Biennale: Melding Spot For The World's Modern Art

Posted: August 16, 1993

VENICE — Precisely a century ago, when nationalistic pride prompted grand, international expositions, the king and queen of Italy marked their silver wedding anniversary by founding a biennial art exhibition in Venice. What would those monarchs make of the acres of art that constitute the 45th Venice Biennale, the world's best-known exhibition of contemporary art?

As if in opposition to the founders' chauvinistic motives, Biennale curator Achille Bonito Oliva chose "cultural nomadism" as his theme, calling attention to "the 'nomadic' posture of the artist, and his disdain for territorial limitations."

This vast exhibition encompasses more than 400 artists from 53 nations. Its several thousand works of art are in the Castello Gardens, where 29 countries maintain permanent pavilions, and nearby at a former rope factory, where the aperto, or open, show of younger artists has been held since 1980. Auxiliary exhibitions, such as retrospectives of Francis Bacon and Marcel Duchamp, are located at numerous other sites throughout the city.

Oliva's preference for a "trans-nationalist" spirit was acknowledged by several entries. The Czech-born Brooklyn Museum curator, Charlotta Kotik, invited the French-born Louise Bourgeois as the United States entry. Germany chose both Hans Haacke, a German-born American citizen, and Nam June Paik, the Korean video pioneer who lives in New York and teaches in Dusseldorf.

The American Joseph Kosuth, who is of Hungarian descent, is one of two

artists representing Hungary. Austria picked three artists, only one of whom is Austrian.

Under the hopeful theme of "Machines for Peace," Italian curators filled the former Yugoslavian pavilion with a global assortment of talents, including Britons Tony Cragg and Julien Opie and the Belgian Panamarenko. Off-site, in locations near St. Mark's Square, the Slovenians and the Croatians mounted separate shows.

One quaint facet of the Biennale is the awarding of prizes, called the Golden Lions. This year, the top painting award was shared by Richard Hamilton and Antoni Tapies. Tapies, a Spaniard, shared his country's pavilion with the impressive young sculptor Cristina Iglesias, and is represented by an atypical wall-mounted assemblage of wire mesh, bedsprings and chairs. Hamilton filled the British pavilion with unremarkable paintings, altered self-portrait photos and a biting video installation about Margaret Thatcher and the body politic.

The first art visible to Castello Gardens visitors is underfoot - Akira Kanayama's Ashiato (Footprints), 1956, one of the many re-creations of vintage works by the Japanese avant-garde Gutai group. These painted oilcloth strips lead past the most refreshing entry in the Biennale - Israeli Avital Geva's enormous greenhouse, complete with cooling mists and rows of thriving plants.


The Italian pavilion, the largest single national space, hosts a variety of displays, including a thematically obscure but visually rewarding selection called "Points of Art," which offers a smorgasbord of internationally recognized artists. Christian Boltanski contributed an evocative installation based on documentation from the 1938 Biennale quoting Nazi and Italian fascist dignitaries in attendance.

The Italians shared their space with artists from countries without permanent exhibition facilities. Ireland, for example, chose Dorothy Cross, an artist who last year made her Philadelphia debut at the Institute of Contemporary Art. Her two animal-hide figurative sculptures address feminist issues, and are among the most compelling works on view.

For the first time in 25 years, South African artists were included, marking their country's re-entry into the international art arena. South Africa invited both Jackson Hlungwani, a 70-year-old, self-taught wood carver who lives in a rural village, and Sandra Kriel, a university-educated art teacher, who has been active in resistance politics. Her singular series of embroidered fabric collages, with their powerful messages of struggle and hope, are another example of the several unheralded surprises at this year's Biennale.

One of the most praised entries is Haacke's installation at the German pavilion. At the threshold, the visitor steps around a large photo of Adolf Hitler viewing the pavilion in 1934, and enters an immense chamber, empty save for the Italian word Germania, or Germany, painted in block letters on the back wall. Haacke's principal adaptation of the space was to "deconstruct" the marble flooring to create rubble underfoot.


Every step across the room resounds with the clattering noise of stone against stone. A powerful visual metaphor of a country that destroyed itself, Germania embodies both the past and the uncertain future of a reunited Germany.

Nearby, in the former Soviet pavilion, the American-based Ilya Kabakov also created an environment of disrepair. Viewers gingerly pick their way through the interior shambles, emerging into the garden to encounter a bright red shed, festooned with flags and nationalistic insignia. Hermetic and cocky, this pint-size structure blares forth a stream of energetic martial music.

But it is the Austrian pavilion, at the opposite end of the gardens, that offers a more richly intellectual gibe against nationalistic sentiments. As visitors progress around Austrian Gerwald Rockenschaub's elegant elevated gangway, they can pause periodically near loudspeakers broadcasting intermittent messages in German, Italian and English.

The American Andrea Fraser, who in 1989 did a stunning performance piece as a docent at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, here devised an audio program using transcribed excerpts from an actual Biennale planning committee meeting. At times pompous and risible, this text reveals the realities of competing national interests and gently mocks the theme of "transnationalism." The third collaborator is Swiss conceptual artist Christian Philipp Muller, who tested the realities of today's "borderless" Europe by documenting, in writing, his forays across Austria's eight border regions.

In her catalogue statement, Andrea Fraser quotes Henry James, who wrote: ''The sentimental tourist's sole quarrel with his Venice is that he has too many competitors there. He likes to be alone: to be original; to have to

himself at least the air of making discoveries." At this Venice Biennale, making discoveries is a probability. All you need is stamina.

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