucracy and order/disorder, this simply remains another number in the major art revue in the concert of the harmless. Even if Monika Sosnowska in one of the four so-called "Para Pavilions" (multi-artist collaborative walk-through installations that are exhibitions in the exhibition) troubles our sense of space no less than David Goldblatt unstelles our sense of justice and morality with his photographs of criminals at the scene of their crimes, this, too, remains an exception. It tends to be a coincidence when you encounter politics in this finely made and clean labyrinth, so free of contradictions.
Punk festival with blast furnace
Things only get a little more lively at the very end of the Arsenale grounds. There, artists from the Gelitin group have installed a very special cycle. A huge heap of wood, a pile of glass splitters, and a blast furnace, from the glowing heart of which runs liquid glass. Here in the shade you can play music, drink a white wine with friends and then condemn the empty bottle to the furnace. Here you can sense not only Murano but also a different, more relaxed form of consumption and production, consumerism and recycling, real and symbolic, bereft of celebrities and yachts and modernism, nations and illumi-nations, presented on the situationist stage of a Punk-ish open-air festivals, where any attempt at finding a hidden meaning fails. For a moment the face greed dons on Sunday is gone. Only here does the biennial become a lab of civilization instead of a business with sensitivity and tourism. All of it may be intended as art, but not everything that is used is really art. It will take a while until contemporary art has recovered from its devaluation through excess valuation.
Art as the stage for grand feelings
The flipside of the refined references to other art and its history is the authentic artist. Suddenly, it's all about life and death. In fact, the contribution in the Egyptian pavilion is shocking. Ahmed Basiony, one of the country's most important artists, was killed on January 28 of this year, aged only 32, during the Egyptian revolution on Tahir Square in Cairo. And what we now see (on a long wall full of videoscreens) is how, clad in a suit made of plastic foil, permanently physically tires himself out in order to record the daily energy consumption and bodily input and then visualize it. Together with the videos he shot in January during the uprising in Cairo, "30 Days of Running in the Place" becomes an allegory of the decades of running on the spot that was ended by the Arab revolution.
You step onto a completely different stage in the German pavilion. Here again the artist (Christoph Schlingensief) is no longer alive, and here again the staging serves to celebrate the authentic. Back in 2003 he staged a walk-through action art theater in the Arsenal's gardens relating to his "Church of Fear" and now the pavilion merely offers a requiem on the artist who was so fascinating precisely because of what he would do was so drastically unforeseeable, mixing theater, film, opera, performance and installations. In the main hall the stage for the "Kirche der Angst vor dem Fremden in mir" (church of fear of the foreigner within myself) has been re-erected that Schlingensief designed for the Ruhr Triennial in 2008. In the wing on the right there are six of his films, in that on the left his plans for an "opera village" complete with school, canteen, sick bay and festival hall in Burkina Faso.
The problem is not that Christoph Schlingensief is on show. On the contrary. Were he still alive we would have needed to ready ourselves for a strident, African-German twirl where no one would have emerged unscathed. This way, however, we get commemoration as gushy heroicization, the exhibition becomes idolatry of an uncomfortable spirit. The fact that this no longer subversive church won the Golden Lion for the best pavilion simply fits into the picture. Because only one thing is beyond dispute today: the artist as hero and his purported irrepressible, authentic artistry. Painting the word "Egomania" over the vignette "Germania" expresses it well: the artist stands above all else, he is inviolable in his egomaniacal interpretation of the day, however crude it may be. To this extent, the Golden Lion ratifies the fundamental law of the current art republic in which attention and authenticity are everything.
The biennial as wind machine
"La Biennale is like a wind machine," professed its President Paolo Baratta candidly. Every two years it tears into the forest, discovers hidden truths and brings light and strength to young shoots by offering a different angle on known branches and old trunks. One part of this is right: a lot of wind is generated. People celebrate their good consciences because they are part of things and on the right side. The rest is fame. And that begs craves admiration. Albeit, if we follow Elias Canetti, the differences between the rich, the powerful and the famous can be grasped as possible: the rich collect heaps and herds, the powerful collects people, and the famous collect choirs. Canetti writes that the latter "only wants to hear them say his name. It's irrelevant whether they are dead or alive or not yet born, as long as they are big and have practiced saying his name." The enjoyment intensification game of art has produced any number of choirs in Venice.
Already published in our series on the 54th Venice Art Biennial:
> "Out of Africa and Fear" by Thomas Wagner