There is good art and there is bad art, but the Venice biennale is depressing for wider reasons. To a critic, the globalised art market makes no sense at allby Ben Lewis / July 23, 2005 / Leave a comment
I went right through the biennale—all the 20 or so national pavilions, the usual greatest hits survey in the Italian pavilion, and the always enormous cutting-edge-young-artists pot pourri in the Arsenale, without finding what I wanted: something that would give me a glimmer of hope. I was now in the Chinese pavilion, the first ever in the biennale’s 110-year history. The sign at the entrance posed this question: “What is the ontology of a national pavilion?” With these words a brand new layer of self-referentiality had been added to the already top-heavy structure of contemporary art. A few decades ago this process had begun with site-specific art which “interrogated” the space of the gallery, then progressed to art which “questioned” the economics of the gallery, and recently attained new heights when one Thai artist exhibited reconstructions of the empty exhibition spaces of his previous exhibitions as a retrospective. Perhaps, with the Chinese pavilion’s exploration of itself, art’s theoretical edifice would finally topple over.
The sprawling Venice biennale is intended to be a celebratory survey of all that is great and new in contemporary art, but it left me feeling depressed. It wasn’t the quality of the art. There was bad stuff and good stuff. The bad stuff included the repetitive and dated Gilbert and George show at the British pavilion—more of those brightly painted glass panels, fusty Dennis Potter Britishness and faux-affection for working-class kids. The good stuff included a brilliant Ed Ruscha installation at the American pavilion. The legendary pop artist has returned to old subjects after an interval of 20 years, repainting buildings he had first painted in the 1980s—the new ones becoming poetic images of the arrival of globalisation on the edges of American towns.
My depression wasn’t even caused by a lack of laughs. At the German pavilion, six men and women dressed as museum guards shimmied across the floor, clicking their fingers and singing: “This art is so contemporary, contemporary, contemporary.” It was the latest work from Tino Sehgal, whose tiresome and predictable critique of the capitalist art market is compensated for by his dadaist sense of humour.
Nor was there any lack of glamour. I went to the German party. To get there I walked across to the other side of Venice, through a causeway lit by terracotta oil lamps and into an open air club where Kraftwerk were playing live. The champagne…