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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In the entire Biennale there was exactly one good new artist, Ricky Swallow, lone exhibitor at the unprepossessing, not to say prefab, Australian pavilion. Swallow created a full-sized tableau of a seafood catch spread ready for the cook with the tablecloth pushed to one side of the table and including lobster, mullet, a bucket of oysters, and a half-peeled lemon all seemingly carved from a single block of maple. Among Swallow's other brilliant whittlings was a medallion of hanging game in the manner of the 18th-century master British woodworker, Grinling Gibbons, but with a couple of wild card Aussie lizards thrown in. And there was a perfectly rendered bike helmet with serpents entwined among the straps and ventilation slots. That's my opinion of the Tour de France, too. The docent at the pavilion, instead of busily looking aloof like his counterparts, said, "G'day, Mate."

The Czech pavilion had a lot of ball bearings on the floor. In the German pavilion people had been hired to yell at you. The Icelandic pavilion was made from twigs and branches. Icelanders respect nature so much they've given their beavers MFAs. The Hungarian pavilion was full of deep sea diving suits dressed in pajamas and wellie boots. The Swiss pavilion had an enormous digital clock ticking off the "5 Billion Year Countdown Until the Explosion of the Sun." Cuckoo. The Austrian pavilion was entirely built over in a shapeless jumble that looked like someone had taken Frank Gehry's titanium away and made him work in two-by-fours and tarpaper. It was an improvement on Gehry Partners' Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

The U.S. pavilion featured talentless airbrush artist Ed Ruscha's airbrush renderings of industrial buildings of no note. But the air conditioning was excellent. An Argentinean artist built a room from sheetrock and punched a lot of holes through the walls. Who can blame him? The air conditioning wasn't functioning at all in there. I saw an impressive constructivist work of bolted steel and wire mesh, but it turned out to be the Arsenale's freight elevator. Phone kiosks in the shape of giant fiberglass parrots with receivers and dial pads between their wings seemed better than art until I discovered they were art. Title: "Global Warming."

Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla created a beautiful hippopotamus in heroic scale, but they sculpted it from that noble material, that enduring element, mud. Crumpled newspaper was scattered around, I guess so you could wipe the hippo off your feet before going on to the next exhibit. Pascale Marthine Tayou tangled hundreds of plastic shopping bags into a net to create a scene identical to roadside fences all over the Third World. In fairness, Tayou is from Cameroon. And the sophomoric smart ass mouth-breathing medal goes to Daniel Knorr of Romania, who left the Romanian pavilion empty and called it "European Influenza."

Still, I departed the Venice Biennale with joy in my heart. Partly because I was glad to leave, but more so from learning that all the awful people whose oeuvres I had just endured have something to keep them busy. In another era such crackpots would have been excluded by sheer lack of skill and knowledge from any involvement with the fine arts, the way Hitler was. He retreated to grubby beer halls to vent his thwarted ambitions concocting an insane demagoguery. It wouldn't happen today. Hitler painted plenty badly enough to get into the Biennale.

It could be that all awful dictators are frustrated artists--Mao with his poetry and Mussolini with his monuments. Stalin was once a journalistic hack, and I can personally testify to how frustrated they are. Pol Pot left a very edgy photo collection behind. And Osama seems quite interested in video.

Stupid art saps stupid ideology. You could see it in the Chinese pavilion. One installation was a scrap metal and tin foil contraption that a Chinese farmer built believing it could fly him to the moon. The farmer was included in the installation. Then there was a BVD of a crowded city street. Every now and then somebody the crowd couldn't see shouted loudly. Members of the crowd would look around like a crazy person was loose, then go about their business. And China's supposedly most talented young architect, Yung Ho Chang, made a big, long tangle of bamboo poles. This was in no way as impressive, or for that matter as intimidating, as the bamboo scaffolding surrounding each construction site for the topless towers of Shanghai. If national pavilions are anything to go by, the fearsome Communist juggernaut of Asia is headed toward being an Iceland of ideological power.

And what of the demos who fall for demagoguery? Venice is certainly full of these this time of year. Hosts and swarms of them come in a state of idiocy evident in their dress and bodily form--so much so that a certain well-known span to the ducal palace should be renamed the Bridge of Thighs. But the masses were giving the Biennale a good leaving-alone. The few visitors to the pavilions and exhibition halls were people who looked like they make what it looked like they liked, or will make some when the drugs wear off. It is a hopeful sign for worldwide democracy that even the dull, vapid summer tourists of Venice are too smart for art.

P.J. O'Rourke is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and author, most recently, of Peace Kills.