by Roderick Conway Morris

| | | | | | | | | | | | |

Biennale Celebrates the Local

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 12 June 1999
Howard Arkley
Floriated Residence by Howard Arkley, 1994



In recent years Venice Biennales have sometimes seemed not so much surveys of art as a conspiracy of the worldwide postmodernist gallery and curatorial establishment to impose on the general public its narrow vision of what contemporary art ought to be.

The news this year, however, is by no means all bad, and the event, which opens Sunday and continues until Nov. 7, embraces a considerable amount of skillful, distinguished and interesting new work.

It is a primary characteristic of mainstream postmodern art that the style is consciously international, and individual pieces and installations could have been produced anywhere from Bangkok to Benghazi, Cape Town to Copenhagen. Thus this Biennale registers a significant shift back toward the local and regional, and indeed the figurative.

Impressive are the pieces in the Spanish pavilion by Manolo Valdes. Having passed through an abstract period, he has used collages of canvases and oils to create bold female portrait heads paying homage to Matisse, but taking some aspects of that master's style several stages further.

With the entire Great Britain pavilion to himself, Gary Hume is exhibiting - in addition to portraiture pictures of figures - fauna and flora. He uses bold colors on large aluminum sheets. The works have a Pop-Arty, psychedelic flavor reminiscent of the 1960s, which Hume himself only experienced as a small child, given that he was born in 1962, and in this respect they are positively nostalgic and old-fashioned. But Hume has a confident and distinct sense of design.

Howard Arkley's 'The Home Show' in the Australian pavilion also draws on Pop Art and illustrates the emerging trend of daring to be decorative. His luridly colorful and patterned renderings of suburban houses and their interiors look like the sets for some surrealist soap opera. The enterprise is a send-up, but a humorous and good-natured one. And once again we are confronted with a manner that is local and 'national,' rather than anonymously international.

The South Korean artist Noh Sang Kyoon, meanwhile, has confronted the East-West mix of his own culture by making a seated Buddha and enormous panels entirely covered with sequins that constantly change shade in the waxing and waning beams of artificial lights. The effect, suggestive at the same time of disco, religious shrines and fashion kitsch, is weirdly absorbing.

Two other artists whose works are not figurative but retain a strong atmosphere of their places of origin are Danae Stratou of Greece and Ricardo Pascale of Uruguay. Danae's multi-layered glass sculpture with its shimmering and reflecting outer surfaces is like a prismatic box for capturing, condensing, even cooling, Greece's fiercely strong light. Pascale makes intriguing, richly warm-hued discs, circles and pillars of fragments of pieces of hardwoods from abandoned industrial sites. These forms have a strangely ancient and spiritual quality, a harmonious blending of the natural and man-made. Both these artists' pieces would make perfect adornments to public gardens and other civic open spaces.

On the less serious side are some amusing stunts, notably the Russian duo Komar and Melamid's show of photographs of Moscow - the local and the regional even getting a look-in here - taken by a 7-year-old chimpanzee called Mikki, and paintings done by elephants.

Across the way is the former Czechoslovakia pavilion, now amicably divided between the two nations. The latter half of the former combo offers to tattoo visitors with designs made by several Slovak artists, thereby leaving a more permanent mark on the public than any other pavilion can perhaps hope to achieve.

Harald Szeemann is this year's curator of the International section, called dAPERTutto in Italian, the pun (open to all/all over the place) failing to make it into the well-nigh meaningless English translation: APERTOoverALL. Some 100 artists have filled the enormous, many-roomed Italia pavilion, as well as the Rope Walk and other derelict factory spaces at the nearby Arsenal, with a plethora of installations, video works, photographs and so on. Most of these are predictable, not to say banal. But the outsized installation 'Jue Chang,' consisting of 100 chairs, stools and bedsteads converted into hide-covered drums, which visitors are invited to bang with assorted police truncheons, is great fun for children and potentially useful for adults needing to work off their frustration at some of the junk on display nearby.

Two parallel exhibitions have been staged against considerable financial and organizational odds: 'Albania Today: The Time of Ironic Optimism,' at the Ex-Instituto Maria Ausilatrice on Fondamenta San Gioachin near the Arsenal, and 'Ceremonial,' at the Schola dei Tiraoro and Battioro in Campo San Stae. These are group shows by Albanian and American Indian artists respectively.

Both have avoided the folkloric and tended toward postmodern modes of expression. But there is a sense in both cases that this language too is an alien one. The resulting feeling of dissonance and the evident search for an idiom to satisfy both tradition and life in today's world, not to mention allusions to the tragedies of these peoples' histories, make both shows poignant and thought-provoking.

Of the parallel private gallery shows, outstanding is Serge Rezvani's, at Galleria del Leone on the island of Giudecca. Rezvani, now in his seventies, enjoyed a successful career as a painter (and won instant celebrity by composing and singing the song 'Le tourbillon de la vie' in Truffaut's film 'Jules et Jim') before turning to writing.

Rezvani has taken up his brush again for a series of silhouetted nudes using only black oil and leaving areas of the canvas white to achieve the modeling and contrast. These dynamic and daring works create an almost filmic illusion of movement, and to see an artist at this stage of life embarking on a completely new technique and direction is refreshing to behold.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024