Seeing remains a specifically sited enterprise, it seems at times, against every mirage of neutrality or cosmopolitan haze that threatens to be whipped up by Biennials of Art. The peculiarly localized, and irresistibly visible, city of Venice was the first civic site to host that sort of show, back in 1895. Seeking ways to revive the city culturally in the wake of Austrian colonization, the local council engineered an international exhibition mirroring the universal expos popular at the time, but with a Venetian slant: this event would be devoted exclusively to art, not to industrial progress.
What difference does the backdrop of the Biennale make, really? Artists attuned to context, running the gamut from Marinetti and Giacometti to Jenny Holzer and Yona Friedman, have been compelled to address this question for decades, however profoundly or cursorily. As an environment reeking with history and immediate sensuousness, Venice continues to impinge upon the pieces installed in the Napoleonic Gardens, the Arsenal, and more recently, a rash of palaces and warehouses around the greater archipelago, which have been transformed temporarily into pavilions for previously unrepresented nation-states. Since site-specificity is still received as a mark of authenticity and responsibility—as a counter to commodification, in short—a mass of participants register efforts to confront or co-opt the city’s well-disseminated structure, aura, or conglomerate cliché. Irrepressible contradictions surrounding the placement of “art in the present tense” within this antique metropolis—one endangered equally by efforts of modernization and preservation—continue to drive some to responses that matter.
Visitors to the Arsenal exhibits of the 52nd Biennale find themselves colliding from the first with cunning displays of “anachroheroism” in Luca Buvoli’s A Very Beautiful Day After Tomorrow (Entanglement of Modernist Myths) (2007). Cleverly placed in the first gallery of the ex-rope factory, the installation capsizes the modernist injunctions this kind of current event so observably shadows. Buvoli aims in particular at the Futurists, who were so aggravated by the abjection of feminine, romantic, moonlit, decaying, touristy Venice that its founders had to negate the place as part of a process of self-invention, airdropping leaflets of a manifesto “Against Passéist Venice” from the Clock Tower in St. Mark’s Square onto tourists during the 9th Exposition. (The document called for the cityscape’s demolition and replacement by an industrial port.) Buvoli’s “Propaganda Posters” hung around the gallery gloss an interview conducted with Vittoria Marinetti, the eldest daughter of F.T. She recounts on-screen that at her father’s deathbed in the mid-1940s, worried about his illness and about the political situation in Italy, she asked, “what happens now?” His response: “Remember: ‘now’ isn’t important. There will be a very beautiful day after tomorrow.” The self-contradictory quote ricochets across the gallery walls. Collateral videos cross-examine the relations between futurism, fascism, and sexism through montages of archival foot-age and interviews conducted with academics and other family members. Filmic excerpts from Velocity Zero (Aphasia) feature patients of speech pathology clinics stammering their way through pronunciation of the first Futurist Manifesto’s tenets. Aphasia slows down and corrupts the Futurist agenda considerably: “No work with-out an aggressive character can be a masterpiece” comes out “No world without an election can be a Mose’s—pace.” Throughout, mounted and suspended planes in turquoise and pinkish glass, resin, and marble mosaic recall Cubist, Futurist, and Suprematist abstraction while echoing the hues and suppleness of local materials. After lingering in these galleries, it becomes harder to accept the Futurists’ utopian assertion that “Time and Space died yesterday.”
“We are sick of amorous adventures, of luxury, of sentimentalism and of nostalgia!” Marinetti blared at Venetians during his counter-passéist performance of 1910. Storr’s theme, yoking “art in the present tense” to the injunction “Pensa con i sensi—Senti con la mente” (“think with the senses—feel with the mind”), plumbs channels of sentiment and non-discursive thought that have seduced artists of every moment to this romantic, quasi-corporeal cityscape for epochs. But it may be the mediation of the present tense that best embodies both the Biennale’s backdrop and the works it has provoked this year.
In the Giardini, artists of the Russian pavilion—themed “Click I Hope”—address the fallout and perversion of 20th-century utopian calls to presence with a researched immediacy. AES+F (Tatyana Arzamasova, Lev Evzovich, Evgeny Svyatsky and Vladimir Fridkes) have generated the magnificently post-apocalyptic Last Riot, a several-screen panorama and “three-dimensional animated model of cyberspace.” Neither film nor video game, the work features a cast of androgynous, puerile protagonists against a pastichey virtual landscape bedecked with derailing trains and indifferent merry-go-rounds. It could easily function as a model of the Futurists’ 11th proposi-tion, or their scheme for Venice, vacated and short-circuited:
We will sing of great crowds excited…by riot;…we will sing of the vibrant nightly fervor of arsenals and shipyards blazing with violent electric moons; greedy railway stations that devour smoke-plumed serpents…bridges that stride the rivers like giant gymnasts, flashing in the sun with a glitter of knives;…deep-chested locomotives whose wheels paw the tracks like the hooves of enormous steel horses bridled by tubing; and the sleek flight of planes whose propellers chatter in the wind…
In AES+F’s manipulations, nubile mimes of tableaux vivants rehearse aggression in feedback loops. Captives of a Wagner score punctuated by horn blares, the Mannerist adolescents nearly wrench and stab each other’s limbs over and over like so much pretty screen saver against courses of deserted warfare and Alpine mounts.
Their perpetually suspended future/present is offset by Alexander Ponomarev’s neighboring installations, which foreground the kinship and contrast between media and flood. His collaboration with Arseny Mescheryakov, Shower, dedicated to Nam June Paik, invites viewers into a stall of streams from over 1,000 TV channels, where they can choose between waves of commercials, nature, porn, sports, breaking news, and so forth. In Windshield Wipers, the stream is literalized as ludic squirts rinse screens of media footage away to reveal a video feed of the Venetian cityscape, seen from across the lagoon. Accompanying texts echo Rodchenko’s dictum, “One must see the world with morning eyes,” but the hour of the Venetian “broadcast” could as easily—and perhaps more appropriately—be read as dusk.
Bruce Nauman’s Venice Fountains, in the Italian pavilion, swerves from technophilia, co-opting instead the tawdrily utilitarian and ad hoc. The piece’s mechanics are rudimentary: two makeshift work sinks reroute surges of water into tubes that feed waxed plaster masks hung in reverse from the wall; the water spurts from mask mouths through drains to end up in all-purpose buckets and back through exposed hoses. The effect is corporeal and a little seedy, as if the recycled channels were flows through a couple of missing bodies. Venice is not a city of fountains, like Rome, but of wells; water pressure is too precious in the city of canals. (Nauman must’ve taken a shower or two here.) As an aggressive memento of the most basic feats of engineering necessary to instrumentalize so much flood, Nauman’s installation stands as one of the exhibit’s most sincere engagements with the Venetian ecosystem.
Other installations respond to the ambient in more classic forms. Eric Duyckaerts has wrought a labyrinth of glass and mirrors for the Belgian pavilion that echoes the Venetian maze in frostily corporate planes, annotated by the “logodaedalian ’s” strategically absurd video declamations on topology, error, and amazement. Maaria Wirkkala’s Landing Prohibited, in the Aalto pavilion, makes gorgeously intimidating sea-chunks of the glass that assails flâneurs and windowshoppers alike. Troels Wörsel painted a series of canvases for the Danish pavilion that set place-names and jetsam of Venetian tropes—such as the “closed labyrinth’s” ubiquitous indicating arrows—against what he calls a “realistic color scheme,” particular to these pieces and derived from photographs of the place. Other acrylics are bright azure and painted on the canvas’s reverse, reading “ERAM”/ “EPLA” (“SEA”/ “ALPS”) backwards with their arrows and asterisks, as if they were stains seen from behind. When asked about the narrative qualities of the place-names and motifs, Wörsel spells out that they “just signify distance.”
In an interview conducted with Vipash Purichanont and Surakarn Thoesomboon, Thai artist Nipan Oranniwesna remains steadfastly humble about the “site-specific” character of his installation, City of Ghosts. He says he wasn’t able to dwell in the space—a ground floor off the Fondamenta di San Simon Piccolo—long enough to familiarize himself with it; and he is frank about the work’s link to Ghost Skin, produced for Big Sky Mind in Cubao. In Venice as in Cubao, he designed a conglomerate city out of scored and superimposed metropolis maps, then erected it in so many painstaking sprinkles of lavender-scented Johnson & Johnson baby powder into a sand-box-like expanse on the floor. Perhaps the portability of this City of Ghosts, reechoing the pavilion’s injunction, “Globalization…Please Slow Down,” composes an even more exacting and genuine representation of the fragility of this particular city, and of the metropolis writ large as well. Formed according to “the key of ‘dis-tance,’” the talcum metropolis is a rejoinder to lugubrious conclusions about the fate of site-specific art. It urges us instead toward meditations of the kind Miwon Kwon calls for in conjuring “the critical capacity of intimacies based on absence, distance, and ruptures of time and space.” “We are in it so uninterruptedly, at home and a-broad, that there is scarcely a pressure upon us to seek it in one place more than in another,” wrote Henry James in “The Grand Canal,” back in 1892.
The actual Venice pavilion, neglected for years, finally houses an exhibit in homage to the Venetian Emilio Vedova this season. Plans are in the works to erect a Vedova museum in the vicinity of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. Will such an institution enhance the veritable presence of Venice among living cities, or further embalm it for tourists? That remains to be seen.
Jennifer Scappettone's current book projects include From Dame Quickly (poems), Locomotrix: Selected Poetry of Amelia Rosselli (translations), Venice and the Digressive Invention of the Modern (a critical study of the obsolescent metropolis as a crucible for modernism), and Exit 43 (an archaeology of the landfill and opera of pop-ups in progress, commissioned by Atelos Press). She is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Chicago.