Contemporary attitude Art: Venice's world-encompassing Biennale exhibit is huge in many ways.


VENICE -- Contemporary art is what it's all about. Mostly, anyway. In the biggest agglomeration of art events in history, spread all over Europe this summer, very little of the art was made by people who are dead or who make art the way it was made before, say, about 1955.

Millions of tourists and thousands of art professionals will look at thousands of more or less celebrated works of art in places from Italy to Germany, and very, very few of those pieces would fit in a normal human home -- physically or, so to speak, spiritually.

What is this stuff -- this postmodern, breaking-edge, with-it art?

Here at the Venice Biennale, the city's every-other-year art extravaganza, is an installation by Vanessa Beecroft, an Italian of considerable note in the performance art world.

Her work occupies a large space marked out on the floor of the Biennale's most free-swinging venue, called the Corderia for the long, ancient rope factory that houses it. Against the back wall are four photographs of fashion models preparing to go to the runway, in various states of undress. In front of these pictures are eight live models, or lithe young women who look very much like professional fashion models, seven in tights from the waist down and brassieres, the eighth in bikini underpants and a bra.

They are all utterly wooden-faced, eyes straight forward, as they move, very slowly as models might, or sit or lie on the floor. No furniture. No human responses. No eye contact. No life, except that they are very much alive and real.

It's eerie. It's powerfully a statement of the utter boredom, and presumably the vacuousness, of the fashion world and whatever you may choose to make that a metaphor for. And it is hilariously funny as well, in a sad, sad way. God! Are these poor dears going to have to do that all summer?

The Beecroft performance work is about as far-out as the Biennale art goes. And to say it is typical would be misleading, for there is no way usefully to generalize.

Trying to generalize, words do rattle around: Daring. Different. Shock. Emotion. Delight. Concentration. Intensity. Imagination. Politics. Irony. Tantrum. Yearning. Outrage. Fun.

Attempting an impact

These are artists trying to shake the world awake.

Not all of it works:

The less said about the French exhibit, probably, the better. It is a sprawled-out mockery of television-dominated domestic life, with scenes displayed on a large number of screens, live people doing electronic and TV things. Light, mocking, not quite as funny as it tries to be.

The French exhibit, in one of 30 national pavilions, faces the German one. ('Twas ever thus, ne c'est pas?) The German building, as one enters, looks much like the set of a Wagnerian opera. It is filled with huge, rather fearsome photographic pieces by Erhard Merz and Katherina Everding, which could be an abstract Wagnerian opera set.

The British pavilion, marked "Gran Brethena," is flanked by France and Germany. ('Twas ever thus, actually.)

The British exhibit is filled with sculpture of Rachel Whiteread, all very geometric, very large, too big for any home but maybe the seat of a duke. The works run to rather architectural abstractions of great cleanliness and dignity and to large plastic, rubber or rosin puns on domestic objects (a bed, a bathtub). They are not the sort of art that, to my experience, dukes tend to go in for. But it is good, clean, self-confident art. It will fit in a museum, not a house.

The Japanese pavilion, next to the German, is titled "Rei Naito: One Place on the Earth," a sweetly nationalistic sentiment. It is an installation for which one needs an appointment. Very orderly. Very conceptual.

The Spanish pavilion shows work by Joan Brossa, a hugely funny artist, and Carmen Calvo, a very dramatic one. So the exhibit is both enormously ironic and abrasively dramatic.

The Korean pavilion is architecturally fascinating, a series of small spaces of interesting shape and levels. The installation is dominated by massive walls of unseparated small square tiles, each different, with pictures or words or shapes, ranging from plain color to cheerful obscenities.

The pavilion marked Italia, the main site for work chosen by the Biennale's curator, Germano Celant, contains not only work by Italians, but a large series of rooms devoted to major international figures in contemporary art: Roy Lichtenstein, Tony Cragg, Claes Oldenburg, Edward Ruscha, Gerhard Richter, Rebecca Horn, Richard Tuttle, Jim Dine, Agnes Martin, Anselm Kiefer, Luciano Fabro, Brice Marden. Richard Artschwager. Many are American.

Together and separately, this is overwhelmingly the best art in the entire show. These are great artists, though on short notice (because political squabbling almost turned the Biennale into a triennial event), it is not surprising that the work shown is not their best.

Straightforward art

But the art is insistent, it is ironic, it is clear and generally straightforward. It has to do strongly, even richly, sometimes bravely with culture of the 1970s and beyond -- with now. My favorite piece in the entire show is Brice Marden's "The Muses" from 1991, a huge canvas oil painting of Marden's well-recognized often ghostly winding lines. The problem (beyond price): It is about 8 feet tall and 14 feet wide.

It goes on and on. The preliminary catalog, which stops far short of including even every major work, runs for 730 pages.

It takes itself very seriously, and rightfully so, at least for anyone who finds contemporary art of serious interest or consequence. And if the unconvinced find some of this ponderously silly, there is in much of the art the good grace of self-ridicule.

Brazil, with long, inviting spaces, has in its opening room a piece of work titled "Nice to Meet You (Color and White)" by Jac Leirner, a collection of business cards from artists, dealers, curators and other arty people, neatly put behind Plexiglas at eye level around and around perfectly clear white walls.

It looks dramatic, is genuinely entertaining and makes a sort of statement. What? Never ask what art means. But if you must: it has to do with declaring "All this is business." Nice. I would have preferred the title to be "Pleased to Meet You (Color and White)."

Maybe that's why I am not an artist.

Truly, it must be seen to be understood, to begin to be comprehended.

Pub Date: 6/27/97

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