VENICE, Italy--All the ballyhoo over globalization in the last decade has turned the word into just another catchall for life in the age of electronic dispersion. Though meant to convey a new condition of cultural diversity and interconnection, it has come to describe our collective state of bland tolerance. Globalism internationally has wrought greater comfort with anomie locally. Perhaps we're too comfortable with our stylishly mod polka-dotted homeware and rad new sandals purchased at Target for the modest sum of $14.50 to be bothered by questions of origins. Happiness overpowers curiosity as we fail to query just where all this stuff comes from. Without that person working somewhere on the globe for a fraction of what we spend on a latté at Starbucks, we wouldn't experience the rush of good shopper feelings. Here's to globalization--that force that allows me to have so much for so little, all in the name of economic development. Gosh, I feel good.
But there are those who believe it doesn't really exist. Skeptics see globalization as just another marketing gimmick, a word meant to peddle more cell phones and laptops. By contrast, activists greet it with ferocious defiance. In this camp there are heroes and rabble-rousers alike: the Frenchman Jose Bové, who ran a bulldozer into the front of a Mickey D's in Southern France back in the late '90s; the violent and masked anti-globalization marauders who rally at global summit meetings and do little besides make mayhem by setting ablaze NikeTowns; and those tricky someones who recently pitched a heap of horse dung in front of the Benetton in Venice in protest of its exploitation of South American textile workers. The peculiar thing is that the value of such fervent political activism decreases in direct proportion to the increase in the stakes of globalization. The greater the disembodied interconnection, the less important is our physical agency, and the more devalued become our acts of intransigence on the ground.
This year's Venice Biennale, one of the world's most important international art exhibitions taking place on the Italian island-city through November 6, probes the tension between physical acts and cerebral acts incited by globalization. While events and showings are spread across Venice, the main part of the Biennale is concentrated in the Arsenale, the long, massive hall once devoted to the manufacturing of ships and arms, and the Gardens of the Biennale located at the eastern end of the city. Though globalization has bluntly registered in the art world in many different ways, one of the most potent of which has been the advent of biennales across the globe (from New York to Tunis and Beijing to Buenos Aires), this year's Biennale in Venice addresses the socio-political question of individual participation--who and what countries are allowed and by what means they will express themselves.
Veni, Vidi, Vici Venice
In keeping with tradition, the Biennale offers a vast array of contemporary work from artists working in cities throughout the world. In the 110 years of its existence, however, this is the first year that the Biennale has been curated by two people. Breaking the greater exhibition into distinct sub-exhibitions, the directors, Rosa Martínez and María de Corral, both hailing from Spain, have organized the Biennale into two broad conceptual categories. Curated by Martínez, Always a Little Further presents the work of 49 mostly young international artists united by a sense of productive and careful anything-goes. For what this work lacks in cohesion and interrelatedness it gains in shared experimentation. In short, you'll find almost no painting here. Made up of a bevy of videos and a smattering of installation art and photography (both documentary and conceptual), the work showing in Martínez's Always a Little Further does just that. It consistently goes a little further, pushing beyond the envelope of art into the realm of sociology. If you're looking for painting, and the work of blue-chip artists, for that matter, you'll find plenty in De Corral's The Experience of Art in the Italian Pavilion, which hosts the work of 42 international "famous or promising" artists in 34 rooms.
There is by no means a simple way of encapsulating the experience of the Venice Biennale. One or two phrases just won't cut it. Happy to say, there is so much diverse work being shown--much of which is good. Distinctly striking, however, is the shift in perspective that occurs between the two sub-exhibitions. If the work in curator Rosa Martínez's Always a Little Further is all over the place, both good and the bad, often exciting and unexpected, then that of De Corral's The Experience of Art is, well, not quite predictable, but always good, upper-echelon contemporary art, and made by already established and often canonized contemporary artists.
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The motley collection that makes up Always a Little Further serves to underscore the condition of globalization. You'll not only find the work of artists from the far reaches of the globe, but also what seems to be a perverse result of artists relating the experience of life in such reaches--form, mostly video, that morphs from art into sociology. So much of this art seems to be intent on expressing what it means to be a cosmopolite--a citizen of the world in the 21st century--that it loses sight of that old notion that art might be abstract and indirect, that it could be non-representational and, dare I say, subtly and suggestively metaphorical. Socio-political messages abound in this space.
There is the body-based work of Guatemalan artist Regina José, "Hymenoplasty," a video loop showing the reconstruction of her hymen. While medically speaking, hymenoplasty is a form of plastic surgery (fairly common in her country, I'm told), for José it is no doubt a feminist statement. You'll find the Atlanta-based Donna Conlon's "Urban Phantoms," a playful video of a city under construction with miniature towers made from built-up bottle caps, followed by Palestinian Emily Jacir's "Ramallah/New York," a video showing virtually indistinguishable places--a beauty salon, convenience store, travel bureau--in each city side by side as a means to break down cultural stereotypes. Set up midway through the long hall is the installation and video work of the Russian collective Blue Noses. There you'll find a circle of 15 cardboard boxes set upright with antic videos of boxer-wearing, dark-sock-footed men running with naked women. The experience is as ludicrous as what you see, with groups of smiling viewers amusingly hunched over open cardboard boxes with light shining on their smiling faces like a Caravaggio painting. By far one of the most interesting rooms is the medium-defying exposé of the work by the Australian Leigh Bowery. A leading figure of the London nightclub scene in the 1980s and '90s, Bowery designed surreal and sexualized Dr. Seuss-esque garb for live performances. Sometimes the practice of fashion meant going in the buff as a video shows Bowery singing while hanging upside down with his penis bound by clothespins. When it comes to globalization, political agency and activism, the tell-all moment is actually at the entrance to the Arsenale where one finds the work of that good old standby from the early '90s, the feminist collective known as the Guerilla Girls. Their sloganeering, establishment-bashing posters surround Joana Vasconcelos' enormous chandelier made from 14,000 tampons, all of which is a throwback to '70s political activism.
Far different from the screaming and heady waters of the Arsenale is the calm establishment stream of work showing in the Italian Pavilion. This is not to diminish the immediately recognizable yet nonetheless radical bombast of Barbara Kruger's large-scale print and graphic work plastered on the outside of the building. This year's winner of the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement, Kruger has made her statement against the war in Iraq loud and clear. Phrases such as "Admit Nothing," "Blame Everyone" and "Pretend Things Are Going as Planned" emblazon the white neo-classical walls of the Italian pavilion. While somehow Kruger's work seems more in keeping with the activism of the work at the Arsenale, it has been relegated to the space of the already-established well-knowns in The Experience of Art. Of course, she is something of a celebrity herself. Beyond her graphic panels inside the building one finds the pixelated and digitally kid-glove-handled photographs of Thomas Ruf and the paintings of Antoni Tapes, Marlene Dumas, Philip Guston and Francis Bacon. It is not quite clear how these last two painters are considered to be "contemporary" as both were painting, and famously so, some 55 years ago. Rachel Whiteread's "Untitled (Domestic)," a white cast of a stairwell, plays with notions of memory, architecture and domestic space. The video installation "Rear Window Revisited," by Leandro Erlich, offers a sneak peek into the daily and nightly goings-on of 12 different apartment spaces, each of which is broadcast live to you by way of single channel videos. Overall, the work in the Italian Pavilion is not sociological in nature. But then again, the goal of this work is, in general, not to introduce a sea of young, new hopefuls from the nether and fore regions of the world, but to reinstate the brilliance and talent of known artists from the known world.
One might argue that the sociological form so present at the Arsenale is not so much the result of the forces of globalization but rather that such socially based representation is in keeping with the very nature of video as a medium. Could it be, just as Greenberg argued some years ago, that "flatness" is the essence of painting, that sociology is the essence of video? Let's hope not, for if it is, then we'll be seeing more sociology than art in the months and years to come.