Magazine article Artforum International

Venice the Menace

Magazine article Artforum International

Venice the Menace

Article excerpt

The New York Times called it "death in Venice," Time magazine called it "a shambles." But the rage that met the 1993 Venice Biennale reflected less on the show itself than on the concerted attack some American critics have mounted recently against a dominant mood of the contemporary. Coming as it does after the assault on the Whitney Biennial, the reception of the Venice show suggests a deeply threatened feeling. The Eurocentric fetishization of certain limited ideas of artistic and cultural quality is becoming endangered, and it was this, above all, that was significant about the '93 Biennale.

The Venice Biennale was founded in 1895--at the height, in other words, of Europe's expansionist colonial period. The Berlin conference at which the European powers partitioned Africa among themselves had fallen just a decade before. The Biennale offered a relatively harmless means for different nation-states to compete, sending individuals to seek glory for them; only Western nations were invited. The policy, then, was a Modernist one, emphasizing individualism and nationalism at once, and assuming that, as Hegel put it, the history of the world happens in Europe. In the post-Modern era this policy has begun to erode. Venice included Nigeria and Zimbabwe in the 1990 Biennale, Senegal and Cote d'Ivoire in 1993. A recent emphasis on women artists may also be seen as a sign of cultural shifting: before 1990, the United States had never represented itself in Venice with a one-woman show; that year it was represented by Jenny Holzer, and in '93 by Louise Bourgeois. Japan, meanwhile, was also represented in 1993 by a woman artists, Yayoi Kusama.

Achille Bonito Oliva, director of the '93 Biennale, deliberately promoted this process of change with his choice of a theme for this year's exhibition: cultural nomadism. Undermining the Biennale's traditional nationalistic structure, Oliva suggested that countries could, even should, allow artists of other nationalities to represent them in their national pavilions. Several curators took him up on it. Most conspicuously, the United States was represented by French national (though American resident) Bourgeois; Germany by both Hans Haacke (who, though a German national, is also, arguably, an American artist) and Nam June Paik (likewise considered an American artist, though Korean by birth); Hungary by the American Joseph Kosuth; and Austria by the American Andrea Fraser, the German Christian Philip Mueller, and the Austrian Gerwald Rockenschaub. In this context, while the artists who won the Biennale's prizes would still enhance their own prestige, the glorification of the national group was potentially far more ambiguous.

Still, counterforces were also seen, for example in nativist separatism. The fledgling Republic of Macedonia was directed to rename itself the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, reportedly after the Greek government complained to the Italian. And the Macedonian show, an interesting one, was installed in the open air outside the Biennale's official area, the Giardini, emphasizing its homelessness and nomadism.

The prizes also accorded asymmetrically with nationality, and were skewed somewhat oddly, as, apparently, Oliva had wanted. The chief prize, for "best pavilion" (that is, for best national exhibition), went to Germany--and to American artists. The strengths of both Haacke's and Paik's entries had been widely recognized. Haacke used a temporary wall to block the visitor's initial view into the building: hanging on this wall was a photograph of Hitler standing at the building's entrance in 1936. Walking onward, visitors became aware of hollow impact sounds from inside: proceeding, they saw that the marble floor had been torn up, its slabs broken and then thrown down again in random heaps that resounded as people clambered about on them. The apparent point was that Germany, in this historic moment of reunification, needs to be reconceived from the ground up, or to be deconstructed and reconstructed at a foundational level. …

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