The Language of Art

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Review of 'Dreams and Conflicts, the Dictatorship of the Viewer', Venice Biennale

The 50th International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale is an immense event which runs until the beginning of November. It consists of the work of hundreds of artists in exhibitions spread over 64 national pavilions, themed shows in the Arsenale and Museo Correr, and numerous additional exhibitions and events at venues around the city. Established in 1895, one of the original ambitions of the Biennale was to promote a 'universal language of art'. Today the problems of such an aspiration and the complexities of processing the amassed contemporary art from every continent are considerable. The viewer is presented with constant dilemmas in negotiating work that operates on such disparate levels and is cast adrift from its original context.

'Dreams and Conflicts, The Dictatorship of the Viewer', the theme given by director Francesco Bonami to the largest ever Biennale, establishes an overtly political note from the onset. Concerns with globalisation, identity, technology and the role of the artist in articulating conflict and proposing new models permeate the different shows and are spelled out within the literature. However, after many miles of art it is not clear exactly what this massive art fest is: a glitzy trade junket, an attempt to convey a 'spirit of the times', a crude proclamation of national identity (with awards of merit for national presentations) - they all seem to play a part.

The permanent pavilion buildings themselves, situated in the historic Giardini della Biennale, act as sites for national posturing. The British pavilion strikes an almost self parodying note like some colonial residence, accented in the flags in Marcus Garvey's pan-African colours that Chris Ofili (he of glittery elephant dung) displayed outside. The German pavilion built by Hitler's favourite architect Albert Speer exemplifies the queasy alliance between a Modernist aesthetic and totalitarian pomp. The Palestinians do not have a permanent site but the Giardini was punctuated this year by seven foot high free-standing Palestinian passports, a project entitled 'Stateless Nation' by artist Sandi Hilal - a succinct statement about territory, identity and culture. Artist Santiago Sierra elected to deny entry to the Spanish pavilion by breeze-blocking the entrance and obscuring EspaƱa with black plastic bags. Only those with a Spanish passport are permitted entry - a sardonic comment on both the spurious internationalism of the event and a critique of the barriers imposed by the 'free world'.

Artists from the Middle East and Africa frequently make use of video. Their work predominantly focuses on specific historical or political events, in a documentary form far removed from the obscurantism of much western gallery art. The collisions between the different approaches created uncomfortable juxtapositions that were arguably at the heart of Bonami's intentions. Peace flags still flutter everywhere throughout Venice and radicalism was one of the dominant themes of the Biennale, but the event never quite escapes either preoccupations with national representation or the corporate hand that feeds it. Sponsor Illy provided 'chill out zones' serving free coffee and their colours and logo pervade the exhibitions.

Open-air seminars were held to discuss the legitimacy and efficacy of socially committed artists participating in an event which operated within the constraints of prevailing national, institutional and corporate agendas. Fred Wilson in the US pavilion investigates the 'moor' in Venetian history. Displaying original paintings borrowed from museums, photographs of sculptures and artefacts depicting racial stereotypes, he addresses the relationship between culture and oppression. But most disconcerting was the young Senegalese man Wilson had employed to sit outside selling fake designer handbags spread before him on a blanket, creating palpable discomfort in the queue jostling to get in to see art about black oppression.

The different shows within the Biennale - 'Delays and Revolutions', 'Fault Lines', 'Utopia', 'Zones of Urgency' and 'Clandestine' - are 'zones' where multiplicity, diversity, and heterogeneity are the buzz words. Cynicism comes easily as the elegantly heeled drift through, clocking what's 'in' this year. However, beyond a style magazine anti-aesthetic was the sense of a genuine desire to reach out to the world beyond the solipsism of white cube gallery and insider art language. The very indigestibility of what was on show was salutary, requiring a constant reappraisal of reactions, criteria and prejudices. Despite the contradictions and sometimes trite attempts to fit in with the theme, the attempt by the curators and artists to engage in wider debates is significant.