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A visual 'Dictatorship' along Venice's canals

June 18, 2003|Christopher Miles | Special to The Times

VENICE, Italy — The title of the 50th Venice Biennale, "Dreams and Conflicts: The Dictatorship of the Viewer," might have a political ring that echoes through much of the exhibition. But Biennale director Francesco Bonami insists the title refers to the aspirations and difficulties involved in an exhibition such as this, and to his desire to empower the audience in interpreting the work. Hoping to further the viewers' dictatorship by reducing his own, Bonami invited guest curators to organize seven sizable shows within the Biennale.

Those shows, along with one curated by Bonami, fill the Arsenale, a compound so large it once housed a ship assembly line. The Biennale also fills the Giardini, home to 31 pavilions, mostly dedicated to art from individual nations or multinational regions. Spread throughout Venice are 21 additional pavilions, 13 artists' projects and a painting show. Though it's regrettable that much of the Biennale isn't worth crossing a canal to see, it also contains a handful of gems that would be worth crossing the ocean for -- even if they were the only things here.

At one of the Arsenale shows, called "Utopia Station," a synthesized atmosphere of recycled counterculture sentiment seems more like a bad trip while watching MTV than a contemporary channeling of the political spirit of May '68 or the vibes of the summer of love. Amid a sea of leaflets and posters (some interesting ones, many not so) commenting on all things utopian and a string of half-baked larger projects, Yoko Ono offers viewers a little peace, allowing them the simple poignant pleasure of stamping the words "Imagine Peace" on walls covered with maps. Henrik Hankansson comes through with a soundtrack for a better tomorrow, distributed free on vinyl. The consistency that the best pavilions have in common would have benefited a number of others that, while promising -- even rewarding in some instances -- are spotty, disjointed and over- or underdone.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 19, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Art review -- In a review of the Venice Biennale in Wednesday's Calendar, artist Michelangelo Pistoletto was incorrectly referred to as an Arte Opera pioneer. He is an Arte Povera pioneer.

Painter Chris Ofili exhibits vibrant, visceral and ornate compositions in black, red and green, but you can barely see them under the tinted light and the black, red and green walls of the British Pavilion. Patricia Piccinini's video, "Plasmid Region," an arresting if slightly nauseating scape of cellular growth, and her sculpture of a sow-woman hybrid nursing her young could have carried the Australian Pavilion by themselves. Instead they wind up carrying the weaker tagalong works.

And there's no doubt that part of Fred Wilson's project at the American Pavilion is about really making a mark. Presenting historical artifacts and snippets of verbiage on African figures in Italian culture, sendups of Moorish-themed Venetian decorative arts and custom-made mannequins inspired by African figures from paintings found in Venice, Wilson's pavilion packs much of the punch of his other institutional and cultural investigations. But the punch is softened and the continuity broken by the inclusion of additional, tangential works in a presentation that could have run smoothly on less.

The displaced regions

Operating, in a way, as a default pavilion for regions that lack much representation among the pavilions are two shows in the Arsenale. The first, titled "Fault Lines: Contemporary African Art and Shifting Landscapes," is an introduction to new work from the continent. Though spotty, it is energetic and focused on art, and finds strong highlights in Laylah Ali's cartoonish and quasi-primitive gouaches depicting scenes of fear and conflict, and Moataz Nasr's transfixing video meditation on the playing of the tabla drum. One of the most poetic images in the Biennale is here among Zarina Bhimji's photos of a trashed Uganda: a view of a gutted meeting hall with seven white ceiling fans stripped from their mounts, resting on the floor like a cluster of crashed angels.

A show titled "Contemporary Arab Representations," with its reading area and room of projected videos, is devoted to displacing reductionist views of Middle Eastern realities. But the tone is so forcedly educational that it undermines any thought-provoking potential.

Similar troubles befall two other shows in the Arsenale: "The Structure of Survival," a consideration of art/design responses to poverty, density, need and oppression with a focus on Latin America; and "Zone of Urgency," which aims to address the social, political and economic complexities of the Asia Pacific region. Both shows include engaging works: Helio Oiticica's and Marepe's sculptural meditations on architecture; Cildo Meireles' jarring photo-based project addressing the aesthetics of violence; and Sora Kim's and Gimhongsok's rhetoric-spewing monument/beast cobbled together from fragments of heroic statues. But both feel like trade shows crossed with seminars, offering some good design, a lot of information and bits of spectacle but, in the end, not a lot of interesting art.

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