Death in Venice

War, rubber skulls kicked around like footballs, an exhibit that intones 'I will die...' This year's prestigous Venice Biennale arts fair is dominated by death and doom.

Dominic Standish

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At this year’s Venice Biennale art exhibition, a record 76 countries are exhibiting in the city’s historical centre. Walking around Venice, there seems to be a country pavilion on every street corner. The permanent national pavilions are in the city’s public gardens, I Giardini, and the central international exhibition, where more than 100 artists are showing their work, has transformed the former boat building, the Arsenale, into a postmodern art extravaganza. There are also festivals of dance, film, music and theatre running from June to November.

Many critics are raving about the art exhibition. One, writing in Canada’s Globe and Mail, said: ‘Most of us who attended the Biennale’s three press days last week agreed that this is the best Biennale we had seen in years.’ (1) There are currently 60 art biennales around the world, but the Venice Biennale, established in 1895, is the one against which all others are measured. This year, it has set the tone for a summer of prestigious events in Germany, including the Documenta art show in Kassel and the Skulptur Projekte in Munster, as well as the recent Swiss Art Basel fair.

Thomas Nugent, in his 1756 book The Grand Tour, described Venice as a key location to be visited by Europe’s young elite (2). Venice’s reputation was entrenched in the twentieth century as intellectuals and artists made it the centre of their social season. So what better place, I thought, than the 2007 Venice Biennale to start a summer holiday cultural programme for my two sons, aged four and six. A bit like our own, twenty-first century version of a European Grand Tour.

We concentrated on the international and the Italian and Chinese exhibitions at the Arsenale and we also visited I Giardini. The international exhibition is the centrepiece of the Biennale – and this year it is dominated by images of war and death, including a film by Italian artist Paolo Canevari of a youth kicking a rubber skull around in front of the bombed army headquarters in Belgrade. The war in Former Yugoslavia is just one of many twentieth-century conflicts to feature in the international exhibition.

Images and depictions of Middle Eastern conflicts are prominent, too. Gabriele Basilico’s photographs show bombed-out Beirut in 1991 and Emily Jacir’s texts and photographs document the 1972 assassination of Arab writer Wael Zuaiter by Israeli secret service agents revenging the killing of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. Exhibits from a range of countries, Russia to Chile, depict military repression and death.

Inevitably, the war in Iraq is a recurring theme. Emily Prince covers a huge map of the US with miniature portraits of American soldiers killed in Iraq. American Jenny Holzer presents a room of silkscreen paintings based on classified military documents from the Iraq war and the prisons at Guantanamo Bay. In the Nordic Pavilion, Adel Abidin, an Iraqi-born artist now based in Finland, exhibits a mock travel agency, ‘Abidin Travels – Welcome to Baghdad’. It includes leaflets and computer screens showing terror in Baghdad while offering prizes to rent ‘cars’ (tanks) and take out insurance ($150,000 a day).

‘There seems to be images of war-torn ruins everywhere – sniper’s eye views of a blasted Beirut, riots in Santiago, Chile, and winter views of the Serbian frontline near Sarajevo. A burlesque, absurd rehearsal of the copyright dispute between Russia and Bulgaria pertaining to the AK47 assault rifle somehow manages to go beyond the obvious. There is misery everywhere, and perfect minimal circles made of razor wire.’ So reads one account of the Venice Biennale’s art show (3). According to the curator of the international exhibition, Robert Storr from the US, the war theme expresses human vulnerability, especially to violent forces. ‘There is a sense of fragility, and war is only one of the destructive forces’, he said (4).

The international exhibition culminates in a series of ceiling-to-floor video screens showing short clips of people of different ages and nationalities saying: ‘I will die.’ For me, this exhibit by Chinese artist Yang Zhenzhong summed up the morbid character of the exhibition and its pessimistic interpretation of the human condition. Why not offer people the opportunity to make a statement about what they will achieve in their lives? Contemplating this inevitable finale that we have no power to prevent only reinforces a sense of impotence. No wonder the people in the video looked so uncomfortable.

Is death the only vision of the future that modern artists can produce? It seems that the positive futuristic images that were common in twentieth-century art have disappeared. As Ken Johnson put it in the Boston Globe: ‘One thing missing in the Biennale is a sense of the future. For much of the twentieth century, modern art was driven by a belief in the possibilities of innovation: the idea that new forms and attitudes could create a new and better world. It’s harder for artists to believe that now, it seems.’ (5)

Maybe it is unreasonable to expect artists to produce positive images of the future when such a vision is lacking in the cultural and political spheres more broadly. At a time when many in the worlds of politics and thought are angst-ridden about the past, seeing only the damage done by man, and frightened of the future, which apparently will be a time of heatwaves and floods and other man-made horrors, it is perhaps unsurprising that art, too, sees only a future where ‘I will die…’ That statement captures the fatalistic outlook many have today, where man is seen less as the maker of worlds, as the creator of his own destiny, and more as the object and victim of forces more powerful than he is: war; climate change; instability.

Yet, as is always the way with art, there is one exhibit that stands out, a piece which challenges today’s prevailing outlook and bravely creates a positive vision of a more advanced future. In Irish artist Gerard Byrne’s film 1984 and Beyond, science fiction writers discuss a technologically advanced future with space travel and drugs and machines that prevent the need to sleep.

It is a shame that the overwhelming majority of artists exhibiting in the Venice Biennale seem unable to provide similar inspiration, instead only reflecting the contemporary mood of fatalism. What’s more, exploring the themes of death and decay has become somewhat of a cliché in Venice. Such themes have been associated with the city ever since the Venetian Republic went into decline and finally fell to Napoleon in 1787. Venice was primarily a metaphor for death in cultural works by William Wordsworth, John Ruskin, Lord George Gordon Byron, Richard Wagner, Maurice Barrès, Thomas Mann, Marcel Proust and Benjamin Britten. Indeed, during the twentieth century the Venetian metaphor was dominated by representations of death, decay and the fall of man. Consider Luigi Visconti’s 1971 film Death in Venice, a metaphorical expression of decadence, sickness and fallen humanity.

Not only do the majority of artists at the Venice Biennale’s exhibitions fail to break with present-day fears – by focusing on images of death and war, themes that have already been hugely overused in relation to Venice, they display a deathly lack of originality, too.

Dominic Standish has just completed a sociology PhD thesis on Venice and the politics of environmental risk. He is an adjunct Professor for the University of Kansas at their CIMBA site in Asolo, Veneto, Italy. Email: {encode=”dstandish@europe.com” title=”dstandish@europe.com”}

The Venice Biennale art exhibition runs until November 2007.

Previously on spiked

Dominic Standish told us why we should save Venice. Anna Travis asked what’s so scary about Modernism. James Heartfield argued that contemporary art should be on show, not in a warehouse. Or read more at spiked issue Architecture and Planning.

(1) The Venice Biennale, Sarah Milroy, Globe and Mail, 16 June 2007

(2) The Grand Tour, or, A Journey through the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and France, Thomas Nugent, 1756.

(3) Venice takes flight, Adrian Searle, The Guardian, 12 June 2007

(4) Quoted in Apocalypse at the Venice Biennale, Carol Vogel, International Herald Tribune, 10 June 2007

(5) In Venice, Sober art amid the spectacle, Ken Johnson, The Boston Globe, 17 June 2007

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