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VENICE BIENNALE 2009

by Miles Mathis



The Venice Biennale just ended (November 22, 2009), allowing the Muses to return to the Earth from more artistic planets, and allowing me to reawaken as their chosen scribe. I have been instructed to use an article in Art in America as my temporary target (September, 2009, Marcia E. Ventrocq).

As usual, the article is not so much to do with art as it is to do with curators and critics. The central subject of Ms. Ventrocq is Daniel Birnbaum, the rector of the Stadelschule in Frankfurt and the chosen organizer for this Biennale. Birnbaum is making his career as a curator and critic, having already organized the Moscow Biennial, as well as major shows at the Pompidou in Paris and the Serpentine in London, and writing reviews for Art Forum. His ongoing pet project is the Portikus museum in Frankfurt, which is one of the worldwide havens of experimental art (read propaganda for art theory). To understand my counter-critique here, you must understand Birnbaum's taste from the beginning, so here is a sample of it.



That may look to you like some spray cans in a window, but no, it is a “sculpture” by Rachel Harrison. This is the poster for her Portikus exhibition entitled “Haycation.” Harrison thinks some cans in a window is a sculpture, and Birnbaum finds her artistic, for some reason. That alone should finish off both Harrison and Birnbaum, but I have been instructed to continue punching him in the stomach for a few more pages, as catharsis.

Ms. Ventrocq tells us in the second paragraph that,

Birnbaum's title for the 53rd Biennale, “Fare Mondi” or “Making Worlds”, likewise stays aloft in the metaphoric heavens....

We have already seen his abilities as a curator; we now see hers as a writer. An old-fashioned editor might have asked her how “making worlds” is either metaphoric or heavenly. It is a metaphor for what? Like most art-speech, it is both pedestrian and foggy. Being opaque is not the same as being poetic. And “making worlds” is the opposite of heavenly, since it is explicitly terrestrial.

But both the endless catalog and Birnbaum's speeches on Youtube make a prolonged Haycation of this title, as if it were something incredibly deep. Since he has nothing of substance to tell us, Birnbaum spends many minutes babbling about this title and its various translations, assuring us that the exhibition is multicultural and multi-ethnic and multi-gendered and polymorphously inclusive of every possible artistic disability. Or, as Ventrocq so ineloquently puts it,

this show abjures the temperamental determinism of the dark side for an endorsement of art as an arena of free and enlightened invention.

Determinism. What does that word mean in that sentence? Does it mean anything? Is the dark side either more or less deterministic than the light side? If so, I, as Jedi Master, was not aware of it. And how can determinism be temperamental? It can't: those words are just a fancy and blurry intro into the coming lie, that this show is an endorsement of any sort of enlightenment. Modern curation and criticism is entirely and intentionally a barrage of illogic meant to brutalize your brain into overlooking falsehoods.

The second paragraph ends with another of these fine falsehoods:

Birnbaum intends to validate the creative individual, but the exhibition succeeds largely on the refinement and wit of his selection and positioning of works. It is very much the curator who is making worlds here.

Here we have the subtle mixing of truth and falsehood, as further confusion. Yes, the curator is primary, and the critic will admit it; but all else is topsy-turvy. Birnbaum does not intend to validate the creative individual, he intends to validate himself first and the fake artist second. He intends to validate criticism, curation, and theory at the expense of the artifact, and the best way to do this is to choose trifling artifacts by trifling people. This art is so trifling that the positioning of the works trumps the works themselves. The space between the art is more artistic than the art.

Isn't it strange that Ventrocq can admit that the curator is the primary entity in a show of art, and the readers never blink an eye? Ventrocq does not find this inverted or perverted, the editors do not find it inverted or perverted, and the readers and museum goers do not find it inverted and perverted. We must conclude that all these persons are also inverted, perverted, and otherwise useless to art and art history.

The Biennale statement quotes Birnbaum as saying he will seek to "steer clear of the hierarchies dictated by commercial interests and fashion." Come on. That is like Obama saying he will seek to steer clear of war. Obama was hired by the Department of Defense and Wall Street, who also own the Nobel Committee, so we can expect to see him given the Peace Prize for invading the entire Middle East. Likewise, Birnbaum was hired by the commercial hierarchies of art, so he cannot steer clear of them. We can expect to see him feted in the media, always a mouthpiece of business, while flipping the truth on its ass. Critics and curators, like politicians, are well-paid liars, and we would all do well to walk the other way. I am not talking of skepticism. Skepticism is a weak and outdated cocktail. I am talking of a prejudicial and well-earned total disbelief. If they tell you it is day, you know it is night without looking out the window or checking a clock.

According to Ventrocq, Birnbaum is supposed to have a “gentlemanly disinclination to engage in generational pandering and identity politics.” If that were true, we must think he chose a curious field to go into. It is like going into the restaurant business and claiming you have “a gentlemanly disinclination to serve food.” Modern art is defined by identity politics, so how can a curator have a disinclination for it? If Birnbaum really had a disinclination for identity politics, he would be where I am: hanging off the edge of the artworld by his fingertips.

Ventroqc even supplies the disproof of her own statement. Two pages later, she says,

Like the 2007 Biennale of his predecessor, Robert Storr, Birnbaum's edition embeds some generally unfamiliar young artists...in a context that honors their predecessors. Birnbaum's rostrum of elders (John Baldessari and Yoko Ono, the two winners of the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement...) and dead worthies...seem to skew hipper than Storr's...

Sounds like generational pandering to me. Identity politics is also on hand:

Pascale Marthine Tayou's Human Being, an elaborately constructed African village, appears to be slipping into twilight.

Nathalie Djurberg's...Claymation videos that narrate...raw sexual encounters which can only be called clerical porn.

Georges Adeagbo's collection of magazines and assorted objects form Europe and West Africa.

Birnbaum quotes Oyvind Fahlstrom in his catalog essay, telling us to “Consider art as a way of expressing a fusion of 'pleasure' and 'insight.'” First of all, why are those words in single quotes? If we take the quotes away, is anything lost? No, neither Birnbaum nor Fahlstrom is using the words as words, so there is no “reason” to use quotes. Beyond that, the definition is fine, except for one thing. None of the art in the Biennale confirms it. All the art in the Biennale contradicts it. But perhaps the quotes were used to indicate irony? Modern art does not give pleasure, it gives “pleasure.” You know, with the eyes rolled. As in, Goldman Sachs is doing the work of “God.” Obama is the candidate of “peace”. McDonalds chicken sandwich is a “healthy” alternative.

Just look at the “pleasurable” and “insightful” works chosen by Birnbaum.



The first is one of six colored rooms by Cildo Meireles, complete with colored monitors. The second is by Tony Conrad, and is latex paint on paper. The third is by Palermo, and is two of four painted glass panels. In the second and third images, we must assume the pleasurable and insightful heating ducts are part of the building: Peter Schjeldahl would be thrown into an orgy of orgasms by these serpentine and ejaculatory vents, giving full credit to the artist for his bliss, but I don't think we can do the same.

Speaking of which, a search on the web for images of the 2009 Biennale turns up four different pictures of totally nude men lounging around or outside the museum.



Why? And why no women? I am a big fan of naturism and nudity in general, but I don't see the connection here. It would appear that, as in Modern Dance, gratuitous nudity has been substituted for art more and more. The human body is more beautiful than anything these fake artists can come up with, so why not? Also remember that Birnbaum drove in from Frankfurt, and Germany is the worldwide leader in public nudity. Germans don't bother to get dressed to go to the market anymore, much less the museum. If that is the case, I request some beautiful nude females lounging about the the museum, reading magazines and drinking coffee and selling postcards. It might even get me to the show.

The Golden Lion for best artist in this Biennale went to Tobias Rehberger, for his decoration in the museum cafe.



As you can see, we have some mirrors and stripes. If this is the most “pleasurable” and “insightful” work in the exhibition, I suppose we don't need to look at the least.

Rehberger titled this cafeteria, “What you love also makes you cry.” I don't see how that applies to some stripes on a pole, but I am struck by the unintended fitness of the title, applied more broadly. If we apply that title to the show as a whole, and to the magazine as a whole, and to the last century as a whole, it takes on some real meaning. Art, a thing I love, has been turned into this. Art, once the highest expression of human dexterity, passion, and ambition, is now a sub-collegiate show-and-tell for well-placed mental defectives, well-dressed circus barkers, and well-funded state propagandists. It is naught but a vehicle for the talentless, a highly promoted stage for the sons and daughters of the elite too stupid to succeed in acting or pop music. The museum goers and magazine readers and buyers who look at this stuff are one step stupider, like the sub-morons who are impressed by the morons of pro-wrestling, or the super-idiots who are fooled by the idiots of party politics.

As I understand the need for Walmart greeters, I understand the need for Modern Art. Just as we need full employment for the least fortunate, we need full employment for these worthless sons and daughters of the worldwide wealthy. What I do not understand is the invisibility of the alternative. We have not replaced the Olympics with the Special Olympics: we have both. We have seen Special Art; where is Art? Where are the intelligent and talented hiding? What ship did I miss? To what cave in Bora Bora have my peers retired? What uncharted island is sending me a sea of lost letters?


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