Thu, Jun 14, 2007 - Page 14 News List

Art in the present tense: Politics, loss and beauty

The works on view at the national pavilions at the Venice Biennale pose many questions but provide few answers: The theme of the 52nd Venice Biennale is Think With the Senses — Feel with the Mind. Art in the Present Tense

By Carol Vogel  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , VENICE, ITALY

This picture-postcard city of shimmering lagoons is plastered with red-and-green posters that read Think With the Senses — Feel with the Mind. Art in the Present Tense, the theme of the 52nd Venice Biennale. Since Wednesday, collectors and curators, artists and dealers have flocked here to look at and to gauge the state of new art.

But amid the glamorous parties and the people watching (Elton John and the actress Kim Cattrall were among the celebrity sightings) are chilling images of an apocalyptic world.

The works on view at the national pavilions in the Giardini, the shaded gardens that have been home to the Biennale for more than 110 years, and at the Arsenale, the former shipyards and warehouses where Venetian fleets were once built, pose many questions but provide few answers. The Tokyo-born artist Hiroharu Mori, for example, presented visitors with A Camouflaged Question in the Air, a giant white balloon with a big question mark in a camouflage pattern in the center.

The marriage of politics and art is nothing new of course, but this year reminders of death and war and forces beyond our control are everywhere. “There is a sense of fragility, and war is only one of the destructive forces,” said Robert Storr, the curator of the Biennale’s central exhibition. A former curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York who is currently the dean of the Yale Art School, Storr is the first American to organize this event.

“I wasn’t trying to deliver a message, but like Bruce Nauman, I wanted to say, ‘Please Pay Attention Please,’” he said, referring to Nauman’s writings of that title.

It was hard not to pay attention. The paintings, installations, and videos in the exhibition organized by Storr in the Italian Pavilion variously deal with the sublime, the spiritual, the terrifying, and the unknown. Some of the works seem quite innocent, like a video of a giant hand arranging a doll’s house, by a Japanese artist known only as Tabaimo. Yet as the tiny furnishings fall into place, a giant squid bubbles out of a caldron, destroying the idyllic scene.

New silk-screen paintings by the American artist Jenny Holzer, best known for her neon signs of social commentary, are based on classified military documents and the Guantanamo Bay detainment center, including a medical examiner’s autopsy report for an Iraqi national. He had suffered “fractures of the ribs and a contusion of the left lung” suggesting “significant blunt force injuries of the thorax,” the report says.

But at the core of the show are more enigmatic works by older contemporary masters like Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Ryman, and Sigmar Polke. Polke’s skylit room of magical paintings — dark abstract, translucent canvases — had viewers returning at different times of day to witness how they changed as the weather did, from bright sunlight to rain.

As is true at every Biennale, art and commerce are inextricably intertwined. Francois Pinault, the luxury goods magnate who owns the Palazzo Grassi and recently won a bid to transform the old customs house here, the Punta della Dogana, into a contemporary art space, edged out a score of museums who competed to buy the entire room of Polke’s paintings. He is planning to show the seven works — a triptych and six individual paintings — in a special room in the Dogana that the Japanese architect Tadao Ando and Polke are to design together.

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