The close July afternoon heat of Venice drifts down on a gaggle of gallerists, artists, critics, collectors, curators and art supporters jostling for position on a small platform, waiting for the vaporetto, asking in a variety of languages whether the boats going towards the Lido or San Marco, what theyve liked best so far, which parties theyre attending, where theyre heading to next. On my left an Italian critic frantically scribbles notes, till the word CONCLUSIONE and a downward arrow appear on his notepad. He taps his teeth with his pencil. On my right a rosy-cheeked woman surreptitiously inspects her blisters. An overweight man perspiring in an ill-conceived gunmetal-blue polyester shirt hurries towards the platform, flapping his sausage-like hairy hands as though to propel himself faster into the throng - no, no one wants to miss the boat.
The Venice Biennale cant be denied its social dimension - perhaps thats what curator Harald Szeemann had in mind when he conceived his rather high-blown and frankly immodest title "Plateau of Humankind" for the 49thExposizione Internazionale dArte at Venice 2001. This is not a theme, Szeemann hastens to add, but a "dimension". Its kind of fuzzy, but aspects of this dimension include the ushering in of the "post-Postmodern" (as stipulated in the acknowledgements), of the social bond of friendship (beyond religious convictions, cultural identities or preferences of style and taste) and the primacy of the spectator and artists encounter through the medium of art. "The idea contains many ideas," Szeemann says "it is plateau, basis, foundation and platform. The Biennale as mirror and platform of humankind". Pheeww-iiee.
That this is the first of the new millennium doesnt of course fail to get a mention and the exhibition opens with Beuys work Das Ende des 20. Jahrhunderts (The End of the 20th Century) which consists of human-sized slabs of basalt lying on the floor, some accompanied by pieces of wood or trolley-like structures. And despite Szeemanns positivism, the work seemed to speak of humanity as so many pieces of dead meat, waiting to be carted away. This elegiac theme carried over to Bill Violas extraordinary video The Quintet of the Unseen - a slow-motion group portrait of a family expressing grief at some unseen tragedy which offered an extremely moving portrayal of the enduring strength of human relationships in light of enduring death. Magnus Wallins video Exit, on both a lighter and darker note, presents - in computer game-style animation - a group of cripples futilely hobbling through an inhuman oversized corridor to escape an engulfing flame. A round of applause accompanies each figures certain demise. Dantes inferno meets Gotham City via The Terminator.It reminded me of the spectacle of humanity struggling - and failing - to escape some dehumanising post-capitalist hell. Gavin Turks simple but cogent Bin Bag 3 - a rubbish bag cast in bronze and painted to closely resemble the original - presented in (mock) monumental fashion the trivial nature of consumerism, of the vain attempt by humanity to preserve identities by way of its own refuse, of the deadening failure to do so. This modest sculpture stood out in the sea of video works which dominated the exhibition.
A series of photographs which seemed to recover identity in an endearing, partially innocent, partially sinister way, was Tuomo Manninens portraits of diverse groups from Kathmandu and Helsinki - girl scouts, an cce-swimmer club, the Association of Wives of Professors, taxidermists, Buddhist monks, lorry drivers. The group portraits speak of coded identities beyond the national or monopolising gaze and observes what enduring communities individuals have created for themselves complete with codes of loyalty, dress, behaviour and style. I could go on and on in ever increasing circles but, as Mr. Szeemann hopes the audience will realise "It is as it is". Suffice to say that this Biennale attempts to reflect on artists fascination with human nature and behaviour at the end of the 20th century. Sound familiar? The grand theme doesnt necessarily convince, but at least some of the art does.
No, its not all style and no substance - not in so far as the art is concerned anyway - but Im going to beat a retreat back to the cynical mob with the contention that the Biennale is a late-capitalist mannerist gesture par excellence.First of all, its taken as read that the curator holds an all-powerful weapon against naysayers - that is, personal choice. The curator, in this case Szeemann, can allow himself to state his justification in any terms he sees fit, because, for the time being, his exhibition is destined to be the (temporary) centre of the (art) world. Thus he responds to the earlier a priori statement that "the only thing that interests me is the intensity of a work of art or an artist. The rest I couldnt care about" with "I can allow myself to put it so simplistically because everyone knows how complex my way of thinking is". Fair enough. And anyway, no corporate sponsors going to shy away from riding along on this "Plateau of Humankind" in the spectacle that is the Venice Biennale. Beyond the catch phrases sought by the corporate brief is the empty-headed its-not-what-you-know-but-who-you-know. This aspect was cunningly observed by Tanja Ostojics performance Black square on white (on my Venice hill).Pubic hair on her "Mount of Venus" (her words) could only be "verified" as an official work of art by Harald Szeemann himself. During the opening days of the Biennale, the elegantly-dressed artist accompanied the curator to cocktail parties, openings and press conferences, her "Malevich" remaining hidden, furtively infiltrating the art worlds power plays.
Indeed, that raft of humanity we met earlier, thronging on the boat platform, eagerly swapping notes, may be one dimension, but this is not where the real "work" is taking place, nor in the exhibition spaces of the Arsenale or the Gardini. Rather, it is the deals, bowings and scrapings, strategic introductions, contacts forged through luck or design, invitations secured, gatecrashings achieved, which is the thing. It was not for nothing that the Basel Art Fair - the most prestigious art fair in the world - was the next port of call for most "serious" art aficionados. The passage from Biennale to marketplace was almost preordained. The spectacle of Venice has become the spectacle of (Über)capitalism - discussions about parties attended were more prevalent than discussion about pavilions. Still, it cant be denied that the social event is the arena in which beautiful - and productive - relationships are founded, so its grand that New Zealand secured a place on the parquet at Venice 2001.
That Creative New Zealand had successfully negotiated a position for New Zealand artists to be represented in Venice in 2001 had only been confirmed in about October of last year. Not that there is anything unusual, in terms of biennales, in the limited time frame that they had to work with: in fact, Szeemann had put together dAPERTutto - the international exhibition of the 1999 Venice Biennale - in only five months, and it is standard for the budget for the entire Biennale not to be finalised till January of the year it is to take place. Id heard that early on there had been a call for some visible "New Zealand" content, the desire for artists to express a "New Zealand" identity. And, as you would expect, since that call, artists and curator alike had been scrabbling desperately to escape this noose of identity recognizing a more sophisticated, less butter ad Team New Zealand approach was required. That is, if the art work could be deemed to present some kind of "national identity", then it would be a natural development of the artists personal practice, not something that could, or should be imposed from outside or consciously sought.
Like all "marginal" nations, or those with no definitive profile abroad, the desire became, rather, to come across as being as international as possible, hence the ubiquity of such statements as Greg Burkes"[Jacqueline] Fraser and [Peter] Robinson are two of New Zealands most international artists" (catalogue introduction). Yeah cos Im more international than you, any day mate.This insistence on the artists perceived international status of course drew attention to that very provincial status they were trying to escape. The major national pavilions - France, England, Germany and the USA - have no need to "normalize" as they represent the common currency, and the Italian pavilion has, for a number of years, been used as an exhibition site for artists drawn from everywhere, thus averting the embarrassingly outmoded crisis of "national identity". On the other hand, the very successful representation of Mark Wallinger in Great Britains Pavilion was unashamed, if arch, about its "Englishness".
Discussions regarding the purpose of exporting art abroad, of the relevance of the national pavilions, indeed of biennales in general have become commonplace in the last 10 or 15 years. Artists are also becoming wary of being involved with exhibitions investigating identity issues, marginality, exoticism, exclusion and so on - while these exhibitions have a positive side in that they provide exhibiting opportunities for artists from outside the major art centres, artists run the risk of being trapped on a curatorial bandwagon, and being excluded once more from critical contexts beyond those devoted to outsiders. Peter Robinsons inclusion in such exhibitions as Partage dexotismes, Biennale dart contemporain de Lyon 2000, Lyon, France; Continental Shift, 2000,Ludwig Forum für Internationale Kunst, Aachen, Germany; Heimat Kunst, 2000,Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, Germany; Kunstwelten im dialog, 1999, Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Germany; Inklusion/Exklusion, 1996, Künstlerhaus Graz, Austria; demonstrates the interest Europe has in accommodating its "others". The shift in his work from local issues to more universal themes suggests perhaps that the artist no longer desires to be pigeonholed.
On the other hand, national singularity can be the very reason for an artists popularity and currency within an international art market. Lisa May Post was a "safe" choice as the Dutch representative: the presentation of an artist who eloquently represented the "Dutch national character" and had already gained an international profile (she is represented by both the Marian Goodman Gallery in New York and by Antony dOffay in London) provoked comments that her representation contributed nothing towards the promotion of a non-stereotypical progressive art from the Netherlands. This argument comes back to money, and the promotion of art through state agencies: "Because [it was suggested] no cultural politician or commissioner dares to besmirch the blazon of Hollands pigeonhole and croquette culture". The idea here is that national pavilions will inevitably represent and continue to support a small pool of artists who have already received international recognition - it makes economic sense to protect ones investment.
These well-worn arguments are entirely applicable to the New Zealand situation, but whereas the Netherlands may have easy access to the art scenes in Paris, Cologne, Basel or London - simply by dint of proximity - New Zealand does not, which is why representation at Venice is an appropriate step. While everyone is rightfully sanguine that Venice may well provide a leg up to the international art scene merry-go-round, representatives should proceed with due caution and with the full understanding that artists, or promoters, need not be expected to wear the silver fern and (symbolically) hand round complementary kiwi fruit at opening functions. Not that they necessarily have in the past - but the increasing commodification of culture can be a tyrannical beast.
At the moment I think that New Zealand contemporary art has the advantage of a fresh critical edge, a newness unsullied by staid stereotypes simply because having no profile abroad means every new exposure is a surprise. New Zealand - and antipodean - contemporary artists are skilled at negotiating global and local positions, drawing on their condition as both "European" and "other", and thus circumventing the exotic gaze. Its a delicate position though, which was why I was a little dubious of the presence of the kapa haka (performing arts) group at the press opening of the New Zealand Pavilion. Such a display can be misconceived, particularly when the performance seems less a genuine ritual (which would be ideal, but possibly unobtainable in this context) than a headline grabber, inevitably investing in the exoticising gaze. If this falls on the artists themselves (which the strength of Robinsons and Jacqueline Frasers work in Venice guarded against) then, once again, the work is forced into a cul-de-sac, beyond "normal" critical contexts. But New Zealand-at-Venice teams press releases showed they were well aware of the pitfalls...
...so you can imagine my surprise when I opened up what I thought to be my New Zealand Pavilion press pack, which strangely enough had a publicity shot from The Piano on the cover, to find a silver fern badge and images of a clean, green New Zealand uncorrupted by the evils of culture. At least there was some decent New Zealand cheese to be had. And theyre drinking our beer here. Bring on the croquettes.
CONCLUSIONE. Downward arrow.
Louise travelled to Venice by overnight bus.
Also, see the Log Illustrated website at www.physicsroom.org.nz/log for some interesting information on CNZ and institutional gatekeeping at Venice courtesy of Fredericka Hunter of ARTPIX, Texas.