Between the Venice Biennale and the Art Basel fairs, I’ve seen more contemporary art at once than probably any other time in my life. This kind of sensory overload results in a desire to talk about anything other than contemporary art. But one can’t be in Basel without participating in the discussion. And though I have done literally nothing else for days, I still have only one experience — my own — to relay.
Perhaps if I had seen a little more good work over past couple of weeks, I’d be more excited about the ensuing discussion. For all the talk of poor economies producing great new art, there’s been surprisingly little to show for it. June 3rd marked the opening of the 53rd Venice Biennale, the biggest and most well-known survey of contemporary art — and this year, also the most lackluster. Of course, even the most cohesive curatorial practice can’t bring into focus the current state of art making, but this one mostly tells us what we already know: inconsistency in all professional practice remains inevitable.
Comprised of two main attractions — individual pavilions at the Giardini in which nations compete for the Golden Lion Prize, and a curated show at the Arsenale — attending the event is like going to an amusement park at the Olympics. Audience lines form outside many of the pavilions, and a couple of days after the show opens, the winner is announced.
As in most fields, nations with more money tend to perform better, though this year countries unilaterally presented poor work. Claude Lévêque at the France pavilion presented a silver glittering cell installation with a windy “art” sound track; Japan’s representative Miwa Yanagi created a series of giant warrior portraits of a woman sporting spectacular breast deformities; and Greece made the mistake of showcasing Lucas Samaras’s rainbow-manipulated portraits. Poorer nations occasionally presented even more surface, cliché-ridden art than this, but not by much.
The best of an array of average pavilions, Bruce Nauman’s mini-retrospective for the United States won the Biennale grand prize. The show was composed of fifteen bronze sculptures of hands making sexual poses, decapitated plastic heads spewing water into a fountain, and neon signs either poking an eye or picking a nose. A small Robert Gober-like sculpture adjacent to a video capturing the pouring of coffee connects an arm and a head, a relationship explored in much of Nauman’s work, and key to the show. It reveals his interest in the components of art making, often at the expense of aesthetic value.
While many of Nauman’s other pairings proved significantly less successful — the simplistic doubled neon signs hanging from the front of the building reading "Hope/Envy," "Fortitude/Anger," and "Sloth/Charity," for example — over at the Arsenale, the main exhibition struck no cohesive theme.
According to Biennale Curator Daniel Birnbaum’s thesis, that shouldn’t be a problem though: Making Worlds promotes a giant melting pot of an art world in which everything has a place. It’s a fine idea, but not much of an organizational structure. The result takes the form of a number of conservative oversized works, a disappointment, even acknowledging a limp curatorial conceit.
Of course, even in the face of the poorest Biennale, it wouldn’t occur to most that a commercial art fair, no matter how giant, might compete. And in truth, Art Basel, an event held mere days after the Biennale opened, didn’t — the crap-to-good-stuff ratio was far too high — but nearly everyone I spoke to believed it had in previous years. Initially, I had a hard time reconciling that idea, but when I thought about the free-for-all curatorial philosophy dominating this and other recent survey shows, it suddenly didn’t seem so absurd. In fact, in this light, the shows seemed only to re-enforce value of my own experience; one so oversaturated it can do nothing but talk about itself.