We know that large-scale statements are inevitable as art institutions continue to compete as sites of attraction within spectacle culture. By installing Polke’s suite as his centerpiece, Storr is simply following the trend in blockbuster exhibition types beyond surveys and themes to the current concentration on one-artist shows that fill large spaces or entire museums. Matthew Barney’s Cremaster series at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 2002 seemed the apex, but it has been matched by, among many others, Richard Serra’s The Matter of Time at the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao (2006) and the first of the Monumenta sequence of exhibitions at the Grand Palais, Paris, which began this May with Anselm Kiefer’s magisterial Sternenfall. (No surprise that Serra is next at the Grand Palais; interesting that Christian Boltanski will follow.)
Yet each of these installations, while spectacular in itself (to the point of grandiosity), responds to the widespread thirst for some kind of clarity within the confusions that obscure all attempts to see the shape of the current world-picture. Each includes elements that expose the limits of excess, and that seek small, sometime human-scale anchors for individuality within it. Serra does this quite literally, in the material force with which his steel slabs govern movement through space; Kiefer profiles on epic scale the ruined structure that Modernity has become while pointing to the persistence of poesis within it; and Barney revels in the media saturation of contemporary life while glamorizing the mock-heroic travails of the individual’s quest through its multifarious obstacles. In contrast, a quite distinct and critically acute take on these issues appears in Paul Chan’s digital projection series The 7 Lights (2005-07), shown in its entirety in the Serpentine Gallery, London, in May 2007. Like Kiefer, Chan evokes the cycle of creation, but does so only to show that, in current conditions, the tropes of destruction–particularly those of the fundamentalisms–are multiplying.
One of the few works at Venice (and certainly the only one at the Giardini) to match Chan’s is Steve McQueen’s Gravesend (2007), a wide-screen video shot at Walikale, in the Congo, the XRF Analysis Laboratories in Nottingham, and at Gravesend, on the Thames near London. What unites these places is that the last is the site conjured by Conrad in his novel Heart of Darkness, as his narrator sets out on his journey, whereas Coltan, a mineral much used in modern electronic equipment, is mined, by hand, in Walikale, and processed in Nottingham. Through carefully chosen steady cams, insistent sound, beautifully lit close-ups and abrupt editing, McQueen evokes the abstract energies that lock these localities to each other: a globalizing scenario that, after these quasi-documentary sequences, he manifests in a flow of blackness that splits the glowing white screen like an oil spill across sand.
Compared to this enlivening of artistic abstraction, the rooms of elegant paintings by Richter, Ryman, Murray and Rothenberg look same-old, while those by younger painters such as Raul de Keyser simply pale into insignificance. A more interesting question is what does the McQueen do to our approach to works such as those of Cheri Samba, a leading artist in the group of self-named “Popular Painters” from Kinshasa? Along with Bodo and Cheri Cherin, Samba occupies a room in the recent rehanging of the Tate Modern collection. At Venice, in the rooms near the painters just named, he shows two large contemporary history paintings: Les Tours de Babel dans le monde (1998), which depicted Africa as the victim of conflicts originating elsewhere, and Apres le 11 Septembre 2001. Painted between May and September of 2002, the latter offered a complex symbolic cluster concerning the roots and effects of terrorism, in a manner recalling Diego Rivera’s destroyed Rockefeller Center mural. The Kinshasa painters continue to advance from their populist starting point, learning fresh ways of conveying their growing awareness of the complexities in which they are embedded. So does McQueen, coming from a different, but parallel and, at times, convergent set of sources. In current circum- stances, not least in Africa, this is what we might most expect: contemporaneous non-contemporaneity.