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Venetian Finds

Venice's Biennale leads visitors on a visual and audio treasure hunt for new artworks--from mythical to mundane--through the ancient city.

July 18, 1999|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

VENICE, Italy — Like this city itself, the gigantic international exhibition of contemporary art known as the Venice Biennale is an enduring public spectacle. No matter how much the show and its host adapt to the temper of the times, they retain their unique identities.

Never mind the constant ringing of cell phones and one-way conversations heard on the city's streets, the $500-a-night hotel rooms and the Madison Avenue-style boutiques, all of which make Venice seem so up-to-date. The 1,300-year-old city is essentially a historic artwork composed of astonishing centers of interest--San Marco, the Doge's Palace, the Palazzo Grassi and the Accademia, to name a few--connected by an improbable network of canals and bridges.

The Biennale is only 104 years old, but it's also a venerable institution. The mother of all international contemporary art extravaganzas periodically staged in other cities, the Venice exhibition has suffered a couple of wartime interruptions. But it soldiers on as a prestigious showcase for what's new, hip, politically correct or in favor with the powers that be. While adjusting its form and completely changing its content every two years, the multifaceted show is nonetheless a resilient artistic creation that infuses the city with an unruly sampling of social commentary, political criticism, poetic musing, naval gazing and aesthetic expression by artists from all over the world.

This year's Biennale, the 48th, runs through Nov. 9 and offers a daunting list of attractions for art lovers equipped with sensible shoes, a good map and a penchant for treasure hunts. Most of the 44 national pavilions--including Ann Hamilton's mystical installation of cascading pink powder and whispered sound at the U.S. building--are clustered at the Giardini Pubblica, as usual. But several nations that haven't constructed permanent facilities in the garden have taken over sections of old buildings at various other locations. In a second-floor space near the Piazza San Marco, Taiwan has installed Buh-Ching Hwang's murals composed of spices and herbs, Chieh-Jen Chen's large black-and-white photographs of nudes fleeing disasters and Tung-Lu Hung's flashy light-box imagesof sexy dolls. Photographer Jorge Molder is representing Portugal in the upper reaches of a palace in the Dorsoduro district.

Not far from the Giardini, a massive exhibition of extraordinarily large and ambitious works by 103 artists from 22 countries--including a strong contingent from Los Angeles--fills the cubicles, niches, crumbling rooms and vast corridors of an old naval and industrial complex known as the Arsenale. Expanding the relatively recent custom of providing a forum for cutting-edge work that does not bear the stamp of government approval, Swiss curator Harald Szeemann has assembled a huge compendium and changed its name from "Aperto" or "Open" to "d'Apertutto" or "Open to All." This year the show occupies not only the Italian pavilion and the Corderie, a former rope factory that has been used in the past, but also two additional buildings, a covered shipyard and a dock area in the Arsenale.

As if that weren't enough to satisfy the art crowd, some two dozen exhibitions, installations and performances of works by other artists are scattered around town and on nearby islands. And finding their work can require a bit of sleuthing and travel time. A collaborative project called "Dreams" turns out to be a little paperback book of writings by artists, handed out at the Giardini, while "The Last Judgment" is a massive, 25-part sculptural environment by British artist Anthony Caro, installed on the island of Giudecca. Disembarking at Zitelle and making their way to a former granary on the island, visitors find that Caro, who is known for pure abstractions, has reacted to the horrors of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo with a powerful installation of ceramic, wood and steel constructions that evoke broken people and symbolize entrances to heaven and hell.

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Still other works pop up unexpectedly, surprising visitors who are headed for the Biennale's primary venues or simply taking a pizza break in an outdoor restaurant. Printed sheets of artists' poetry, containing verses such as "If this wall were not here a bull could stand here peacefully" by Maria de Alvear, are posted on boats that ply the Grand Canal. My personal favorite of the rogue artworks, Slovenian artist Matej Andraz Vogrincic's whimsical "Dressed-Up House," is a two-story building covered with old clothes, which sits in the middle of the Campo Santa Margherita. You can't miss it in the heavily trafficked public square, yet it's so improbable, you're not entirely sure it's really there.

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