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Sign O' The Times:
A Stroll Through the 52nd Biennale in Venice

"Think with the senses, feel with the mind" is the motto of the 52nd Biennale in Venice, which is presenting current themes and trends of contemporary art until November. But what does the motto actually mean? And can new currents and tendencies actually be discovered in the face of the confusing plethora of international contributions? Tim Ackermann and Oliver Koerner von Gustorf had a look around.

Isa Genzken, OIL (detail),
German Pavilon, Venedig Biennale, 2007
Photo: Jens Ziehe, Courtesy German Pavilon 2007

Isa Genzken's installation Oil is tough and unsentimental. At a time when globally organized concerts attempt to promote awareness of coming climate catastrophes, when a market economy and a modern slave trade is booming in threshold countries like China, when the Middle East is like a powder keg, she creates a shimmering silver ambience in which global disasters are condensed into formal issues.

Isa Genzken, OIL (detail),
German Pavilon, Venedig Biennale, 2007
Photo: Jan Bitter, Courtesy German Pavilon 2007

While the real world is getting hotter and hotter, Genzken's art is becoming cooler and cooler. Inside the German Pavilion, which at this year's Venice Biennale is draped with orange-colored building plans, visitors expect an apocalyptic scenario. Via a mirrored sluice, you enter an exhibition room lined with gray PVC foil and come upon groups of sculptures in which Genzken has combined all kinds of trash and luxury materials: abandoned trolleys and suitcases with pictures of animals stuck on them; Venetian masks covering metallic skulls; astronaut dolls dangling from the ceiling next to gallows loops or stranded on the ground; silver-sprayed monsters and baby mutations hanging like space travelers in designer chairs. In the face of this ambience, Sign O' The Times comes to mind, the song in which Prince sang about the madness of our civilization back in the 80s: "When a rocket ship explodes/ And everybody still wants 2 fly/ Some say a man ain’t happy/ Unless a man truly dies..."

German Pavilon, Biennale in Venedig 2007
Photo: Uwe Walter

Nevertheless, Genzken's contribution is hardly a simple allegory about the current state of the world. Although the title, Oil , can easily be associated with ideological and economic battles over oil, it primarily addresses a raw material which most of the surfaces of the modern world are made of. Genzken combines these surfaces into something like a matrix, a visual construct which triggers diverse reflexes from viewers. The orange meshed nets at the entrance to the scaffolded pavilion produce a shimmering grid of light and shadow which makes the details of the construction disappear or emerge depending on the perspective. Inside the pavilion, too, Genzken precisely adjusts the interplay between reflective, matte, and light-absorbing surfaces. The sensations triggered by the work are a result of the interchange between light, color, and space. The things that are combined, glued or screwed together function as sculptural form without a specified meaning. At the same time they "speak" through the associations of the artist or viewers. The result is ultra-modern cinema, where inner pictures are triggered by outer stimuli.

AES+F (Tatiana Arzamasova, Lev Evzovich, Evgeny Svyatsky + Vladimir Fridkes), Last Riot, 2007, videostill
Courtesy of the Multimedia Art Centre, Triumph Gallery

Genzken captures the essence of our age. And global phenomena such as fear of terror, migration, and virtual reality play a role not only in the national pavilions at the Biennale, but also at the Arsenale show put together by star U.S. curator Robert Storr. Many of the works on display in the exhibition– at least in the Giardini – attempt to reach viewers by means of visual or sensory stimuli rather than documentation or theoretical discourse. For example, the Moscow artist group AES + F depicts the final days of humankind like a computer game in their video triptych The Last Riot on view in the Russian Pavilion. To music from Wagner’s Walkürenritt, visitors sees teenagers with all kinds of skin colors killing one another on snowy mountain peaks, a devastating war in which everyone fights everyone. Nothing seems real any more, not even violence. The landscape is a 3D animation in which elements from popular games fuse or overlay one another: there are Asian-looking cities, fairytale castles, carousels, tanks rolling up the mountains, cruising missiles rising, trains derailing, aircraft falling from the sky. The artists seem to be saying that the virtual world that was created like a test-tube organism in the 20th century has gotten out of control and now is overstepping its boundaries, absorbing its human creators and mutating into something entirely new. But the fact that AES+F's vision is like a Hollywood version of Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilizations" and Caravaggio's aesthetics coupled with heroic poses of Stalinism fuels old fears. With these images in the back of your mind, you could view the group’s most recent work as a neoconservative concoction combining the threat of the downfall of western civilization with a provocative demand for new heroes.

Aernout Mik, Mock Up, 2007,
4-channel video installation, image from the set
Photo: Florian Braun, courtesy carlier | gebauer, Berlin

In comparison with this polemical tightrope walk, the video installation Citizens and Subjects: The Netherlands for example by Aernout Mik in the Dutch Pavilion is much more profound. Embedded in a lounge-like architecture, Mik shows film scenes reminiscent of shooting exercises for emergency situations, police training, and raids. Taking the idea of training as a point of departure, he explores all kinds of "threats" we believe we have to actively come to grips with to counter fears in society. In the footage, staged scenes with actors and extras are interspersed with real documentary material. When in one sequence demonstrators, refugees, and security forces are shown, and you notice that it is actually a surreal portrayal, you are confronted with your own projections. It is not clear what kind of crisis it is. In spite of the chaos and the unforseeability of the different situations, the police, security forces, refugees, and victims seem to deal with them with astonishing routine – as though they are saying that this state of emergency is our new "normality."

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