A(nother) Very Political Show
June 26, 2007; Page D5

It isn't every day that you find yourself sitting beside Robert De Niro in a water taxi as he tries to lose two boatloads of paparazzi pursuing him in a slow-speed chase down the Grand Canal. Or that Bobby D asks you to explain Matthew Barney, the shock-jock artist now on display at Venice's Peggy Guggenheim Collection whom the New York Times once called "the most important American artist of his generation." ("Installation art and Vaseline," I say, which he repeats with a down-turned smile.)

Then again, it isn't every day that you're there for the start of the 112-year-old International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale, when the Renaissance city fills to the brim with contemporary art. Leading up to the official opening, which took place June 10, the art world descends on Venice for its biggest, most spectacular and certainly oddest schmoozefest -- and departs just as the gates open to the general public.

The Arsenale, which houses the Biennale show's less established artists, comes off as a gantlet of gloom.
The Biennale mainly takes place in the docklands past San Marco and in a park nearby, the Giardini. Here the exhibition space is divided up among nations that maintain permanent pavilions and an international group show, this year organized by Robert Storr, dean of the Yale School of Art and formerly a curator at MoMA.

Seventy-six nations are participating this year, spread out not only in the pavilions across the Giardini but also in palazzos and other buildings throughout Venice. For the preview days, which began on June 6, hotels in Venice booked up months in advance. "Collateral" art events filled the city. Mr. De Niro was in town with the gallery owner Larry Salander to meet with journalists and present an exhibition of work by the actor's father, the accomplished and under-recognized New York School painter Robert De Niro Sr.

The De Niro show is now taking place at the San Marco Casa d'Aste in the center of town -- timed to the opening of the Biennale, but unconnected to the official exhibition. Neither Mr. Salander nor Mr. De Niro even made plans to see the central shows of the Biennale. For many, it's been a long time since the Biennale hosted must-see art.

The Biennale will remain open through Nov. 21. But visit Venice past the preview time and you miss half the point. Indeed, while the Biennale as an art fête may never be more important, the Biennale now faces stiff competition as a pre-eminent international art show from more nimble gallery-driven art fairs -- Frieze in London, the Armory Show in New York, Basel Miami, and Basel in Switzerland, which took place a week after the Biennale preview. Even Dubai now hosts its own contemporary art fair.

The Biennale has not been a "selling" fair since 1968. And with so much world-wide attention now focused on the marketplace, the exhibition has felt the pressure. Enter Bob Storr, the Biennale's first American-born curator.

At the preview press conference in Venice, Mr. Storr spoke only in English as he introduced this year's group show, an exhibition he calls "Think With the Senses, Feel With the Mind: Art in the Present Tense." The title is meant to bridge the gap, as he sees it, between "conceptual" and "perceptual" art. "It is not a political show," Mr. Storr promised, but a "sober show at a time that lots of people are intoxicated by cash. The cash will go away some day. I hope the works in this show will not."

In fact, Mr. Storr has put together a very political show. Meant as a catch-all, "Think With the Senses" is instead an international survey with an all-too-narrow, tidy scope. Rare is the art here without a conceptual if not overtly political component. The Arsenale, a former naval factory building that houses his show's less-established artists, comes off as a gantlet of gloom, steps away from multimillion-dollar yachts parked outside.

One of the first rooms here is dedicated to the theme of crashing airplanes (by the artists Charles Gaines and Léon Ferrari). There is a work that explores the "politics of flowers" (by Yto Barrada). There are machine guns (by Nedko Solakov). There is a meditation on the Pinochet coup (by Melik Ohanian). There is a video of a child playing soccer with a human skull (Paolo Canevari's "Bouncing Skull"). There are portraits of tenured radicals like Edward Said and Eric Hobsbawm (by Rainer Ganahl).

The other half of Mr. Storr's group show, which as usual is displayed in the Padiglione Italia of the Giardini, may contain more established artists, but the message is often the same. Here in a video, Mr. Ganahl repeats the words "I am not a terrorist" in different languages (at the Biennale, terrorists are the grievance group of the moment). Elsewhere, Raymond Pettibon has graffitied up a room with a diatribe against American politics. "America loves (adores) Israel," "Hillary Clinton, Hillary Kristol, Hillary Kramer: Post-op or same person" and "Alan Dershowitz, David Horowitz" are scrawled besides images of the Star of David.

One can only imagine that anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism are the natural extensions of Mr. Storr's understanding of avant-garde art. The national pavilions, outside of Mr. Storr's control, do offer some relief. At the French pavilion, Sophie Calle has put together a chic piece occasioned by her break-up with a boyfriend. In a building off the Arsenale, the Italians have created a sensuous exhibition by Guiseppe Penone, a sculptor once associated with Italy's Arte Povera movement, which sought to create art from common, "poor" materials, and a humorous (for once) meditation on the American political process by Francesco Vezzoli. The Russians have a sophisticated work by AES+F Group, computer artists who channel Wagnerian mythology and Symbolism.

The U.S., meanwhile, under the aegis of the Guggenheim Museum and the State Department, has put on an uninspired posthumous show of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, a Cuban-born artist who died of AIDS in 1996.

Mr. Storr promised to bring to Venice a diverse display of international contemporary art. But most of the artists in his Padiglione Italia -- Gerhard Richter, Elizabeth Murray, Nancy Spero -- can be seen in any major museum (often in exhibitions organized by Mr. Storr). Several of the younger, foreign-born artists in the Arsenale now work and exhibit in New York.

Mr. Storr's show, at the center of the Biennale, will be a disappointment to anyone who believes there is a place for art outside politics. The message here can also be downright bizarre. In his opening statement, Mr. Storr maintained that "the social barrier to enter a gallery is enormous. The barrier to come to Venice is not." They must be laughing on their yachts at that one.

On my way out of Venice, past the parking lots of the Piazzale Roma and a world away from the Biennale, I met up with Augustus Rylands, the 25-year-old Anglo-American son of the director of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. This year, timed to the preview days of the Biennale, Mr. Rylands organized a modern and contemporary art fair called Cornice. It featured 52 galleries. "Unofficially, the Biennale is extremely commercial," he told me as we walked up and down his tent of gallery stalls. "To complain about art fairs is hypocritical to say the least. The gallery is always the greatest champion of the artist."

Outside, Mr. Rylands showed me the mockup of a monument to 9/11, a work by Helidon Xhixha sponsored by the Young Artists Foundation in association with Cornice. The sculpture reconfigures the Twin Towers as a vertical American flag -- a stirring tribute destined for Battery Park City. And unless I am mistaken, it does not include a single reference to Halliburton.

This summer, should you find yourself in Venice, be sure to check out the Scuola di San Rocco -- the guild hall with Venice's original art installation, a 16th-century cycle of paintings by Tintoretto, culminating in a 40-foot "Crucifixion" -- and side shows like the De Niro before making your way over to the Biennale.

Daniel Buren, the curator of this year's Sophie Calle show, once noted, "Increasingly, the subject of an exhibition is less likely to be the exhibition of works of art, than the exhibition of the exhibition as a work of art." If you really want to experience the latter in Venice, best get yourself on the preview list for 2009.

Mr. Panero is the managing editor of the New Criterion.