By Dmitry Komis
As the 52nd Venice Biennale attempts to fuse body and mind under the directorship of Robert Storr, many of the National Pavilions are showing work that integrate art and politics. U.S., Germany, and Italy, three of the more successful pavilions, feature work by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Isa Genzken, and Francesco Vezzoli, respectively; each examining the politics of power, war, and contemporary visual language.
Only the second artist to posthumously represent the in the history of the Venice Biennale, Gonzalez-Torres’s installation, America, is a reimagining of a 1995 Biennale proposal which now includes a previously unrealized sculpture in the courtyard. Organized by the
Museum and Commissioner Nancy Spector (who also curated Gonzalez-Torres’s landmark retrospective at the Guggenheim in 1995) , gathers some of Gonzalez-Torres’s toughest serial works that engage directly with American culture and politics.
Much has been written about the generosity of Gonzalez-Torres’s work, but as much as it pleases the viewer to leave the gallery space with a poster and candy in hand, the takeaway paper stacks and candy spills for which Gonzalez-Torres is best known also reveal the artist’s cunning commentary on consumerist tendencies. His “Untitled” (Veterans Day Sale), 1989, and “Untitled” (Memorial Day Weekend), 1989, two white paper stacks with the parenthetical text written on each poster, pointedly share a gallery alongside a series of 13 framed photographs entitled “Untitled” (Natural History), 1990; images of words taken from the façade of the Natural History Museum in New York that reveal idealized roles ascribed to Theodore Roosevelt, and by implication, all other American men (examples: statesman, scholar, patriot, explorer, soldier).
This is where Gonzalez-Torres’s use of everyday materials is most biting. Commenting on the commercialization of national holidays (particularly ones that celebrate the military), the paper stacks sit silent like tombstones or anti-monuments, only to be altered by the mad rush of visitors picking up their own posters (many of which are often seen scattered throughout the Giardini or garbage cans around Venice). Gonzalez-Torres needs the public to engage the work, and depending on the crowd’s response, the experience of his work alters.
Seeing the show during the madness that is Biennale opening week, one could barely pause in the space, as every moment someone was picking up something and fluttering about. Now that the rush has calmed, the installation looks elegant and feels more meditative. The predominantly black color scheme of the installation (the typically colourful candy spills are here represented by the sober “Untitled” (Public Opinion), 1991, comprised of black liquorice) is wonderfully balanced with strategically placed light bulb strings. The Walt Whitman ode “Untitled” (Leaves of Grass), 1993, alone illuminates “Untitled” (Strange Bird), 1993, an indoor billboard of a single bird in flight, both works speaking to the power of the individual spirit and potential at the core of American cultural values.
Gonzalez-Torres was also a master at using the stringent, geometrically rigorous language of minimalist and conceptual art to make decidedly fluid, personal and often romantic work. Isa Genzken’s work similarly disrupts the formalist vocabulary of modernist design and architecture. Genzken responds directly to the Fascist architecture of the German Pavilion by wrapping it with orange construction netting, in essence restaging her own set and destabilizing the modernist history of the pavilion. Inside she likewise alters the space by covering the floor with a cheap protective fabric and filling the walls to the entryway with mirrors, inviting the viewer to look at him or herself before engaging with the work inside.
Mixing her now-trademark distressed glam paintings and deranged found object sculptures, Genzken’s installation responds to the culture of tourism and international dependence on oil. Upon entering the pavilion one sees American astronauts hang from the ceiling above tacky Venetian tourist trinkets displayed on pedestals; luggage dripping with paint and adorned with museum souvenir posters sits next to stuffed monkeys hung by nooses; reclining figures, sucking on straws (drinking oil?) and draining their own flesh rest alongside grotesquely sublime paintings that juxtapose a shiny textured veneer with photos of puppies, kittens and the Mona Lisa. It all results in a kind of junk-yard baroque decadence that is visually overwhelming at first glance, yet is full of surprising coherence and void of aggression.
Like Gonzalez-Torres, Genzken gets at the essence of sculpture by deconstructing its most traditional means of representation. She uses banal materials that are understood by most visitors and collages them in ways that retain their inherent shapes while contradicting their usage, and in the process, alters their meaning.
While Genzken and Gonzalez-Torres disrupt the slick formalism of their predecessors, Francesco Vezzoli self-consciously revels in the construction of glamour and the culture of promotion. Much like his 51st Biennale entry, Trailer for a Remake of Gore Vidal’s ‘Caligula,’ 2005, which was a trailer for a film that did not exist, Democrazy, his 52nd Biennale entry, is an ad campaign for two political candidates who do not exist.
For this project, Vezzoli worked with Republican and Democratic media strategists to create an electoral campaign for two fictional presidential candidates, Pat and Patricia Hill, played by Bernard-Henri Lévy and Sharon Stone. Whereas Caligula examined cultural excess, greed, and power-hungry empires, Democrazy dissects the promotion machine behind political candidates, spoofing the American electoral process and showing that the mechanics of glamour and seduction are as essential in Washington as in
Hollywood . Unfortunately the first viewing of Democrazy is the most pungent, as the joke tends to wear thin after a while. But maybe that is precisely the point; repeat viewings reveal the true banality of the political tv ad format (even Sharon Stone ends up looking dull), and looking forward to the 2008 elections, the video ultimately reminds us of the lack of true political alternatives in America.
La Biennale di Venezia: 52nd International Art Exhibition
Think with the Senses – Feel with the Mind. Art in the Present Tense.
June 10 – November 21, 2007
Dmitry Komis is a freelance writer, critic, curator, and graduate student in New York City. He can be reached at email@example.com all articles from this author