Global Modernism

Article excerpt

52ND VENICE BIENNALE

VENICE

JUNE 10-NOVEMBER 21, 2007

The Venice Biennale (La Biennale di Venezia) is a complex affair. For the first time in its long history, an American, Robert Storr, is the director. Storr, an independent curator, artist, writer, and Dean of Yale University, also curated two significant exhibitions of the Biennale. One takes place in the Arsenale, a former boat building facility, and the other in the Italian Pavilion, part of the Garden District (Giardini) of Venice. The Giardini is filled with various national pavilions that are independently curated. In addition, there are off-site installations in palazzos, galleries, and alternative spaces all over the winding paths and canals of Venice.

My focus concerns Storr's Biennale in terms of Global Modernism--by which I mean the contemporary art scene in light of countries beyond the nineteenth-century hotbeds of the Industrial Revolution: England, France, Germany, Italy, and the United States. What does a Biennale look like that includes work by artists originally from, for example, China, Colombia, Ghana, and Japan? And, in turn, can anything be noted about the impact or role of less economically powerful countries in relation to the bigger muscled states or States?

Not to toe a die-hard Marxian line, but the sheer magnitude of the spaces, the frightening quantity of money needed to mount the exhibitions, the necessary economic underpinning for any artist included, and the massive pilgrimage of dealers, collectors, curators, and critics for the first few days of the event reinforce the overwhelming commodity aspect of the entire enterprise. It is a cultural phenomenon, and it is big business even if the curator is officially in the nonprofit sector and aims to keep our sights on loftier concerns.

The word "globalization" is associated with international conglomerations. An artist included in the Biennale automatically becomes part of international art commerce. The commodity status of his or her work goes up. I do not mention this in a disparaging way, and it is not my intention to reduce any work to a mere commodity, but a raw reality of the Biennale, as elsewhere, may be that meaning is inseparable from the consumer vortex aspect of contemporary culture.

What distinguishes work by individuals from countries beyond Western Europe and the U.S.? In some cases, absolutely nothing. One extensive video installation included ten simultaneous projections of individuals, often tightly cropped, saying, "I will die." Five screens were on one wall separated from the other six by a room that showed less compelling photographs of cemeteries. In the videos, the younger the subject, the more gleeful the statement. The artist Yang Zhenzhong is Chinese yet the cultural lines in the work are seamless; there is no indicator of one particular national affiliation or identity. We are citizens of the world. We will all die.

On the other hand, some works seemed more particular to the cultures from which they emerged. For example, materials were sometimes gleaned from the consumer products of a specific place. In Ghanian El Anatsui's Dusasa I (2007) and II (2007), the two massive--two stories high, wide as a small city block--shrouds are made of wired bottle caps and wrappings. In the current environment, where fortunes are made in a dematerialized world, in cyberspace, or with high-end financial leveraging, labor and materiality are oddly anachronistic, even romantic, in the manner of a decaying building. …