Thursday, June 11, 2009

It's a Small World, After All: Biennial Feel-good Branding

Day two:
After a stroll through Venice and a late night dinner with our international crew, we woke up with renewed energy to head over to the Giardini, the Epcot Center of the artworld. Dotted with simulacra of national architecture throughout large gardens, lined up like prefab homes in a suburban development. Some Modernist, others MacMansion-like (such as the hideous US pavilion, which I compared 2 years ago to a rest stop near Maryland/Virginia/Washington DC along US 75 meant to evoke Colonial architecture) , the pavilions competed for our attention like eager Miss Universe contestants.

In lieu of national costumes, we get the pavilion totebags. Each time we go, my friend and I award imaginary prizes for the best ones. This year, top prize went to newcomer United Arab Emirates, with runner-up People's Republic of China also following the model of bilingual English-national language, featuring a catchy self-help/Relational Aesthetics slogan and beautiful typography:

UAE: It's not you, it's me - Dysfunctional Relational Aesthetics meets US Self-Help rhetoric?

PRC: You and me, forget about the 20th anniversary of Tianamen Square?

We began with the central theme exhibition curated by Daniel Birnbaum "Making Worlds." Branded to evoke globalization (it reminded me of the Disney ride "It's a Small World After All"), the title was written in English, Italian, Russian, Chinese, and Arabic. This nod was just for show's posters and handout covers, the rest of the texts and wall labels were only in the first two languages. The repertoire of abstract shapes was intended to remind of us the universal language of art, the comprehensibility of abstract forms, and the use of such components in flags all over the world. Really? No one had never thought of this?

Selection of the "It's a Small World" ride at Disney World. The argument behind the ride is that the world is global, and similar, at once. They were so avant-garde! The finale is really sinister, because it is a melange of little dancing dolls from each of the contients/countries all singing in unison, and they all look WHITE.

The "argument" only went downhill from there - formalist, banal, platitudinous.

The exhibition contrasted dramatically with Rob Storr's much more compelling offering of two years before: few videos, a lot of painting and drawing, a few installations, and no politics. Although as Jerry Salz said, two years ago it was a bit of the "curator as anchorman" - the horrific news of the world passing by like the disjointed CNN news ticker, at least it featured ideas, and works that were interesting at the levels of form and content. I literally counted about a dozen works that I liked total.

There were recurring types of images: geometric abstraction, webs and grids, installations featuring iconic images or little assemblages of tchotchkes - often evoking trash, mass culture, or craft - that made reference to self-contained universes, still others included books or pages from books.

And speaking of universal languages, let's talk about my favorite one, fashion. As is usual at these artsy fashionista gatherings, there was a lot of black. But I saw a lot more flowery and geometric prints with VERY short skirs (the rich collectors or high level museum people as usual rocked the classic Pucci garments, I seethed in envy). The big surprise was the proliferation of metallic sandals. I set the precedent two years ago with my silver platforms. In any event, I was shocked to see that a Puerto Rican neutral would find such a warm reception with the pretentious art crowd. Another notable element was the vertiginous high heels worn by many women. How they managed to navigate the rocky, sandy, grassy terrain of the Giardini and Arsenale, get in and out of vaporetti, and walk the long distance, often up and down bridges, often after several Bellinis served at the openings all over Venice is a mystery to me. But props to them. The men tended to wear either suits or the Euro trash standard of jeans, tailored shirts, and English cut blazers, with driving loafers (sockless) or nice English looking oxford shoes. Of course there were the requisite designer bags, one or two Hermes Birkins, and always the accessory of the status tote bag (most popular by far was the UAE model).

My friends -male and female- and I opted for a more international feel, mostly Dutch wax cloth prints from Senegal, Mali, and Cote d'Ivoire. We had some custom-made dresses, including one with a pattern honoring President Obama -- that was quite a hit with jaded international Biennialistas, who stopped to ask to take photographs. We met one other woman also sporting the elegant African fabrics and she turned out to be starchitect Rem Koolhas's wife!

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