Maja and Reuben Fowkes

Don’t Complain!

‘Don’t Complain’ is the message of the Turkish pavilion, however there is little in the 52 nd Venice Biennial to bring you to your knees. The colourful pavilions in the Giardini attract the most initial interest and the spirit of friendly national competition is extended to the receptions and parties that smooth the preview days. The central exhibition in the Arsenale seems designed to avoid over-enthusiastic reactions in favour of a contemplative and intelligent response in the spirit of ‘slow art’. The result is a toned down account of contemporary art that does not seek to seduce, excite or create a spectacle.

American curator Robert Storr’s ‘Think with your Senses, Feel with your Mind’ creates an ideologically neutral atmosphere that excludes serious consideration of social and political realities. This basically conservative standpoint is expressed in a curatorial statement in which he rejects ‘all-encompassing ideological or theoretical proposals’ in favour of a basic attitude to art according to which ‘every art work speaks for itself.’ Visitors are not burdened with interpretative texts, subtitles or colour schemes, and can proceed through the show without the interference of an over-zealous curatorial meta-narrative. He chooses not to create additional meanings through the relational positioning of art works, but instead to allow both ‘harmonious and dissonant’ correspondences to emerge that amplify the sense of the diversity of art works ‘created in different languages.’

The show takes a global overview and there is little attempt to introduce a sense of the complexity of individual works against the background of their production in a specific place and time. Andrei Monastyrski’s Collective Actions in the remote Russian countryside of the mid-1970s have been bafflingly redone for Venice using ‘google earth’ to pinpoint new locations for mystical outdoor happenings. This fashionable re-enactment of a classic East European conceptual art piece is in Arsenale effectively stripped of its historical signification.

If Storr’s exhibition has a leitmotif, then it is probably war and mortality. It is there in Charles Gaines’ Airplanecrash clock, a kinetic sculpture in which a plane hurtles down through skyscrapers, you can feel its presence in the many photographs of bombed out buildings, in Netko Solakov’s ultimately pointless investigation into the international trade in copyright infringing Bulgarian Kalashnikov’s, and in Neil Hamon’s touching portraits of soldiers. It is however always someone else’s war, the destruction is in Belgrade or Beirut, but not Bagdad. Rosemary Laing’s photographs of barbed-wire encircled camps for illegal immigrants are set in the Australian outback, not Guantanamo Bay. In a show somewhat short on direct engaging works, Yang Zhenzhong’s I Will Die projects on six screens and shows ordinary people interrupting their daily business to make this short, unequivocal statement to the camera. The other video work projected to monumental effect is Paolo Canevari’s exploitative conceit showing a boy kicking a skull around a bombsite like a football, a work that clearly shares a fascination with the macabre and is open to vague metaphorical interpretation.

The United States pavilion at the Venice Biennial successfully sidestepped live global issues by featuring the work of an artist whose social and political critique was frozen by his sudden death in the mid-90s. Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s ‘America’ is immediately likeable, but leaves you wondering how sincere this resurrection of a Cuban-born, gay conceptualist and cultural activist as the national representative of the United States really is. While philosophically there is no reason why the work of a dead artist cannot be contemporary, there is a sense in which you can’t help thinking that if the artist was alive today, he’d be sure to reflect on the changed world a decade on from where he left off, both in terms of environmental sensitivity – the idea of an endless supply of free posters is no longer appealing – and for the global effects of the ‘war on terror’, which have overtaken the identity politics of the 1990s.

From the curatorial point of view the Dutch pavillion was the most talked about, Maria Hlavajova envisaged it as a three-part project consisting of an exhibition in the pavilion, an ambitious accompanying book and a series of talks and events back in Holland in the Autumn. The artist Aernout Mik’s work Citizen’s and Subjects seems to refer to real problems and real political issues, such as the attitude to immigration, fear, violence and national security in the country he comes from. He poses the question of what kind of citizens and subjects we want to be, but at the same time states: ‘you cannot reduce art to its idea.’ This attitude is close to his characteristic methodology, which involves confronting staged fictional scenarios with documentary footage from real situations.

Another pavilion that received a lot of attention, partly also because of the daily DJ and tequila nights, is the first ever Mexican pavilion in Venice, which is situated in the most extravagant and romantic of Venetian palazzos. The show Some Things Happen More Often than All the Time by Rafael Lozzano Hemmer fits perfectly and hits all the right buttons. His dancing chairs, radio wall, electronic eye, and pulsing light bulbs, are all genuinely interactive, and a handbook fusion of science and art.

‘Villa Lithuania’ takes as its starting point the sensitive political issue of the former Lithuanian Embassy in Rome, which was handed to the Soviets by Mussolini in 1940 and is today viewed as the ‘last occupied territory’ of Lithuania. Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas project aims to draw attention to this diplomatic anomaly through a ‘doves of peace’ pigeon race from Venice to Rome scheduled for September and a dense exhibition in the pavilion. The Australian-born curator of the Lithuanian pavilion, Simon Rees, presided over the release of a symbolic first batch of homing pigeons from a barge near the Giardini to destinations in Italy, Lithuania, Poland and Russia, and we all watched as they swirled over St.Marks, seemingly unsure in which direction they should head.

Of the more disappointing pavilions, among the sea of mediocre ones, such as Spain, Germany, unbalanced Russia, gloomy Greece, Austria in a time warp, the British should be singled out – Tracey Emin as a weak version of Kriszta Nagy. The Polish international star Monika Sosnowska failed to convince with her presentation, while the aim of the Czech pavilion remains a mystery.

To end in the serious spirit of this year’s Biennial, Lebanon was another new national representation in Venice, and their pavilion expressed immediate reality in a cohesive group show. Walid Sadek distinguished himself with his piece Mourning in the Presence of the Corpse: Thinking sociality in protracted civil war which is to be read as an attempt to come to terms with the renewed outbreak of conflict in Lebanon in July 2006. The neat piles of yellowy copies of the artist’s existential, poetic and scholarly essay line up on a table like an updated version of Torres’s takeaway posters, though with Sadek it’s not about getting something for free or making a statement. This highly reduced, beautiful and minimal work brings us to the painful intersection between lived experience, national tragedy and cultural refraction, carefully weaving its own contextual reading as a built-in resistance to appropriation.

Maja and Reuben Fowkes

1. July 2007.