Venice, Italy — It has been years (who knows how many) since the Venice Biennale has mattered much as an international art exhibition. Born as an aesthetic world's fair in 1895, the dowager has struggled to find purpose as the world grows ever smaller.
This time it has found its footing. The current installment, which opened June 12 for a five-month run, is the most thoughtful and, in several instances, bracing Biennale in ages. Visitors in search of a synthesis of trends, an inventory of stars! stars! stars! or even a comprehensive overview of today's hugely cosmopolitan international art scene will be disappointed. And the presentation, which includes a sizable share of formulaic art that is frankly derivative of more compelling work by familiar predecessors -- call it academic -- is by no means flawless.
But it does have something more important: pithy relevance.
Maria de Corral and Rosa Martinez, the Spanish curators invited to direct the 51st Biennale, made two smart decisions. First, they slashed the number of artists in the two special exhibitions to 91 -- far more manageable than the several hundred that bloated many former shows. Second, they chose an open-ended but crucial theme -- one that resonates because it is so broadly contested in daily life today.
That theme is liberty.
Less stated as an ideological scheme than simply embedded in their choice of particular artists, freedom comes in two forms here. In the sprawling rooms of the Arsenale, the city's ancient and abandoned shipbuilding factory, Martinez focuses on personal politics. In the smaller, tighter venue of the host pavilion maintained by Italy, Corral puts public politics in the foreground.
Each show begins with a knockout installation ranking among the Biennales' best.
Across the entire facade of the Italian pavilion, American artist Barbara Kruger has installed a digitally printed vinyl mural that she wryly calls a tattoo. Aside from the familiar meaning, tattoo has another, older connotation. It is a signal sounded to summon soldiers or sailors to their quarters at night.
The militaristic edge is apt. Kruger divided the building facade into three parts -- green at the left, red at the right, white in between. It mimics the Italian flag. The background is a tangle of lines, suggestive of the dynamism of a Jackson Pollock painting and a snarl of coaxial computer cable. From this abstract muddle of crossed wires comes the mural's blunt declarations, spelled out in blaring English and Italian.
The words "money" and "power" climb the portico's columns, which symbolically support the structure. The left wall says, "Pretend things are going as planned," while "God is on my side; he told me so" fills the right.
The center features a boisterous litany: "Admit nothing, blame everyone. You make history when you do business. No questions. No doubt. Go it alone."
Kruger's tattoo makes no mention of the Iraq war, the Bush administration, Christian or Islamic fundamentalism, Osama bin Laden or any other topical subject; yet the blunt allusion to these and more is inescapable. What makes the inference so devastating is its context.
The pavilion facade was rebuilt in 1932 in the architectural style of "stripped classicism" favored by Mussolini. Italian fascism represented the calamitous takeover of the state by corporate interests, a modern fusion of money and power that the artist brings up to date. Kruger's politically incisive graphic art has considered the nature of authority for more than 20 years, and she pulls no punches here.
Nor do the curators -- who, as Spaniards, know a thing or two about the brutalities of life under a fascist state. On the strength of this remarkable work they chose Kruger as the recipient of the Golden Lion Award for Lifetime Achievement. Their pick pokes a stick in the eye of the United States, whose standing in the world surveyed by the Biennale is at rock-bottom; but it also applauds an individual voice of dissent, which is a historic centerpiece of American patriotism.
At the Arsenale, Martinez opens her exhibition with a double-whammy. The surrounding walls of the entrance gallery sport colorful vinyl banners by the Guerrilla Girls, the anonymous artists collective that uses billboard and other advertising techniques to chronicle sexism in the worlds of art and popular culture. Here, with the raucous help of busty images of Pamela Anderson and Halle Berry they take on everything from the museums of Venice, with their dearth of art by women, to Hollywood, which the Girls say has given 92.8% of its Academy Awards for writing to men.