by Roderick Conway Morris

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Christoph Rütimann/San Stae, Venice
Installation by Christoph Rütimann at Swiss Pavilion, San Stae

Can the Biennale Change the World?

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 19 June 1993


'Can art still change the world?' is one of the themes proposed by Venice's 45th Biennale. A more pertinent question might be whether this immensely expensive and elaborate event - the number of visitors to which has fallen from a high in 1976 of nearly 700,000 to less than 100,000 in 1990 - can continue to justify its existence without radically broadening its scope to include a much wider vision of contemporary art.

First staged in 1895 during the age or Great Exhibitions to celebrate the silver wedding anniversary of the king and queen of Italy, the Biennale, which this year runs through Oct. 10, has become the bastion or avant-gardism of the kind that shocked and amused our grandparents, but which we may be forgiven for regarding with a certain sense of deja vu.

This year's offerings include a set of rooms entirely tiled with an identical image of a human skull wrapped in string, a cow and a calf cut in haIf and preserved in formaldehyde, a ski-slope built into the corner of a baroque church (by the Swiss artist Christoph Rutimann, running the risk of reinforcing the national stereotypes deplored by the event at large) and numerous noisy video screens showing (deliberately?) incompetently made videos.

More than 400 artists from 53 countries are exhibiting several thousand works at the main site in the Giardini di Castello at the east end of the city beyond the Arsenal and at more than a dozen additional locations - from churches and palaces, to the old Arsenal rope factory and a former granary - scattered around the city.

One of the Biennale's peculiarities is that a number of countries have permanent national pavilions, built from 1907 onwards, in the Castello Gardens. These gardens were conceived by Napoleon Bonaparte - just about the only positive contribution he ever made to Venice. Abutting on the lively and densely populated working-class district of Castello, the gardens constitute the largest open space in the city, but remain closed except for the dozen weeks every two years or so when artistic events are held here - a situation deplored by many Venetians, and on that is difficult to believe would be tolerated in any other major city.

The reason for this absurd state of affairs - often overlooked by visiting critics, who are given to describing the whole Biennale area as 'public gardens' - is the problem of guarding the pavilions (all of which are empty of exhibits except during the shows) against vandalism.

It is richly ironic. therefore, to discover that this year's prize-winning German contribution consisted of allowing Hans Haacke to smash up the marble floor of the national pavilion, behind a screen featuring a large photograph of Hitler visiting the 1934 Biennale.

Unsurprisingly, despite the huge number of artists taking part, figurative or representational works of an even vaguely traditional kind are almost entirely absent (other than at the large, and thoroughly worthwhile, Francis Bacon retrospective at the Correr Museum, which includes some very impressive, almost liberated, late pictures painted not long before his death).

Otherwise it is unmistakably the ghost of Marcel Duchamp that looms large over the proceedings - though it is notable that for all anti-establishment art establishment's undying enthusiasm for his work, the extensive and heavily promoted retrospective, which opened this spring at the Palazzo Grassi on the Grand Canal, seems to have been remarkably unsuccessful in attracting enthusiastic crowds of ordinary Italians of the kind that flocked to 'The Celts' there a couple of years ago.

Nothing could be more calculated to produce a numbing sense of uniformity than tribes of artists all straining to be shocking and original together. And, despite the claim of Achille Bonito Oliva, the show's overall curator, that 'the 45th Venice Biennale is not a group exhibition but an organic cultural project,' real diversity is on the whole notable for its absence.

The personalities of two older artists, nonetheless, did come through strongly: Louise Bourgeois, the American scuiptor, and Zongolopoulos, who makes intriguing fountains - the one on show outside the Greek pavilion is an enormous steel structure with life-size umbrellas that tip up and down with the flow of the water.

At 92, Zongolopoulos is a decade older than Bourgeois, but just as busy at work, and apparently looking for a new studio in Athens so that he can pursue even grander projects.

Most impressive of all to my mind, however, was the work of more than a score of South African artists, three of them hosted by the Italian pavilion and the rest exhibiting at a special 'Affinities' show, at the Fondazione Levi near the Accademia Bridge, (the pieces will later go on tour to Rome and Amsterdam).

Here at last was some real passion and force of expression: powerful wooden sculptures by Jackson Hlungwane, on religious themes, and by Noria Mabasa; Sue Williams's moving installation commorating District 6, the Colored Quarter in Cape Town demolished by the authorities in 1981; Andries Botha's fascinating work in metal, thatch and soda-can tops; Willem Strydom's marble carvings, and Willie Bester's mixed-media township portrait.

Many of these artists have no formal training (and are therefore perhaps unaware that a sizable section of the art establishment looks down on traditional artistic skills), and with the South African art market in its infancy make little or no money from their work. But they do have something to say, and are saying it with imagination, vigor and dedication. The effect is riveting.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023