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That's how we ride, that's how we smoke

"The Dictatorship of the Viewer" is the motto Francesco Bonami has chosen to curate Venice's 50th Art Biennial: in an age of information, no work of art should lay claim to more than three to five minutes of attention. 650 participating artists have sketched out the problem zones in the broad field of globalization, but nobody wanted to do without utopias entirely. Harald Fricke took a look around the Venice Bienniale and is introducing recent works by artists in the Deutsche Bank Collection.

Art in every port

Over the years, the Venice Biennale has grown into an exhibition monster. One week prior to the beginning of Art Basel, the opening not only serves as a get together for the establishment, but also as an ample platform for the market's various quirks. This year, everyone was banking on a painting boom in Venice; suddenly, however, the focus is on mixed-media arrangements – and already the collectors are reading this as a cue to reorganize.

The number of nations taking part in the Biennale has doubled since 1993 alone. This is an expression of a world undergoing an increasing cultural differentiation – in the age of globalization, the periphery and the center are everywhere the same. This new, large-scale cartography also, of course, exerts its effects on local peculiarities: art now proliferates far beyond the traditional pavilions of the giardini and into every conceivable corner, pretty much taking over all of Venice's islands. In view of this, Francesco Bonami has selected a catchy motto for the 50th Biennale, dedicating it to "The Dictatorship of the Viewer." The individual works should, as he says, be experienceable in "three to five minutes"; in the final analysis, he's concerned with concrete communication in an age of channel zapping and the ubiquity of information technology.

The Italian Pavillon

The Italian exhibition organizer, who is currently living in Chicago, is firmly convinced that the only way art can find its way back to its content is through a limitation of this nature coupled with visual intensification. Nevertheless, every involvement with society occurs via "dreams and conflicts"; both provide the material for cultural exchange. An uncertainty exists following September 11, but also a hope to end the conflict in the Middle East. There is a desire to finally learn more about contemporary life in Asia (unfortunately, China was unable to take part in the Biennale due to the SARS epidemic); there is also, however, a fear of returning to the political and social crisis that has been reigning in South America and Africa from the nineteen seventies on.

Francesco Bonami, Catherine David, Gabriel Orozc

This degree of attention and commitment has its price: around a dozen curators worked with Bonami on realizing the Biennale; over 650 artists were invited. In the end, the dictatorship can easily turn against the viewer. Throughout the parcours, I found myself occasionally yearning for an oasis of meaninglessness – one half-hour later, after a heavy trudge in the 95 degree-heat, I finally found it in the espresso lounge run by the coffee company "illy." After that, the tour continued through Catherine David's section "Contemporary Arab Representations," which included, a documentation of urban destruction in Beirut (more here), "The Everyday Altered," an investigation of everyday Mexican life by Gabriel Orozco, and a "Utopia Station," for which Molly Nesbitt, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, and Rirkrit Tiravanija picked out almost a hundred artists.

Contemporary Arab Representations

"Utopia Station" is a fascinating conglomeration, something between a commune, a laboratory, and an artists' republic. This is where the path ends, with an installation by Tobias Rehberger. The sculptor, who lives in Frankfurt, installed a Fountain in the middle of a cube made of bright pieces of cloth. A tangle of garden hoses continuously sprinkles water from a height of eight feet, picking up on two different motifs in the process: on the one hand, an otherwise private act such as showering is made public, and on the other, Rehberger's functional design is a dynamically changing sculpture coupling the natural resource of water with textile design and an aesthetics derived from the home improvement store.

Here, his Fountain comes across somewhat like a late heir of Russian revolutionary art à la Rodchenko, for whom design was meant to be a symbol of the working masses. In this sense, Rehberger's shower installation represents an investigation of utopia – as a location of collective, but also of a highly banal everyday experience.

Ilya Kabakov, Levlvovich's "Coincedences", 1998
©Deutsche Bank Collection

For Emilia and Ilya Kabakov, utopia is something that's been lost, particularly in their memories of the Soviet Union. The Russian artist couple, who live in New York, have installed their Gesamtkunstwerk Where is our place? in the elegant rooms of the Fondazione Querini Stampalia, where, according to the concept, people can get together with giants and dwarves ( images). Here, the museum setting is transformed into "total theater" (Kabakov), a melancholic journey in time: as an homage to the 19th century, larger-than-life pants legs are standing before oversized picture fragments jutting out of a crack in the ceiling, gold-framed quotes from bourgeois salon painting: the overwhelming past that continues to force itself into the present's gaze. In contrast, tiny landscapes with abandoned villages are let into the floor as a model of "a world we can know nothing about because it withdraws from our perception, like the future." At eye level, on the other hand, the viewer is confronted with photographs from the eighties –everyday Socialist life, idyllic military scenes, culture, and technology in the early phase of Perestroika. For Emilia and Ilya Kabakov, this series of images is nothing more than proof of time's ephemerality, already as long forgotten as the Czarist Russia of the oil paintings. Thus, although all three layers overlap like a historical puzzle, the corresponding worlds nonetheless remain separate from one another. In a gentle and slightly sentimental way, Where is our place? tells us that even our own personal standpoint is not spared from transience in the memory's general "allover."

Peter Fischli / David Weiss, Untitled (Questions), 1981-2003
courtesy David Weiss, Peter Fischli and Matthew Marks Gallery, New York;
Galerie Hauser & Wirth & Presenhuber, Zürich;
Monika Sprüth Galerie, Cologne

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