This is not what we find in the “African Pavilion,” a controversial compromise squeezed into a distant shed in the Arsenale (between even more token Turkish and Chinese presences). Controversy swirled around Storr’s decision–quite late in the game–to ignore already well-developed initiatives to introduce an African presence into the 2009 Biennale, to drop his own thoughts of selecting a few artists for inclusion into his sections (although two huge wall-hangings in the Arsenale by Ghanaian bricoleur El Anatsui dazzle in the visual richness achieved by sewing together such lowly, discarded materials as bottle tops) and put out an open call for proposals for “an exhibition of contemporary art from Africa and the African diaspora.” A slice from a private collection in Angola was selected. While it contains some interesting works, it profiles a taste formed in the 1990s, a patina that spreads to even the recent inclusions. The mostly domestic scale of the works leaves them cowering against the mega- exhibition specials that precede them. Despite drawing on the conceptual skills of curator Simon Njami–a key figure in the largely successful exhibition Africa Remix, which toured extensively between 2004 and 2007 from Duesseldorf to Johannesburg–the outcome is an object lesson in how not to deal with this issue.
If the main pavilion at the Giardini sagged under the weight of the conventionality at its core, the long string of rooms at the Arsenale is filled with–for the most part–overt, declarative statements about current political conflicts. After an introductory installation by Luca Buvoli that, in history museum-cum-funhouse style, recreates the slogans and typologies of Italian Futurism, we step into a reminder of past and present struggles in Latin America with a display of Leon Ferrari’s iconic works from the 1960s (a crucified Christ strung up on a US fighter plane), his 1980s prints of people trapped in maze-like cities, and some of his recent, Ernst-like collages. Opposite, Charles Gaines’ Airplanecrash Clock is a model modernist city through which a passenger plane mounted on an ungainly pole chugs every few minutes, and then crashes. The a-ha! is that this work was made in 1997. This amusing if unexceptional end-of- Modernity allegory looks, after the 9/11 connection has been made, the same.
Back and forward, from one side to another, artists bat the crises of our time. Many do so with subtlety and restraint. After the Israeli invasion of Lebanon last year, Gabriele Basilico revisits photographs he took of the destruction of Beirut in 1991. Oscar Munoz paints deft portraits–in water, onto a pavement, in the midday sun–of those who “disappeared” during the incessant warring within Colombia (Proyecto para un Memorial, 2003-05). Adel Abdessemed’s Wall Drawings (2006) are nine perfect circles delineated in highly tensioned barbed wire. This tendency reaches its apogee in a key installation by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, Manas (Utopian City) (2007), in which eight model cities, gathered around a void, evoke both the utopian architecture of the Revolutionary period in Russia and ideal city types from throughout history (including one that enables time to flow up and down, and then stop). Above them, their replicas float, hinting at a Tibetan myth about heavenly replication of the earthly, including its aspirations towards transcendence.
Many other inclusions, in contrast, make their points with one-idea directness. Emily Prince is building a wall map of the United States by making drawings of the soldiers killed in Iraq (with color variations according to ethnicity) and pinning them up according to the location of their hometowns. Paolo Canevari’s video Bouncing Skull (2007) tracks a young man amid the ruins of Sarajevo showing off his soccer skills by obsessively kicking and fetching a rubberized skull. Hiroharu Mori’s A Camouflaged Question in the Air is quite literally that: a white balloon with a question mark in Warhol-style camouflage on it. Made in 2003. Why resurrect it? Sometimes these simplicities are the result of a bout of curatorial correctness. Thus Riyas Komu’s sequence of painted portraits of the conflicted face of a Palestinian suicide bomber is hung next to series of photographs by Tomer Ganihar of wounded dummies used in Israeli hospitals to teach treatment techniques. Opposite, one of Rosemary Laing’s studies of detention camps in the desert is entitled Welcome to Australia (2004).