Rosemary Laing, Welcome to Australia, 2004.

Rosemary Laing, Welcome to Australia, 2004. From the photographic series, To walk on a sea of salt. Courtesy the artist and Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne.

While Storr defied expectations by including so much overtly political work, he retreated to more familiar instincts by consciously interrupting this discourse with works that made their points poetically–indeed, cried out for attention to the uniqueness, even eccentricity, of their vision–and did so by performing their anxieties as a problem for a medium. Kim Jones, Andrei Monastryski, Felix Gamelin, Valie Export, Francis Alyes all did this, with varying success. In a similar gesture, a set of dark rooms in which one may view Yang Fudong’s films of the interminable wanderings of seven Chinese intellectuals is strung like an anti-vertebra throughout the space.

Ignasi Aballí, Llistats (Morts I), 1997-2003.

Ignasi Aballí, Llistats (Morts I), 1997-2003. Digital print on photographic paper. 150 x 105 cm. Courtesy Elba Benítez Gallery, Madrid.

The last rooms attempt to weave these conflicted currents together into an open-ended conclusion. Rainer Ganahl Googled “the politics of education” and found a list of seminars, conferences, and lectures, which he reproduces in lettraset. On either side he displays his photographs of such events, from the artist Allan Sekula teaching photography at CalArts to the late Pierre Bourdieu on a panel in Paris. Manon de Boer flew to Sao Paulo to interview theorist Suely Rolnik. His travelogue is shown with rather mannered aphasic freeze-framing, yet the depth of Rolnik’s thought about the subjective states of postcoloniality comes through. Since 1997, Ignasi Aballi has been cutting out from the print media headlines that pair an identifactory category–such as “Islamists,” “disappeared,” “workers,” “murders,” or “victims”–with a number. This decontextualizing, and reshaping into lists, draws us to imagine worlds of connection of the kind that used to be traced by Mark Lombardi, for example. Three photographic collages by Lyle Ashton Harris, arranged to create a space for memory and reflection, showed a generalized African/ Latin American dictator, his bourgeois supporters, and a victim dying (presumably) of AIDS. This is less affecting than Alalli’s lists, largely because its placement rather heavy-handedly attempts to jerk us away from reflection on our own processing of the themes of the exhibition, and back to “reality.”

Charles Gaines, Airplanecrash Clock, 1997/2007.

Charles Gaines, Airplanecrash Clock, 1997/2007. Mixed media, electronics; 9 x 13 x 5 feet. Installation view at Venice Biennale, 2007. Photos: Sergio Martucci. Courtesy of the artist and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects.

The final work lets us out again, back into approved contemporary art’s patent ambiguities. Philippe Parreno treats us to an update of Andy Warhol’s famous 1964 exhibition of helium-filled silver balloons. This time round they are black, shaped like the “speech balloons” in comic books, and stay resolutely stuck to the ceiling. Into a wall next to the exit is set a small screen. A favorite of eighteenth century automata, the Writing Boy, is shown inscribing, with the laborious movements that had earlier crashed the plane in Gaines’ Airplanecrash Clock, this question: “What do you believe?” And then this answer: “What you see?”

What of Venice outside the main exhibition? Citing the impacts of globalization, but emphasizing works that displayed those impacts, the 2006 Sao Paulo Biennale abandoned its emphasis on distinctive national representation, leaving Venice as the only one that persists with this model. How does it look there? Anachronism is the Biennale’s root condition; it has always (well, for most of its history since the 1930s) traded on the disarming mismatch of presenting the most contemporary art in settings redolent with elegant decay. (An exchange exquisitely portrayed in the staging of the Artempo exhibition at the Palazzo Fortuny–for all its unabashed aestheticism, this compilation of eccentricity and erudition is yet another kind of exhibition- as-argument, and alone would justify a visit to Venice.) But the national pavilions continue to struggle for impact and relevance. Part of the problem is that, given the proclivity towards installation as a mode, their size permits the showing of work by one or at most two artists. Two challenges then arise.

Further Reading