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ART REVIEW : A Biennale or a Bust? : This year, the Venice exposition axed the Aperto, which usually presents the latest work by emerging artists, in favor of a more conservative and academic agenda.

June 25, 1995|Susan Kandel | Susan Kandel is a regular art reviewer for Calendar.

VENICE, Italy — Every other year, in the most gorgeous city in the world, in between ( de rigueur ) bellinis at Harry's Bar and Bellinis at the Accademia, the international art world gets together to chew the fat. This year, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Venice Biennale, things are both the same and different.

As usual, the crowd that gathered to see a record number of art exhibitions--and one another--was a motley one: the important and the self-important, fans and sycophants, boosters and gadabouts. Instead of the usual intrigues, failures and moments of incandescence, however, there was this . . . well, this kind of . . . well, yes, this rather boring flop.

At its best, the Biennale, which runs through October, is a decorous freak show, equal parts tradition and novelty, ceremony and mayhem.

The show is ostensibly centered on the Giardini di Castello, an Edenic garden dense with lush trees and pint-size canals. Here, the participating countries (this year there were 45) show off their best and brightest in a slew of national pavilions, which are themselves fascinating structures. Britain's was built in 1887 as an upscale restaurant, Russia's in 1914 as a last-gasp czarist confection. Korea's was inaugurated this year. And Japan's, wrapped in candy-colored strips of high-density plastic for the occasion, provided this Biennale's most stunning visual effect.

But it isn't the national pavilions that generate the real excitement (the wrap-around lines at the American pavilion for Long Beach-based artist Bill Viola's triumph notwithstanding--but more on this later). Since its inception in 1980, the display that everyone has desperately loved to hate has been the Aperto exhibition. Unlike the pavilions that showcase established figures, the Aperto presents the latest work by emerging artists.

For Thomas Mann, Venice was the "coffer of the world"; for Proust, it was the symbolic site of desire. For the art world, the Aperto has been all this and more: the place to fuel one's passions, stoke one's hopes and vent one's spleen.

This year, however, as per the decision of Jean Clair, head of the Picasso Museum in Paris and director of visual arts for this centenary Biennale, the Aperto has been axed, to universal chagrin. Clair, the first non-Italian director in the Biennale's history, is an art historian . His academic bent seems to have dictated the decision to all but disregard contemporary art this year and to take a historical approach instead, as if the contemporary were somehow immune from history.

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The centerpiece of his rather naive and profoundly conservative Biennale is a sprawling behemoth of a show, staged in three separate venues, presenting more than 700 works dating from 1895 to 1995 by artists as familiar as Picasso and as obscure as Kuzma Sergeevic Petrov-Vodkin. Its ponderous title, "Identity and Otherness: A Brief History of the Human Body Over the Last Century," betrays its agenda: to avenge figurative art (an unlikely underdog) by giving the boot to the non-representational image, the abstract mark, the conceptual move and the critical intervention.

At times, wandering through the seemingly endless rooms of the Palazzo Grassi, where the first part of "Identity and Otherness" is staged, one has the sense that storerooms of provincial museums all across Europe were emptied out so that Clair could put their contents on display. If Suprematism, Dadaism, Minimalism and Conceptualism (among a slew of other experimental isms ) are nowhere in sight, neither are those "others" to whom Clair makes gratuitous mention in the exhibition's title. Non-Western, gay and feminist identities are not a part of the official history of 20th-Century art, and so they remain obscured.

Putting politics aside for the moment (and why not, following Clair's lead?), there are many wonderful works of art here, in spite of whispered problems with time and funding. These don't necessarily include the paintings of R. B. Kitaj, winner of this year's Golden Lion, the Biennale's version of the Academy Award (which, like the Oscar, rarely seems to go to the right person). These do include Etienne Jules Marey's chrono-photographs; a dazzling series of self-portraits by Giorgio De Chirico; a wall full of Georg Baselitz's upside-down portraits, and Otto Dix's painting of a cool-eyed woman on a leopard-skin rug, whose breathtaking decadence promises that the world will go out in an ecstatic flame.

My personal hit-picks are two magically incongruous 1933 portraits by Kasimir Malevich, in which a man and a woman, posed against a black backdrop like a pair of Renaissance nobles, flaunt futuristic ensembles with exaggeratedly geometric epaulets. Very "Star Trek."

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