The Magazine

Venice the Menace

From the September 5 / September 12, 2005 issue: Or, what I saw at the banal Biennale.

Sep 5, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 47 • By P.J. O'ROURKE
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HOW BAD DOES MODERN ART STINK? Every two years since 1895 (war and such allowing) the Venice Biennale has gathered new masterpieces from around the world in a place and at a season where the reek of genius can be accurately compared to the warm weather aroma of the Grand Canal. Dr. Johnson defined art as "the power of doing something which is not taught by nature." What's in the canal is something nature teaches us to do from our first hours of infancy. It is as nothing to the power of art.

Like most sensible people, you probably lost interest in modern art about the time that Julian Schnabel was painting broken pieces of the crockery that his wife had thrown at him for painting broken pieces of crockery instead of painting the bathroom and hall. Or maybe you lost interest back when Andy Warhol silk-screened canned lunch for the kiddies and oddments from under the kitchen sink. There's been so much to be so uninterested in. And yet, astonishingly, modern art has gotten less interesting.

I didn't know this. I was more prepared to be irked than bored. The Biennale consists of national pavilions, mostly from Europe or Europe-aping countries. One or more brilliant creative types are selected to fly the flag. Given how Europeans feel about America, I doubted many of the flags flown would be the stars and stripes. There are also two curated shows, the largest in the Arsenale, the former Pentagon of Venice. The city-state projected its great military and commercial might from the Arsenale, which now sits empty between art shows nicely symbolizing progress of the arts, other than the arty ones, in Europe today: arts of manufacture, diplomacy, and war.

But I wander from the irksome subject at hand. The curators of the shows are, for the first time in 51 Biennales, women. Thus I expected to be Hectored, or I should say, Hecuba'd. Rosa Martinez and Maria de Corral are also from Spain, a nation that reacted to terrorism by promptly reverting to socialism at home and poltroonery abroad. Aren't those the preferred artistic policies? I assumed modern artists were all members of the great bohemian turkey flock of ardent individualists, looking up with beaks uniformly agape at identical high ideals of world peace, economic justice, ecological harmony, and government funding for the arts. Before my visit to the Biennale I supposed that all artists thought alike. It never occurred to me that they didn't think at all.

For example, German artist Gregor Schneider wanted to reproduce the Ka'bah of Mecca full scale in the Piazza San Marco. Imagine the delight of Islamic fundamentalists at slews of American cruise ship day trippers and half a million pigeons on hajj. Authorities in Venice demurred, and Schneider was reduced to playing with Photoshop on his Macintosh. (Although computer-generated artificial intelligence eludes us, artificial stupidity has been perfected.)

But most of the Biennale's thoughtlessness did not produce thoughts of potential consequence or (I've checked my notes) any thoughts at all. Mona Hatoum from Lebanon built a 10-foot wide circular sandbox with a pair of motorized blades mounted in the center. One blade raked ridges in the sand while the other smoothed them out--an automatic Zen garden, the lazy way to a perfectly empty mind. And Italy's Bruna Esposito scattered onion skins on marble floor tiles and, remarkably, did not title it "Get the Broom."

Dimbulb was more than a metaphor at the Biennale. It was often too dark in the galleries to read the names of the works and artists. As if I cared. Somebody put a bunch of portable typewriters missing most of their keys on school desks so that the thoughts of art-lovers could be thumb-tacked to the wall. I quote one verbatim: ". . . . ..8888889999993333." Someone else tied a blindfolded teddy bear to a stick in a room full of upholstery with the stuffing yanked out. It's not your-kid-can-do-this art. Your kid does this and you're on the phone to the child psychiatrist emergency help line.