This is the second and last installment of the Metabunker review of this year’s Venice Biennial. Read the first part, which deals with the national pavilions, here. Also, be sure to check out our extensive photo reportage from the show.

While the national pavilions provide the core of the Biennial, affirming the continued belief in its slightly outmoded but still somehow current modernist conception, the real gauge of a successfully curated show are the large, thematically oriented exhibitions in the corderie (ie. rope-making buildings) at the Arsenal and the already mentioned International exhibition in the Italian pavilion (Italy has not had a solo show for decades, but actually did this year, in a different Italian pavilion situated at the far end of the Arsenal).

The latter usually embodies the most conservative part of the Biennial, showing as it does a little bit of everything and invariably including a number of big names thought to be sure-fire material. A little bit of everything, and very little in the way of overarching concept or thought. The kind of display of contemporary art one finds in most major national or urban art galleries. It is almost always boring as hell, neither fowl nor fish, but just. There.

This year is no different; the main hall is given up to the most overrated name in contemporary art, Sigmar Polke, while another displays work from the second-most overrated (or is it the other way around?), Gerhard Richter, with Bruce Naumann, Robert Ryman, Louise Bourgeois, Ellsworth Kelley, Pierre Huyghe, Kara Walker and Martin Kippenberger making similar token appearances. Seriously, who the hell wants to see names this established and ubiquitous at the freaking Biennale? It escapes me, but I guess there needs to be a safe zone in any prestige group exhibition.

The title of the Biennial is “Pensa con i sensi/Senti con la mente” (“Think with the Senses/Feel with the Mind”), perfectly meaningless but awfully pretentious. And to my mind both inadequate and misleading with respect to the rather phenomenal show this year’s chief curator Robert Storr – formerly of the MoMA – has put together, despite the concessions to established names just mentioned. The central idea of the show, which occupies both exhibition spaces, is to merge the personal with the political, and to present work that is generally easily accessible, eschewing the conceptually dense and the meta-textual in favour of the direct. Not exactly a novel concept, but one rarely seen carried out with such assurance in large contemporary art shows. Political and activist art was also one of the central themes of the Arsenal exhibitions in 2003, but where the work on display then was characterised by rather useless and, frankly, rather sad attempts at claiming relevance for contemporary art in the politicised world, Storr has kept the number of participating artists low and managed to gather a surprising amount of good work, which does not in the same way insist on its own relevance, but merely earns it through telling personally affecting stories, or stirring emotion. Impressively, the show does not seem as suffocating as it sometimes tends to do, given the often-seen cocktail unconvincing curatorial conceit with the sheer magnitude of the corderie.1

Following the logic of the show, it is perhaps unsurprising how bafflingly simple several of the most effective works are. A good example is Paolo Canevari’s Bouncing Skull : a video of a kid kicking around a skull as if it were a football, in front of a bombed-out, shot-up building in downtown Belgrade, on what appears to be a cold morning in autumn. It is relentless in its misanthropic vigour. And this is only accentuated by the dull thumping bounce and the kid’s agitated breathing on its background of big city white noise. It could have been too much, but achieves the right balance between cynicism and corporeal energy. Another very simple idea employed to singularly memorable effect is Oscár Muñoz’ Proyecto para un Memorial, which juxtaposes five videos of his hand drawing faces in water on stone. All the while one is being finished, the others are drying up and vanishing. Everything stays ephemeral. Muñoz was the standout at the exhibition of the Columbian pavilion in 2005 with much the same idea, but it only gains in strength through the context of the present show.

The showstopper, however, is Yang Zhengzhong’s simultaneous projection of ten videos at large floor-to-ceiling screens, I Will Die. Recorded in ten different cities across the world, Yang gets people from all different walks of life to utter the simple words of the title in their own language and manner. The results are as numerous and different as the people, but they have one thing in common: it never seems easy for them. Most, regardless of background, go for the humorous or mock-serious rendition, while others lay on the pathos. For some, it is almost as if the little task they are undertaking brings along the concomitant realization as the very words are spoken. As the answers accumulate, it becomes increasingly stirring without ever growing oppressive. A singularly beautiful piece of work.

Also touching is Emily Jacir’s “Material for a Film,” set up at the International pavilion. It is a demonstration that the institutional definition of art depends almost entirely on context : one would be hard pressed to call this collection of objects recalling the life and death of Palestinian writer and Fatah member Wael Zuaiter, who was assassinated in Rome by Mossad in 1971, an artwork were it not exhibited in an art show. A collection of documentary material, it is more of a personal shrine. There are photographs of Zuaiter and friends through his life, letters : several of them correspondence with his American girlfriend : pages from his copy of the Divine Comedy, which he prized above any other poem, and the Thousand and One Nights, which he hoped one day to translate into Italian. There are sound recordings, one of them a wiretap of his phone made by the Italian police, and even a looped video of his appearance as an extra in the Blake Edwards/Peter Sellers classic The Party.

Moving around the exhibit, one feels one gets some idea of the kind of man Zuaiter was, a Mensch. Whatever the truth is, he does not seem to fit your typical profile of a terrorist, and even if he were, it is hard not to share the artist’s outrage at a legitimate democratic government liquidating its political opponents this way. Jacir’s display could justly be accused of being propaganda, but what truly involved political statement could not? Once again, it is the sense of human scale brought to the proceedings that carries the day.

Rounding out the impression of a remarkably coherent, yet surprising show is a fair amount of other interesting pieces in a variety of media that makes one forget that the majority of the work on display is still, of course, uninspiring. These include, but are not limited to, El Anatsui’s majestic tapestries woven of cans and bottle caps, merging the detritus of Empire with traditional craft, and the delightful Dan Perjovksi’s swiftly scribbled ephemeral cartoons-cum-graffiti, which introduce the exhibits both at the Italian pavilion and at the Arsenal. Clearly influenced in their approach by the great Saul Steinberg, and at their best worthy of the association, they encapsulate the friendly but firm way in which the show reminds us that the personal and the political essentially extensions of the same human spirit.

The Venice Biennal runs until 21 November. Visit some of the mentioned artists on the web: Paolo Canevari, El Anatsui. And, by the way, If you go to Venice, do not miss Bill Viola’s quietly beautiful video installation, Ocean Without a Shore — refining upon his recurrent theme of the primal passage through water — at the Chiesa di San Gallo.

  1. Just to emphasise how smartly curated the show is, and how difficult a task putting together something like it must be, two glaring contrasts offer themselves up in the immediate proximity. One is the African pavilion, also at the Arsenal, which similarly goes for a political approach, predictably with an overarching post-colonialist theme, and fails utterly at offering up anything but the usual conglomeration of headless colonialists and King Kong in blackface. Depressing that this whole continent, which obviously has a lot to offer contemporary art, is only allotted and/or manages a single pavilion. It stands to reason it is going to be a mess. The other is the privately organized and curated show, “Sequence 1”, at the Palazzo Grassi on the Grand Canal, of French billionaire François Pinault’s collection of contemporary art. An overpriced bore of a show that you visit at your own peril. When Robert Goper is the best you have to offer, you know you are in trouble. Time I will never get back… []