Robert Storr’s exhibition for the Venice Biennial has a two part title: “Think With the Senses, Feel With the Mind.” His exhibition is also divided into two different parts, one at the Italian Pavilion in the Giardini and another, more substantial one at the Arsenale. The two exhibitions couldn’t be more different than one another, so I am trying to figure out if one part of the title is meant for one exhibition, and the other part of the title meant for the other exhibition. If that’s the case, then Feel With the Mind would refer to the display of work at the Giardini. This is a large group show that focuses on formally sophisticated work with conceptual underpinnings by well established artists such as Bruce Nauman, Nancy Spero, Kara Walker, Susan Rothenberg, Franz West, Louise Bourgeois, Lawrence Weiner, Sol LeWitt, Susan Rothenberg, Felix Gonzalez Torres, Giovanni Anselmo, and Sophie Calle, among many others. My guess is that these were artists Robert Storr had a history of working with before… the canon of influential contemporary artists, as marked with MoMA’s stamp of approval. Most of the work looks familiar, has been exhibited numerous times before, and therefore isn’t that exciting to encounter at the Biennale. There were a couple of discoveries for me, however which made this portion of the exhibition somewhat worthwhile: a painter from Congo named Cheri Samba who visualizes the Sodom and Gomorrha theme in present day street life in Italy, and an artist named Ignasi Aballi who documents all of the languages spoken in the world.
Storr’s exhibition at the Arsenale is far more interesting and unabashedly political in a left leaning way. I believe that Think with the Senses is a more apt title for this exhibition, because most of the work is highly conceptual and content heavy, involving alot of text, a lot of videos with lenghty dialogues, and a lot of documentary photography. But the work is also intriguing enough and asthetically sophisticated enough to appeal to the senses. Storr may have encountered alot of opposition for his critical stance of the US and Israeli war machine, because there is a giant disclaimer in the form of a banner hanging in the promenade between the Giardini and the Arsenale, which states “The Biennale has no position on conflict and no part in it.” The highlights of the exhibition for me are contributions from a couple of emerging Italian artists: Gabriele Basilico shows a series of haunting photographs of Beirut in 1991, taken after the Israeli bombings. Beautiful, architectural treasures, many of them looking like some of the buildings one would see in Venice, are completely gutted by bombs. It looks like an archeological remain… a wasteland demarcating the remains of a civilization that had once been culturally rich, but is now extinct. A similar theme is invoked by video artist Paolo Canevani. It is shot from an insect’s eye view and shows an apocalyptic scene of a young boy playing soccer by himself in a grassy field in front of a bombed out building. But rather than kicking around a soccer ball, he is playing soccer with a skull. Unlike Basilico’s photos, which are completely devoid of people, there are signs of life in the midst of war in Canevani’s video. One can see an occasional car passing by on a far off street. But the piece leaves you with the troubling question of the aftermath of the trauma of war, and how it may impact future generations. Life goes on, but in how demented a way? The label of the piece indicates that this scene was shot in Belgrade.
The African, Turkish and Chinese pavilions are situated in the Arsenale by invitation from Storr. In the African pavilion, I was most captivated by an installation of black lights by Kendell Geers. He’s written all of the vices in black light in a kind of mirror effect that makes the words difficult to decode. I liked the way the black lights appeared to darken everyone’s skin color who walked into the room. The visitor with even the palest skin looked black, contrasted with the whites of their eyes and their teeth. Also in the Arsenale, the Italian Pavilion is hosting one of the most striking installations by bad boy Francesco Vezzoli. A two channel video projection titled “Democracy” shows two spoof political ads for two presidential candidates, the two videos projected on opposite sides of a circular viewing room decorated with stars and blue and red balloons one would find in a political convention. Patricia Hill, whose voice and statements bear a striking resemblance to Hillary Clinton, is played by Sharon stone. In the ad, Hill/Stone regurgitates empty catchphrases such as “peace is taking care of one another” and “peace is making America proud of itself again.” The other candidate, a certain Patrick Hill, is played by a famous French philosopher named Bernard-Henri Levy. Unfortunate for him, he doesn’t have the same recognition as Sharon Stone, and therefore not a chance of winning the race, in my opinion. In the ad, he is described as a “writer, a professor, and an intellectual,” which, of course, is completely absurd. Can anyone imagine an “intellectual” having a real shot at the US Presidency? Patricia Hill/Sharon Stone had a very clear advantage over the philosopher/intellectual, however, not only because she is more famous, but because the audio on her video was turned way up. You could barely hear what Hill/Levy was saying. I don’t know if this was intentional on the part of Vezzoli (maybe it’s a suggestion that the candidate with the most visibility, most recognition, and the loudest, most prominent ad campaigns will win?) but one thing that was clearly communicated by Vezzoli’s piece was just how similar the candidates for the two party system are. Patrick or Patricia? They appear to be two sides of the same coin.
I’ll write more about the individual national pavilions in my next entry.