Short films outshine traditional art in Venice

At the 49th international Biennale, artists engage visitors with multimedia works

Once again, the Venice Biennale has materialized, like a temporary Oz, along the shimmering lagoon of Venice. It delivers an irresistible mixture of the alluring, puzzling, provocative, and revelatory.

The 49th International Exhibition of Art of the Biennale of Venice opened last month and continues through Nov. 4.

Held here nearly every two years since 1895, the Biennale is one of the most enduring and renowned forums of contemporary art. Its happily controversial shows have hosted lots of forgettable works, as well as avant-garde milestones, from Impressionism and Expressionism to Pop Art and beyond.

The artists are a roving international tribe, and while the works may or may not come to the US, some artists do surface in America from time to time. It's an event that few opinionmakers, dealers, or curators miss, as a kind of global survey of what's going on in other countries.

This year, 64 countries are participating, more than ever before, spreading miles of contemporary art over grounds that include the Giardini, the leafy park where 29 nations have built permanent pavilions; the nearby Arsenale, the majestic Renaissance-era shipbuilding complex of the Venetian Republic; and other venues.

The strongest works this year are in the Giardini. Any visit should include the pavilions of Canada, France, and Germany (the prizewinners), as well as the pavilions of Belgium, Britain, South Korea, Russia, and the United States.

"Some of the things I've seen here are almost impossible to describe. They can only be experienced," Franck Giraud recently told The New York Times. Mr. Giraud is the international director of 19th- and 20th-century art at Christie's.

Some artists are advancing and merging the decade's prevailing art forms - installations, performance art, and video - and building entire environments that engage viewers in a disorienting blend of illusion and reality.

A spy-movie scenario

Canadians Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller have created "The Paradise Institute." The multimedia installation includes a miniature theater with 17 velvet seats, each equipped with dual-microphone headsets. Their 12-minute film transforms the movie-viewing experience into a Cubist collage of sensations, blending fragments of a spy-movie scenario, the taped voices of fictional audience members, and the viewer's own perceptions.

Pierre Huyghe has crafted a multichamber gallery of sound and light inside the French pavilion. Ceiling tiles glow as visitors play a video tennis game, while, visible through a translucent wall, an animation in another room shows block-style housing towers that seem to signal one another with their blinking lights.

In the German pavilion, Gregor Schneider has installed his ongoing project, a full-size model of a tenement house in his hometown. A few visitors at a time explore the installation, which at first seems like a fun house with its false doors and rooms within rooms, each with a distinct character. But the journey increases in intricacy, requiring people to squeeze into narrow, labyrinthine hallways and crawl through knee-high passages.

Mark Wallinger has taken over the British pavilion, where he performs in one of his videos as a blind prophet. Ascending an escalator in a London underground station while facing the camera, he seems to be walking backward. He recites the opening verses of St. John's Gospel while passersby sweep up and down the escalators alongside him, like souls moving between heaven and earth. The effects of his reverse editing are both humorous and stirring.

Plunging into spare art

Artist Robert Gober has installed a minimalist essay on social and domestic deviance in the United States pavilion. His meticulously crafted replicas of found objects stir surreal associations and evoke complexities glossed over by daily routines.

At the entry, a toilet plunger of terra cotta and hand-carved oak stands on a cast-bronze replica of a Styrofoam slab. The plunger alludes to the 1997 attack on Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant, by New York City police officers. Like other sculptures in Gober's spare, subtle installation, the display is also a concise distillation of his ongoing concerns and icons.

His cryptic visual puns and paradoxes hint at Christian themes of purging and redemption. One sculpture is a closed basement door lit from behind by a benign yellow glow. But a chain bars access. The work suggests menace, mystery, and, perhaps, the promise of illumination.

Gober has a soul mate at the Belgium pavilion, where the phantom images in Luc Tuymans' pale, evocative paintings recall a whitewashed episode of Belgium's colonial past: the 1961 assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the Congo's first elected prime minister.

Outside the South Korean pavilion stands a nondescript monument, but holding it up are hundreds of inch-high human figures. Sculptor Do-Ho Suh's play on the individual versus the collective continues inside the building with his resplendent warrior figure, made from thousands of military dog tags.

A retrospective of the late Alighiero Boetti (1940-1994) in the Venetian pavilion shows his satiric maps of the world, woven by Afghan artisans, and his panoramic, confetti-colored "Tutto" (1994).

Complementing the national pavilions is the "international" show in the Italian pavilion and the Arsenale, which presents the choices of the director, Harald Szeemann. He also directed the 48th exhibition, which filled the grand shipyards with a lively and intimate international bazaar worthy of Marco Polo's hometown.

This year, the spaces are clogged with dark, airless screening rooms. The numbing succession of videos belies this year's grandiose theme, "Plateau of Humankind," and its promise of "an encounter between public, artists, and their works."

Thumb-size human figures

Filling the entrance of the Arsenale is a giant sculpture of a crouching boy by London-based Ron Mueck, whose ability to convey unnerving realism extends to his thumb-size human figures.

The freshest video was by Salla Tyka of Finland, who shows a boy absorbed in an arousing lasso workout while, unseen, a girl watches, moved to tears. The film's jolt of adolescent joy is welcome relief from the ennui pervading most of the videos, as are Massimo Vitali's exuberant photographs of Italians at leisure.

This first Biennale of the 21st century includes homage to Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) of Germany, a towering figure in the European avant-garde and a social utopian who believed in the redemptive power of art. On display are his icons, including agrarian tools such as olive-threshing stones.

Concluding the long journey through the Arsenale are the sculptures of another old master, Richard Serra. His walk-through ellipses match the surroundings in heft and grandeur.

The ceiling-high spirals blur the boundaries of painting, architecture, and sculpture. Their outer surfaces glimmer with gold and rust. A walk through the spiral structures is like entering a chambered nautilus. Their tilting walls stir an off-balance sensation that suits a stroll through an Oz of contemporary art.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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