VENICE, Italy — As far as huge, international art festivals go, the Venice Biennale is more quixotic than most. Still organized around its original, 19th century concept of art as the expression of the nation-state, the Biennale pushes a territorial agenda in the midst of its own rampant pluralism. Try wandering among the 33 national pavilions housed in the lush Giardini di Castello, attempting to determine what makes Dutch art Dutch and not Belgian, while being assailed at the same time with the spectacle of a global art market. It's dizzying.
Luckily, this is no longer precisely the point. There are two reasons art world honchos attend events like the 47th Biennale: First, out of a sense of obligation, so that they will feel in the know when everybody else is complaining. And second, to see brand-new art that will change their lives forever--or at least ruffle a few feathers.
The much-maligned Biennale of 1995, curated by Frenchman Jean Clair, jettisoned the "Aperto," which since 1980 had showcased newer art, in favor of a sprawling mess of a show that took more of a historical approach. This year--alongside the national pavilions, which featured more younger artists than any Biennale in recent memory--curator Germano Celant has tried his best to appease the next-hot-thing-seeking masses by grafting his own sprawling mess of a historical show onto an of-the-moment survey, in the hopes of creating an "interweave of generations" and an "active linguistic osmosis." This he modestly labeled "Future, Present, Past."
Even if you grant Celant some leeway (grandiloquent ambitions don't always translate well, and Celant did take over at the last moment, saving this Biennale from being canceled entirely), the multi-venue show never quite took, as the eminences grises on view (Michael Heizer, Edward Ruscha, Anselm Kiefer and Annette Messager among them) generally sabotaged themselves with new and/or hastily executed work that didn't live up to their reputations.
The younger artists fared better. Strolling, and then, inevitably, trudging down the seemingly endless corridors of the Corderie all'Arsenale, the former rope factory where their work was displayed, was nothing less than a mind-trippy experience, what with Tobias Rehberger's contribution (the German artist claimed to have outfitted all of the Biennale's guards in transparent lingerie, making it impossible to look any of these young men or women in the face); Mariko Mori's fabulous, large-scale photographic confection, a portrait of the artist as not one but multiple mermaids posed amid holiday revelers on a Japanese virtual beach; and Pipilotti Rist's video projection of a woman in evening dress meandering down an impeccably manicured Swiss street only to begin smashing car windows in the manner of a Mentos candy commercial gone berserk.
Thrown into the mix were '80s stalwarts like Julian Schnabel, Haim Steinbach and Robert Longo, all of whom seemed like ghosts resurrected for the occasion. Jeff Koons' brand-new work, which had generated massive quantities of hype prior to its unveiling, was especially disappointing (a massive painting of a challah bread that conjured the worst of Audrey Flack by way of James Rosenquist), but it paled in comparison to Francesco Clemente's latest paintings, which inexplicably look like an 11-year-old's renditions of the artist's past triumphs.
Not surprisingly, considering the way the art world endlessly recycles the same old battles, painting looked to be once again eclipsed, this time by forms one can no longer really call new, just revitalized. Preeminent among them was video. In the past decade, video projectors have dropped in price and improved in quality, making them much more accessible to younger artists. Figures like Rist, Mori, Britain's Sam Taylor-Wood and Scotland's Douglas Gordon (the four were among this Biennale's multiple-award winners) all shunned the antique-feeling, TV-esque format of the video monitor in favor of more or less elliptical narratives shown in darkened rooms.
So, too, did Canadian Rodney Graham, whose "Vexation Island," a short, 35mm color film loop transferred to laser-disc video to provide a continuous, uninterrupted projection throughout the five months of the Biennale, was among the exhibition's most provocative offerings. Featuring the artist as a mostly unconscious, 18th century Englishman, marooned on a desert island, "Vexation Island" reworked Freud's theory of repetition compulsion by way of good, old-fashioned slapstick. Shown in the Canadian pavilion, which itself resembles a hut, complete with tree (the original designers wanted the whole thing to conjure a wigwam), Graham's piece attained a certain rare, self-reflexivity.