Walm(art), Venice: The Worst Kind of Failure at the 2019 Biennale

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Photo: Christopher Willard, 2019.

Erica Jong once described Venice as “the city of mirrors and mirage, at once solid and liquid, at once air and stone.” (1) It’s still there, Venice that is, in all it’s mystery, where air becomes a thick entity and people blend into the heat and the buildings incrementally crumble into the gentle sea. Venice is a dreamy, poetic city lucky enough to host the Biennale — I mean where better to exhibit forms born within flights of imagination than in this magical city?

Well, as Italo Calvino said in his novel Invisible Cities, “Falsehood is never in words, it is in things.” No better quote might sum up the art found in the this Biennale.

To be clear the Venice Biennale has two parts, the first is situated at the Giardini with the Central Pavilion and Arsenale hodgepodge of works selected by the Biennale curator and country pavilions with artists chosen by who knows who curators in who knows what processes. As a result, works in these country pavilions are expected to be a beggars bargain.

The second part of the Biennale is comprised of exhibitions tucked throughout the maze of the city. Situated in old storage buildings and scintillating aged palazzi these works are often a joy to find. These shows too are hit and miss but in the past there have been some brilliant works by international artists.

Not this year however. Instead, the works of art in these city-wide venues are collectively probably the worst Biennale art I’ve ever seen.* Something went tragically wrong.

Venice Biennale President Paolo Baratta writes in his essay that the Biennale “evokes the idea of challenging or even ‘menacing’ times….” Now I have to pause. I can’t in good faith go forward in this review without first asking why ‘menacing’ is put in scare quotes in the English translation. Scare quotes are normally used for the purpose of indicating the use of the word is non standard or they indicate a degree of irony within or derision for the term.

For many people these times are nothing but menacing. There are continual overt and covert invasions, violence abounds, servitude is widespread. Does Baratta or the essay’s translator not agree? Is our war and violence something less than menacing? Is the idea of a menacing world being downplayed? I don’t understand.

Continuing, Baratta says this Biennale is an invitation to see and consider “human events in their complexity.” Sounds good. Let’s sit back and think for a moment what this means on a global scale. Consider the world and its peoples through lenses of the political, economic, geopolitical, technologic, artistic, humanitarian…the list goes on. Think of all the human events you’ve seen and read about in the past two years, from protests to medical advances to robot sex to the Amazon burning to data breaches to earthquakes to fake news. Media and the internet, if anything, are able to provide us with a cursory view of the complexity of human events, for better or worse, whether human initiated or not. Today, not only can we distinguish complexity with respect to ingroups and outgroups of people, but events are experienced by individuals who respond in individual ways to these events. Complexity begins with 7.7 billion individuals and grows with their interactions.

Any attempt to provide a sense of this complexity with art is a worthy endeavor, and this intent caught my attention. My interest too is in part academic. I teach a course on Global Perspectives in which students engage with the visual arts of the global art worlds. I use the plural here purposefully in a way that aligns with philosopher Marcus Gabriel’s idea that the World, big W singular, as a comprehended entity, cannot exist. Instead, the art worlds are innumerable, made up of people everywhere doing all sorts of interesting things, from invisible art to activist art to self-quantification art, to neo-situationist and neo-conceptual to accelerationist art to post post modern, to bio-art, to identity art, well, the list is endless as people do stuff using every sort of media, means, and ways possible. Truly we are at the age, as Baudrillard predicted in his book The Transparency of Evil, in which we can no longer distinguish works of art from other things in the world. Or, in art, as Paul Feyerabend once correctly said about science, anything goes.

Gained here as a result is a very rich, evolving, often surprising gamut of art worlds and works, that may or may not interact and network, that may or may not conform to prior structures of creation and dissemination. Indeed, it’s not simply an interesting time, it’s an amazing super exciting time.

With this in mind, I approached the Biennale expecting new, provoking, challenging, diverse, global sensibilities and ways of dealing with all this global complexity as it is might found in art and ideas. I hoped to come away with loads of material to follow up on and documentation that I might present to students to encourage their own investigations.

Instead I choked on homogenous pap and pablum.

The vast majority of art from quite a few countries was primarily about display. Two dimensional art was hung in the regular old manner on the wall at what might be unthinkingly considered eye level. Or works took up an entire wall or room. The undergraduate art student mottos apply here:

If you can show one piece, you’re greater if you can show 100.

If you can do a wall installation, you’re greater if you can fill an entire room.

Relatively new artists frequently think that their superficial ideas magically turn to meaningful gold when displayed in multiple or scaled up.

This emphasis on display most likely presupposes the idea works of art are meant to fulfill conditions of exchange value. The artist is to buy art materials, creates, and then sells the product to willing consumers. It’s is an extremely narrow understanding of the possible functions of art and it doesn’t fit what drives the creative practices of many, many artists in the world. But in the current condition of capitalist agendas this commodification and commercialization of art is visible at both the highest and lowest levels of commercial galleries. The top artists are always spoken about in relation to sales figures. Meanwhile, garbage galleries in every city show artists who are willing to make garbage art only because it that sells to those who lack an understanding of contemporary art but who happen to have money. It was this ideology, accepted from top to bottom, that for me seeped most clearly from the shows I saw.

Baratta continues, and I agree, that art worth our attention “intends to present us with…decisive challenges to all oversimplifying attitudes.” However, I would revise the sentence. We’re not so interested in art that intends to do this but that actually does do this. I teach. Intentions are a dime a dump truck load. The Biennale may have intended to present decisive challenges but it didn’t. Worse, Barattas phrase becomes a floating signifier, like those tossed out by politicians during an election cycle. We don’t really know what “decisive challenges to all oversimplifying attitudes” means as what it points to exactly is not specified. Oh wait a minute, this summer it seems we are lucky enough to find an example of what “oversimplifying attitudes” looks like: It’s the work of this Biennale.

Little to no work I saw did anything but conform to existing types and norms of art. Resultantly, any human event or idea that may have been incredibly exciting or complex was reduced to a normative art form — pigment smeared on canvas, digital work that reeked of basic photoshop editing, and regular assemblage — in other words oversimplified and reduced consumerist art-world determined look and display. These works seemed to beg, “Please buy me, please buy me.” This is not only oversimplification but oversimplification at its most horrific most base level.

So, sorry PB, but such art in no way prompts as you wrote, “an intense encounter with art.” It’s boring, normative, reliant upon a whole consumerist industry and framework, without challenge and with an acceptance that almost smells of resignation.

Maybe artists today have all said, “The power of a consumerist society is so strong that we are now brainwashed to adapt to its norms.” This could be true. Young artists are these days it seems often desperate to conform and sell their art. Or, we might blame this terrible uniformity and conformity on the conservatism and conformity of the many curators who put together these non-Giardini pavillion shows. Maybe they (artists and curators) all cared most about c.v. building. Maybe they are deluded thinking that this late-stage capitalism and the current waves of conservative nationalism creates a form of new universalism, to be appreciated and accepted. To be sure, this worst Biennale is one of or both of their faults, that is unless uneducated-about-art individuals from corporate sponsorship chose the works and the curators are merely there to take the fall.

For another view of what I’m critiquing this show upon, here’s a short paragraph by philosopher Lewis R. Gordon who explained this condition quite well in an interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books, “I reject the model of art as the production of commodity fetishization. It is not that art can never be commodified or made into a fetish. My objection is that the story of art is only presented to us under specific social conditions. Euro-modern society and its celebration of capital are only parts of the human story. It is decadent to reduce art to a single element of what we sometimes do with it — namely, art for consumption.” (Gordon)

Rather than providing me with an intense encounter, the show prompted in me an overall dismissal. I took a lot of photos and on the plane coming back thought, there is no way I can justify showing this normative, belabored, outdated, wannabe new, warmed up hash to my students. So I deleted all the photos. Thinking back now I don’t recall much of anything from any palazzo, ok just one piece, which was up to par with previous Benniale pavilion work. I won’t mention it by name since this will allow every artist who took part to think, He must mean my piece.

Venice is surrounded not only by beauty but by an intensity of trinkets and cheap keepsakes in the form of glass paperweights, keychains, postcards, masks, fans, umbrellas, and shot glasses sold in myriad stores. In fact, those stores are probably selling their art with a better philosophical and economic foundation underlying the endeavor than the half-veiled attempts by the Biennale artists.

If anything, the Biennale works of art in did not reflect the complexity of art in global worlds of art creation, nor did it represent the complexity of human events. The Biennale did not inspire discourse about art and its creators in our contemporary time. It did however distance itself from real engagement with the world. It did fit what art was supposed to look like, think aesthetics, and how it was supposed to be displayed in North America around the time of Modernism, which still rides strong within commercialized interests.

Rugoff also seems to be under a similar delusion when writing that the exhibition will both “challenge existing habits” and “provoke us to reconsider the meaning of so-called facts.” Nothing in these pavilions did that for me, unless the facts challenged were that the art worlds are diverse. The conformity of works all about display and commodification absolutely didn’t reflect as Rugoff wrote, “diverse bodies of work that articulate distinct modes of thinking and engage far-ranging concerns.”

All in all these works of art reflected the look and mindset of North-American and Western European undergraduate graduation exhibitions. Works were sloppy and unresolved. They had loose ends or added material that detracted from the works’ intended messages, all displayed in a commercial gallery manner (that’s not good). The mundane well displayed or even ostentatiously displayed is still mundane.

From another view, what was lacking here is as Baratta says, the “discovery of the ‘other’” in these works. What I mean is not that we find a normative art world viewer exoticizing works by people from around the globe but that individual voices are absent. Diverse voices seem subsumed under the larger idea that art must conform to North American and Western European dull and outdated homogeneous norms. Under this model globalism becomes akin to Starbuckization.

And it had all be done before, obviously and painfully so. In every room I could say, oh yes, this was done before by so and so. That is close to the work of so and so. The adage today may that you can’t be first but you can be unique and I don’t mind finding an association with works of the past in contemporary works, but I do mind not seeing a unique voice in that re-do.

My advice, beyond thinking that dumping curators is a good thing generally, is that these artists need a good kick in the pants metaphorically speaking, to remind them that art is who you are and what you need to say from your place in the world(s).

Keeping one eye trained on the market, or selling, or redoing works found in magazines, or on line, or riding the kite-tails of fashion or historical acceptance are all probably the quickest way to kill any unique, individual voice. Franco “Bifo” Berardi wrote in an essay about censorship in the Italian town of Gorice in 2017, if anyone is able to lead a confrontation against the double headed beast of neoliberalism and nationalism, it’s artists. I hold the same hope.

So much for “May you Live in Interesting Times,” that pathetic title for this 2019 Biennale. “Interesting” is what artist’s say about a friend’s work that pretty much sucks. “What do you think of my new work?” They ask. “Oh, you know, it’s really…uh, in-ter-est-ting.” Hopefully the artist’s ego will allow the verbal dodge to go unnoticed.

If anything, this review is a plea that going forward artists stop redoing the past, ignore external pressures of the market, and start creating, just creating. Well, they are here actually, millions of artists everywhere who do fascinating things. I show these artists to students every semester, they’re out there and the stuff they do is amazing. You wouldn’t know that from this show, the worst Biennale ever.

References

Gordon, L. (June 3, 2019). Histories of Violence: Thinking Art in a Decolonial Way, Brad Evans interviews Lewis R. Gordon. Los Angeles Review of Books. Found online at https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/histories-of-violence-thinking-art-in-a-decolonial-way/

Jong, E. (March 23, 1986). A City of Love and Death: Venice. The New York Times.

  • It is this second part that I am reviewing.

Novelist, poet, a post-studio visual artist, and the founder of The Invisible Art Collective International. Recent novels include “Sundre” and “Garbage Head.”

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