Odysseus does not get bored: Venetian Wanderings, Part 1
von Thomas Wagner | Jul 9, 2009

Various things have changed in the Venetian gardens of art: the German pavilion at long last has a kitchen, albeit not one in which you can cook, and the French one opposite has a long cage for predators weary of the revolution; and a pavilion (we hadn't realized how bad things were in Denmark) was actually up for sale. But in the navy's former arsenal mirrors were once again getting shattered.

No more boring art, promised

Venice is a heart of stone promising consolation, through whose veins any amount of old and new, private and public desires get pumped. Be they your own or of others, to keep track of them you will as ever need to wander through the labyrinth of alleyways, chug along in a vaporetto on the crowded Canal Grande or cross it (by far the cheapest way to take a gondola) by traghetto. Once you're on the Dorsoduro side and stand waiting outside the church of Santa Maria della Salute to enter the former main customs office, redesigned by Tadao Ando, in which French billionaire François Pinault now boastfully displays his latest acquisitions, then you will spy, on the façade of the Ca' Giustinian (where, after a long time, the renovation work has just been completed and as of recently home to the Biennial organizing office) a banner visible from afar. "I will not make any more boring art," US artist John Baldessari has written on it. But then who is likely to get bored in Venice even if the art is boring?

The concept is not that antiquated, after all

It goes without saying that not all the artists who present works in Venice (be it officially as part of the 53rd Art Biennial or in one of the fringe events) have come good on such a promise. Even if what counts as boring is a moot point. Yet it would have been praiseworthy if the critics had taken their cue from Baldessari instead of once again, in some knee-jerk response, repeating the mantra-like accusation, that the concept of the country pavilions in the Giardini has outlived its welcome. First, without the trenchant question of whether and how art can insert itself into the framework of a nation-state and what representation today means in such a context, the Biennial would have been reduced to one more major exhibition (conceived this time by a single curator). Second, at the end of the day it is the artists who represent themselves. Third, the antiquated model this time once again guaranteed a diverse mixture of exhibits that were certainly not all bent to fit a pre-given theme to illustrate which works from any number of countries and epochs are bundled together. And fourthly, this time the Venetian art-potpourri was especially vibrant precisely in the Giardini, even if it was indeed on occasion boring that some works (viz. the German Pavilion) mainly revolved around history, the venue and the event itself.

And there's an exhibition crisis, too

As always, there's more on show than you can digest in only a few days. Nevertheless, for all the diversity three observations can be made. Alongside the question as to who represents whom in the national pavilions and whether, the Golden Lion bestowed on Bruce Nauman for the best country pavilion was awarded to an artist or to his country of origin, a quite different crisis of representation is discernible. It relates to the different concepts for what is generally termed an exhibition. Thus, a work such as the environment "The Collectors" by Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset in the pavilion dedicated to the Nordic countries and Denmark involves not only any number of topical references and a critical focus on Modernism, since mutated into a lifestyle; it also sheds a harsh light on a conventional form of exhibition such as that created by Daniel Birnbaum in the former Italian Pavilion in the Giardini and in the Arsenale halls. Theatrical it may be the ironic staging of a collector, who lies dead in a swimming pool, while in his Modernist bungalow naked catamites lounge on designer furniture sensually before works of contemporary art and in the house next door (up for sale) noble artworks lie in stacks, but the stairwell in the library is decrepit. However, Elmgreen & Dragset create a precise narrative framework within which we can see more and sees things differently, than in the "Fare mundo - Making Worlds - Weltenmachen" show. While the latter offers a seemingly clear series of exhibits, the artworks all in the final instance seem merely to be selected to prove some hypothesis or other, or function like a row of goods at a fair.

World views dished up

And another phenomenon is clearly in evidence, one that seems predestined to doubt the will of the artists to find the right artistic form, or their ability to do so. Not a few works take the stage as if an artwork were nothing other than the more or less successful illustration of the artist's opinion or world view; as if all that counted were the "subject" that they seek to transport. Be it paintings, videos or installations, they all dish up a kind of world view that is presented in different media states or extended in space, as if the sole focus was to address "important subjects" such as environmental destruction, global networks or migration. Today, it would seem that it is not enough for an artwork to appear in a specific medium, in fact to perhaps only be possible in it. What the artist feels is the message has then to be processed in multimedia or presented/stated in multiples. The spectrum here ranges from Pavel Pepperstein, who vamps up his watercolors of utopian designs for monuments with multimedia through to Pascale Marthines who has an African village outfitted with video films and the Guyton/Walker paint pots and transport crates in the entrance to the former Italian Pavilion in the Giardini, over the entry to which stands "La Biennale".

Possibly, many contemporary works as a result only seem well-intentioned. And your own conscience gets calmed. But this does not suffice to make an aesthetic statement, which is more than an opinion. Thus, I found myself regularly feeling that in the multimedia multiplication of the message I was witnessing the unconscious undercurrent of contemporary art which, boosted by its market successes, on the hand showcases itself with great confidence (at times even triumphantly) and, on the other, does not trust its own potential. Perhaps this is the blind spot of contemporary art.

Venetian ramblings

As in recent years there has been a pronounced tendency for an artist to explain his own works in the form of a video clip and this above all outline the intentions, or, alternatively, to offer a more or less critical commentator asserting an opinion that matches his own (again often per video clip), we shall deliberately take a different approach. In coming weeks, we will present a loose-leaf sequence of articles on the individual pavilions, works, exhibitions at the Arsenale, and in the central "La Biennale" pavilion - after all, the 53rd Biennale di Venezia runs through November 22. Or we will spotlight thematic areas. And examine them all critically. In terms of intrinsic movement, this approach emulates that of the visitor to the Giardini, Arsenale and (seeking out the pavilions and exhibition venues scattered around the city) to Venice and its alleyways and canals.

In line with the idea of a visit where you drift or simply give yourself over to the vagaries of change (such as long queues or encounters), places and constellations will emerge, symbolic orders explored, and cracks appear in our everyday view of the world. Since you rarely know what to expect, you will be entranced by the unforeseen, transported into different worlds or times by installations or videos, or confronted with memories of other works and places. You wander around exploring the territory of art in the way it spreads out across real territory. With the route not running from A to B, from one place to another, but essentially aimlessly, as if simply enjoying the countryside where there are no straight lines and the respective place you reach always inhibits movement, is an obstacle to it. With such a tour, surprising mixtures arise, the real and the symbolic merge, and things local and global blend joyfully in the hunt for art, events, and the extraordinary.

Hunting for art

"In the old language of hunters," writes philosopher Michel Serres, "courir à randon means pursuing the wild animal, be it following a stag on horseback, on the path that he follows between being discovered and falling to the ground. In his stormy race he often had to change direction, and suddenly charge off at right angles to avoid the pack. However, the dogs repeatedly led the music, the riders, the whole shebang of the drivers back in the right direction. Randon, in the middle of the English Channel or the St. Lawrence, is shared by the French and English languages. In the French, at the end it meant a very long and difficult walk, a hike, while in English it became random and preserved the idea of the irregular, unforeseen flight of the wild animal and means ‘chance'. I would like to use randonnée in a sense that is very close to its original meaning and augment it in terms of a few coincidental aspects as regards the choice of direction taken and the length of the path trodden. The weather, the difficult tides and the adverse currents frequently turn an Odyssey into such a randonnée. The coincidence of diverse circumstances caused Odysseus to leave the best path." (Michel Serres, "Die fünf Sinne, Methode und Wanderung (global und lokal)," [Frankfurt/Main, 1993], p. 349)

In Venice, the artwork is a wild animal that is hunted while you walk. And there is no straight path. Instead, you will need to ramble, go now this way now that if you are to remain on the track of the current lines dividing the world from art.

53rd International Art Exhibition in Venezia
7th June to 22nd November 2009

For Sale: Danish Pavillon
Nordic Pavillon, The Collectors by Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset
Installation by Guyton/Walker
Façade arrangement by John Baldessari for the pavillon La Biennale
Grecian Pavillon, Paraxena by Lucas Samaras
Sculpture by Charles Ray
Pinault’s museum, Rachel Whiteread, Untitled (One Hundred Spaces) 1995
Pinault’s museum, work by Richard Prince
Pinault’s museum, Rudolf Stingel, Untitled (2008)
Pinault’s museum, Bourgeois Bust - Jeff and Ilona by Jeff Koons (1991)
Pinault’s museum, Train, Pig, Island by Paul McCarthy (2007)
Australia Pavillon, Life Span by Claire Healy & Sean Cordeiro
France Pavillon, Environment by Claude Lévêque
View on the private museum of François Pinault
Korean Pavillon with works by Hague Yang
Grecian Pavillon, Chair one by Konstantin Grcic
Austria Pavillon, works by Franziska and Lois Weinberger
Pinault’s museum, work by David Hammons
Pinault’s museum, Maurizio Cattelan, Untitled (2007)
Pinault’s museum, Rudolf Stingel, Untitled (2008)
Pinault’s museum, work by Fischli and Weiss