by Roderick Conway Morris

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Biennale Opens Its Portals to the Pros

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 16 June 2001
Luc Tuymans
Lumumba by Luc Tuymans, 2000



An airplane lazily circles high in the sky above the lagoon, emitting a trail of vapor. Gradually, it becomes clear that this motorized dot is trying to say something. At last it manages to spell out the word 'BOO,' adds an exclamation mark and disappears into the great blue yonder.

This stunt simultaneously characterized and literally sent up much of the attention-seeking, post-modern gimmickry at this year's Venice Biennale - but, happily, by no means told the whole story. This, the 49th edition of the exhibition, is the largest ever, with 64 countries participating, and continues until Nov. 4.

Technical ineptness in taking photographs and making videos seems no longer to be a requirement for these products to be counted as 'art.'

This has opened the door to the work of some first-rate professionals: from the Spanish Cristina Garcia Rodero's atavistic images of voodoo rites in Haiti and the Russian-born Viktor Marushchenko's low-key but telling documentation of the aftermath of Chernobyl, to the Finnish Tuomo Manninen's carefully posed, brightly lighted, slightly weird portraits of diverse human groups (an imaginative gamut including the Association of Wives of Professors and the Ice-Swimming Club in Helsinki, and School Scouts and Body Builders in Katmandu) and the Swiss Arnold Odermatt's photo-reportage of car smashes, which sometimes takes on an eerie, surreal quality.

In the realm of film, Laila Pakalnina, a Latvian journalist and documentary maker, is screening her 10-minute 'Papagena' at the Latvian 'pavilion,' the San Lio Church. As Riga celebrates its 800th anniversary and the opera house and city were putting their all into a staging of Mozart's 'Magic Flute,' Pakalnina went out and invited passers-by, young and old, to listen to the opera's Papagena duet on headphones while she filmed their reactions. Many were clearly hearing such music for the first time, and the result is a delightful testimony to the ability of great art to uplift, surprise and give pleasure even to the uninitiated.

While 'Papagena' is being shown in the ample surrounds of a church, many video and other installations are crammed into much smaller spaces, making for crowded, uncomfortable and possibly unsafe viewing, not to mention long waits in line.

At least two pavilions advertise themselves as potentially hazardous to health: Germany asking visitors to sign a disclaimer in case of accident and injury, and Austria warning those with epilepsy or heart conditions not to enter.

That a more or less traditional painter can take on contemporary issues while creating pictures of lasting value and resonance is triumphantly demonstrated by the Flemish artist Luc Tuymans, who occupies the Belgian pavilion with a one-man show, 'Mwana Kitoko' (Beautiful White Man). Most of the canvases here are inspired by the Congo before and after independence in the 1960s and the chief protagonists of the struggle, the young King Baudouin (whose ironic nickname from the period gives the exhibition its title) and the nationalist leader Patrice Lumumba.

Tuymans sees the Congo saga as a still unresolved 'Heart of Darkness' buried deep in the Belgian psyche, but approaches the issue with a subtlety as finely tuned as his painting technique, by means of which he achieves extraordinary effects with a deliberately restricted range of muted colors and restrained brush strokes. Memory, loss of memory and its suppression are, as in his other work, central themes here, and the manner in which Tuymans gives physical form to these elusive, fugitive aspects of the mind is powerful and haunting.

Seven resident and expatriate African artists appear in 'Authentic/ Ex-centric: Africa in and out of Africa' at a debut African 'pavilion' sponsored by the Fondazione Levi's Palazzo Giustinian Lolin by the Accademia bridge. This is a timely venture and Yinka Shonibare's 'Vacation 2000,' a life-size, moon-walking father, mother and two kids in space suits and oxygen packs made of colorful, big-patterned, typical 'African' prints is especially funny and piquant.

'Surface Tension,' a nearby group exhibition of young British painters - Kate Bright, Jane Harris, Richard Kirwan, D.J. Simpson, Daniel Sturgis and Mandy Ure - at Gallery Holly Snapp in San Samuele (continuing until July 25), is one of a growing number or 'fringe' Biennale events, and encouragingly confirms that painting - in certain circles profoundly unfashionable - is attracting vigorous new blood with a real desire to explore the possibilities of the medium.

Kate Bright's giant wave images - amusingly echoing Hokusai - composed of acrylic paint and tiny polystyrene balls are instantly engaging, but each one of these artists in their different ways has appealing qualities.

Also on the 'fringe' is a show of the Romanian Serghei Manoliu's 'Art Dollars' (which continues at the Galleria del Leone on the island of Giudecca until July 26). Manoliu, whose forebears were icon painters, buys one-buck bills in mint condition - the authenticity of each artwork is conveniently guaranteed by the pre-existing official serial number - and employs age-old techniques to decorate them with gold leaf and natural pigments, before encasing them like holy pictures and books in heavy metal covers, making them ideal sacred images for the modern Worshipper of Mammon.

The U.S. Federal Reserve and other banks are, apparently, already the owners of 'art dollars,' which are oddly attractive as decorative objects, while poking some pertinent fun at the often absurd disparity between artistic effort, talent and reward.

Some mordant, dead-pan comment not only on what is currently considered 'art,' but also on contemporary obsessions and fitness neuroses is provided by Antal Lakner at the Hungarian pavilion at the Castello Gardens. His solidly constructed, professionally finished, absolutely pointless machines allow their users, among other things, to simulate, with the help of a treadmill, pushing a wheelbarrow, whitewashing a wall and sawing a piece of wood.

There is also the 'Handypress,' a hefty exercise mobile phone designed to tone up the muscles employed in the onerous task of touch-tone dialing; and outside the pavilion a fleet of tricycles with reclining seats, for visitors to tour the gardens, which are described in perfect post-modern gobbledygook cataloguese as 'active perceiving devices.'

At the Russian pavilion, Sergei Shutov and Olga Chernysheva offer their take on the contradictions of modern times.

Shutov's serried ranks of identically black-robed, hooded, rhythmically bowing mechanical figures amid a babel of prayers and liturgies, highlights the underlying similarities and mutual antipathies of the world's competing faiths.

Chernysheva, meanwhile, with the determination of a Siberian tracker, pursues the fur coat down the subways and 'through the thick forest of the wintry Moscow megalopolis,' in a country where, in the words of the pavilion's curator, Yekaterina Dyogot, 'a fur coat is a banality. It is not about being rich, or glamorous or sexy; not about breaking out of the crowd. To disguise yourself as a beast means showing yourself off as a decent human being. Which also means not just to secure yourself from the cold, but other human beings.'

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024