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Keane's Journal: The Venice Biennale

July 21st

Patricia Piccinni

Woke up with a miserable hangover, cemented my status as a drunk and took a shot of bourbon while my girlfriend was in the shower. I packed a bunch of stuff blindly and called for a car to JFK. Now, I'm sitting here gnawing on a stale bagel while my hangover causes me to shift around every few seconds. This flight is going to be miserable.

Somewhere over the Atlantic

I am quivering with fear, this fucking airliner is going down, I can feel it. These Krauts won't serve me any more bourbon and there is a baby drilling a hole in my head with its' screams. I swear the mom is spilling coffee on it. All they are showing on screen is Bringin' Down the House. I'm getting ready to open the door and let myself be sucked out into space…

July 22nd

The cabby managed to get us to our overpriced, underwhelming chain hotel for stupid tourists. I don't think I actually slept, just tossed around due to the jet lag and my continuing hang over. I hallucinated that a giant Styrofoam cup had followed me over from the Turkey's Nest before I actually lost consciousness sometime around 4 am. Strangely, I have an urge for McDonalds.

July 23rd

Frankfurt proved to be far too organized and American, well with better urban planning and some history, but I did manage to get a euro sounding Chicken Premier at McDonalds. It's a McChicken with hot sauce. The grease smoothed out the wrinkles of my jet-lagged body and we caught an overnighter to Firenze around 21:15. I will never step foot on one of those things again, fucking' crazy German's singing all night. Then, just as my bottle of J&B eased me into an upright sleep, a gang of Italians camped outside of our cabin and jabbered all the way to Verona, occasionally peering in on us. Their unintelligible words banging inside my skull, plus this lady across from us had a dog. I think it pissed on my foot outside of Bologna, so I poured some bourbon in its water bowl.

Anyway, I'm sitting here in some ratty hotel on Firenze listening to scooters blaze by. I didn't realize how strong the damned Euro was, so I guess I'll be maxing out my VISA. I've convinced my girlfriend to experience Italian culture through osmosis, so we are going to camp out in a café and drink wine until we start sweating it back out.

July 24th

I guess we got back late, just caught a still-life show at Piazza Strozzi inspired by Carravagio's naturalism. It was probably the most beautiful thing I've seen in recent memory. Made me remember what exactly is different about oil paintings from every other medium. There were several canvasses that were so modern in their composition and the way they flattened out, they could have been Gorky paintings. There was something extremely melancholy about the whole exhibit that belied even the prettiest floral arrangements. The heavy chiaroscuro, the dead animals, and the allegorical setups began to take their toll on us. The bright light outside was actually quite welcoming. Well, through my sunglasses anyway.

The show was really good, better than my last trip through the Uffizi, mainly because there were so few Jesus paintings. Don't get me wrong, there are some amazing Jesus paintings, but damn, it was nice to see such secular beauty.

July 25th

We're sitting by an old stonewall in the Boboli Gardens behind Palazzo Pitti. I'm working on a six pack of Heinecken while I take in all this 'natural beauty'. Shopped during the morning, found this joint called Bleach were this Greek dude hawked my girl a bunch of cheap couture. I found a decent leather jacket and plunked down my credit card, oh, I'm going to be paying for this trip with interest. Drew some circles here for a while to capture some of the view, but couldn't bring myself to use any lines.

We're going to the Orchestra tonight, can't wait for that.

July 26th

This little place was serving two pints for one last night, after I had passed out several times and fell out of my chair at the Orchestra. L had begged me not to finish the carafe before the concert, but who am I to waste the house wine? Anyway, they didn't yell at me too much when I pitched forward and knocked over a row of chairs, but then again, I didn't understand a word. The old, Italian ladies just gave the evil eye until I passed out again.

So we found this Irish pub, and drank whiskey with the American sorority girls and frat guys. I don't think we were getting any 'authentic' culture, but the drinks were cheap.

July 27th

Beatriz Mizahle

We arrived in Venice pretty early, but L isn't very happy. I don't know when, but maybe between the time I shouted at several Italians to get the fuck out of my way at the Bologna station or when I suggested throwing the screaming brats in the car out the window she got real mad. Telling me not to be that guy, the 'loud American'. Whatever.

We started with the Giardini half of the Biennale and what can I say? It's basically a giant fucking mess this year, Dreams and Conflicts. The only conflicts I saw were the terrible choices going on in the American and British pavilions. I was really let down when I saw Fred Wilson's maniacal exhibition. I've never been a huge fan, but I was excited that they had turned over the American pavilion to a black artist, since America is doing the white, Christian conservative shuffle across the globe. Well, Fred certainly made the most out of the space, packing it full of personal and political works, that ultimately came across as a confusing mess. In the left side of the pavilion, he had some of his more abstract, formal works featuring a black and white tiled room with a soundtrack and his comical black sperm characters swimming down the walls. In contrast, the middle and right side of the pavilion were filled with overtly critical works of Western art history and cultural hegemony.

Fred hung pictures of Italian aristocrats with voice over soundtracks, created hybrid sculptures fusing African and Renaissance sculptures, and mixed a series of Renaissance images and recent photos of Africans in Venice. My favorite work was the understated series of prints covered in tissue paper, where only tiny, passing images of Africans are cut out and focused on.

All in all, I couldn't get my head around any of the pieces since there was so much noise and needless distraction at every angle. Formally, the entire room was a visual bomb, which took away my ability to spend much time with anything. I gave it a try Fred, honestly, but I guess I enjoyed the attitude of the whole thing the most over any specific work or series. From the outside, Fred made his voice heard with a tableaux of historical Africans to replacing the Colonial pillars with large banners of African men taking their place.

Chris Offilli had a similar assault on the senses going on over at the Brit hangout. Basically, a complimentary red/green color scheme is the star of the show with dots and elephant dung rounding out the cast. The large darkened pavilion is colored alternately red and green as are the dot paintings featuring romantic scenes. In the back, there are several colored glass panels featuring expanding afros in a nice pattern, but overall, the whole thing seems rather shoddy and overdone. The paintings are typical of his previous works, but lack any of the subtlety of his drawings that were in the Drawing Now show last fall. I was rather shocked at the sort of sophomoric quality of the installation. I reminded me of something I'd do.
I'm sort of thinking that Chris and Fred got talking and were like "Man, this place stinks like the man, let's give them a big fuck you". It's doubtful, but there is something irreverent and flippant in their presentations that defies the earnest attempts by so many of the other pavilions.

L and I weren't bowled over by all that much, but the Japanese, Australian, Dutch, Israeli, and Spanish pavilions were all quite good. I managed to walk this plank over what might have been Mt. Fuji in Yutaka Sone's installation. L thought I was going to fall over, since I'm bad with heights and I was suffering from booze fueled vertigo. Then we walked through Motohiko Odani's installation, this cool hallway that goes nuts with strobe lights. The walls are lined with little rubber spikes, and an organic stalactite hangs from the ceiling. Outside, there was this incredible video called Rompers. In it, nature has gone badly awry through some kind of genetic manipulation. A mutant girl sings as she catches insects with her frog like tongue. The armies of insects act very peculiar. It's an absorbing, surreal video.

In the Australian Pavillion, Patricia Piccinni's We are Family, was quite a hit. Her hyper real sculptures ala Ron Muek are monstrous wonders featuring more mutants. Piccinni's sculptures one-up Meuk by really playing with the narrative possibilities instead of merely showing off how real a surface can look these days. They are better than Madame Tussad, the skin of Piccinni's human-animal hybrids are pitted and blemished with hairs growing out moles. In the room, there are several sculptures, each one a contained, yet open almost sci-fi narrative. The best ones avoid being one-liners and remain elusive. Still, in Game Boys Advanced, two aged kids play the little hand held, and their wrinkled faces and gray hairs are disturbing, but the weak semiotic play borders on the laughable. I mean, her sad, human-beasts are achingly human, and don't really need human figures. L loved them and bought some bags featuring the nasty texture off one of the creatures hairy asses. Ack.

The Israeli pavilion looked quite bad at first, little crowds of people marching about. Great, another protest, but Michal Rover's generally black and white photographic animations of groups of people in motion was captivating. The first wall projections feature people moving to create synchronized shapes, then breaking apart. Not bad, but in Data Zone, there are several tables with what look like Petri dishes containing LCD screens. In each 'dish' the groups of people swirl about creating bacterial and viral shapes, perceptually shifting from masses of people to organism. They are really beautiful and meaning slips away. Upstairs, Rover had the little people marching about the entire room via projections. As a whole, it was quite hypnotic and shifted between ideas of control and resistance; leaving the thesis wide open.

Not so at the Spanish Pavillion. Hats off to Santiago Sierra who bagged the sign on the building, built a brick wall inside the doorway to the space, and posted guards at the back. No entry unless you had a Spanish passport. L and I laughed a bit, then read his book out front. It covers the piece, what's inside (nothing) and the 5 minute performance that basically was nothing. An old lady sat in the corner for five minutes. Sierra's piece is resistance and control, taking a bit of it and making everyone but the Spaniards feel a bit awkward, like most of the world, right? Sierra's piece actually prodded my soggy little mind to think and empathize. Still, I thought about charging the guards and taking the place by force, but L needed to use the WC.

The Dutch had something called We are the World filling up their pavilion and it was basically like a Williamsburg group show; a bunch of smart kids doing whacky things. The best bit was outside in a small shanty that was blaring 50¢. Inside there was a home-made movie theater playing Erik Van Leshot's video about two white guys trying to pick up a Moroccan guy. Inevitably multiple cultures clash, and through some really terrible editing, there is some conflict implied. Inside things kinda fall apart. There's a bar with generic cocktails, some bad charcoal drawings drawings by Leshot based on his video, a silly game about territory using knives, a super bad video installation about fashion, and a bad installation about the production of boots. It's all fairly conceptual, but felt like an MFA show, not Biennale material. Sorry kids, it's all quite ambitious, but feels oh so familiar. The group needed a bit of Leshot's sense of the absurd.

Let me take a minute to step on some international toes. The Brazillian pavilion had heaven and hell theme, but felt more like the dodgy waiting area in between. Beatriz Mizhales's big abstract paintings had a lot of circles and color, but basically stood out only because of the lack of painting. These made it painfully aware why most curators chose to leave it home. The other artist had intentionally obscured red photos. Nothing original or terribly moving here, certainly not hellish as the theme implies.

Canada's entry by Jana Sterback was a big laugh. She mounted a camera on her dog and shows the footage as multiple projections. The multi-screen format felt like massive overcompensation for some other idea Sterback originally planned but bailed on in favor of doggy cam. So lame, it was quite amusing. If Canada had the most lighthearted take on existence, then France had the most dismal take on the seriousness of formalism. Jean Marc Bustamante's dull, generic pre-fab abstract shapes were absolutely awful. It's like whoever curated the show was betting that abstraction was going to be staging a huge comeback. Riiiiight. So bad, I read the press release, then understood it was even more pretentious than I could imagine.
Germany tried to outdo France in the bad category with inveterate artist Martin Kippenberger's subway piece. A metal grate suddenly erupts with the wind and sound of a passing train. Neato and goes absolutely nowhere. Great for people who've never been to a city. The photos are by Gursky, no wait, they just look like his. Just stop people, no more straight on interiors of dehumanized spaces. He's got it down.
Greece's collaborative effort felt like a funhouse gone wrong. The floor is a fractal surface with video projections of people talking breaking on the faceted surface. It probably sounded good when Athanasia Kyriakakos and Dimitris Rotsios suggested it. Still it feels psychologically fascinating compared to Poland's entry. Stanislaw Drózdz's endless combinations of dice glued to the walls is a gameboard for his situationalist game. Roll some dice and try to find the combination on the walls. There is no reason, and despite the fact that the dice make for a nice pattern, the game is retarded. As an existential statement on the insignificance of the individual, it might be interesting, but it basically reaffirmed my opinion that the lotto sucks.

Korea's contribution included a motorcycle half inside the gallery with a small cart attached, terrible sculptures of skyscrapers, and a lot of patterns crawling across the walls. Yawn. Russia's self-conscious attempt at deflecting criticism posits the thesis that the artists' are unconcerned with theory and just want to make shit. Well, they do literally and metaphorically. The group show features paintings, and an artist who photographed the painters. The paintings range from illustrative figuration to abstract architectural constructions on cardboard, but none of it is any good. Well, maybe Jaws and the little Nemo fish.

The rest of the show fails to register sitting here at the café. The house wine is only 5 euro a bottle, and I'm loving it. I vaguely remember someone made a movie, Angels something or other and the guy from Denmark, Olaf Eliasson had some funky, perceptual sculptures like Op-Art come in the flesh. The movie, well, I wouldn't watch an art film after suffering through Cremaster 3 or anything less pretentious anyway, was also shown in bits and pieces as an installation. The Swiss artist was smart to offer it in different forms, because you really can't afford to sit for a feature film. Maybe real critics do, but I couldn't be bothered.

July 28th

Tadaso Takamine

Almost hurled off the side of the water taxi. Ended up closing the café after L went back to the hotel without me. I slept on the floor outside and woke up to her kicking me. Terrible really, but we managed to get to Arsenale pretty early. I tried to dodge paying by showing them a print out of the art crawl and my passport, but they explained I needed some forms or something. I threatened them, but they laughed at my poorly written little column and told me to pay or get out.

L, a little more than embarrassed, threatened to leave me so we walked through the first exhibit, Clandestine, in sullen silence. It wasn't so bad since there really wasn't all that much to consider. I mean, sure there was stuff flailing about saying "look at me, I'm art," but I wasn't convinced. There was this cool little room that plays a perspective trick, the hall appears to recede, but is just getting really small. It was one of the photo hot spots, getting your big self photographed in a tiny hallway. It felt a bit like Being John Malhcovich, really.

Dana Schutz was represetin' the states with her big, dumb n' lush paintings of strange people and strange lands. L hated them, but I sorta liked the overall attention to the surface and wild abandon. They really stuck out in the mini-exhibit since it really didn't fit with the theme, and had more formal energy than the rest of the work combined. Thomas Chaney showed goofy little sculptures like a table with progressively smaller versions stacked on top, that all seemed to be poking fun at American consumerism. They were sort of sad looking things, not really the most stinging criticism. Hannah Greely's sculpture of a toddler sticking its head in a coat had an ominious title called silencer making the benign sight rather spooky.

I remember nothing from the next couple of sections, except really bad systemic art and geo-political drivel. At one point in Individual Systems some artist rung the entire section of the show with dictionary pages with the definitions white washed and selectively replaced with the word 'pain'. This is what it inspired in me. Just bad. One section, Fault Lines really felt like I'd stepped into a three-dimensional issue of National Geographic. All of the art was from Africa or about Africa in some way, and the selected works felt like documentary work.

The best section with easily the most memorable work was the Zone of Urgency, all works about Asia and it's manic absorption of capitalism. The entire exhibit is packed with crazy works from the sprawling structure built by a Chinese collective to a video by Yuoung-Hae Chang Heavy Industries. The show bleeps and burbles as video art dominates, the favored medium of the desire driven advertising engine of Capitalism. The best work in the section, and maybe in the entire Biennale is a unique combination of stop motion claymation and time lapsed video by Tadaso Takamine. The brilliant piece features a giant clay head that starts off looking like Dubya, and it sings a creepy, high-pitched version of God Bless America. Slowly, as the video progresses the head mutates in various shapes as the artist, his girlfriend or wife, and assistants can be seen working on the changes. The entire thing occurs using time lapsed video, and it takes place in the artists living room.

Tadaso and his partner sleep, eat, entertain, and fuck in the same room in time-lapsed high speed. Their lives are almost as interesting to watch as the ever changing clay head. Watching the female paddle the head with her feet in her cute uniform in high speed is hilarious. This imminently watchable video is engrossing and its self-reflexive process is a thing of beauty. I could've listened to the giant head warble all day, and I want one for my room now. The rest of Z.O.U is a blast, and there was even free internet to boot thanks to Shu Lea Chang's installation concerning the freedom of information.

There were a few more sections, but all paled in next to Z.O.U. There was very little work that I can actually recall, since it was pretty murky. One section, Contemporary Arab Representations was so didactic and obligatory in nature it set off whistles in my head. Frankly, it felt like artistic pandering, like saying, gee Arabs having been getting a bad rap, lets let them represent themselves. Lovely gesture, terrible art. Another bit, The Everyday Altered, was much better with primarly South American artists making due with very little material means. Damien Ortega's exploded car, every piece suspended in the air via wires, was a standout. Simple concept with beautiful payout; this conceit makes this understated section a respite from the overloaded, conceptually top-heavy and over-curated sections. The simplicity of Jimmie Durham's humorous take on the intersection between poverty and appropriation should remind some artists that less can be more. Too bad none of this held out in the final section.
The Utopian Station section, mercifully at the end of the thing, felt like a cosmic joke. The interior section is composed of ramshackle, particle board rooms where inanity rules as artists critique and offer up such themes as world peace (Yoko Ono) and perfect cities, (The Kabakov's). Basically, I was extremely tired, and when I plunked down 10 euros for a two coffees and a bland little sandwich, I thought, someone should've gotten a grant to provide free lunch for weary art goers and put an end to the gouging. I mean it's a lot of work to take in so much art, especially such formally suspect work. At least someone could've thought to give out free water or something. 2.50 for a bottle of water? Fack! I was so beat, I pretty much quit thinking, especially outside next to the actual Utopia Station project, a bunch of shanties and tree forts passing themselves off as art.

We made it back to the hotel before 6, and then spent the rest of the evening searching for any restaurant that didn't serve spaghetti or pizza. We lucked out and found a Chinese place on a lonely little street. So much better than the crap they serve here. Now, I'm trying to convince L to this Irish pub and get loaded with me. I need to drink out some of the images that scorched my brain with their intense badness. I don't think anyone should have to trek through a mile of so much curatorial posturing. I would have preferred less of an agenda and more freedom.

July 29th

Made it back to Frankfurt, this time I was so drunk I slept sitting bolt upright, and it was quiet this time. No dogs licking my toes, no drunk Germans singing, no strange Italians peering in our sleeper. I've just eaten McDonalds again, and realize how profoundly American I am, which scares the hell out of me. Well, how could I resist? They serve this mayo sauce with the French fries that would take years off my life if they gave it out back in the states. L wouldn't even go in with me, she's mortified by my eating habits. Don't know what she sees in me anyway. Must be my effervescent personality.

En route

This heap is going down, I know it. The physics of flight amazes me, I just don't understand how tons of steel, a giant metal tube can stay in the air. Every few minutes I have a little panic attack and have to force myself to be absorbed back into our in flight entertainment. The Hollywood films they are showing are so bad, other countries should declare war on us if we don't improve them. John Travolta should be banned from the screen. Oh, good, here comes the steward-guy with my drinks. Yes, drinks.

--Keane Pepper

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[email protected] | August 2003 | Issue 41
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