Journal: The Venice Biennale
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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