Making Worlds – Not Essences, Just Versions
Ieva Astahovska, art critic
However unique every work of art is, the "memory" of a large exhibition such as the Venice Biennale creates a "symphony" in which each work is but a heavenly sound in a greater whole. That is why this article will present an overview of the exhibition curated by Daniel Birnbaum, the director of this year's Venice Biennale.
Tomas Saraceno. Galaxy forming along filaments, like droplets along the strands of a spider's web. 2008. Photo: Dita Pence
Worlds and versions
As a reaction to the global economic situation, where art is bound to the logic of capitalism as much as stock exchanges, banks and cor-porations, the media dubbed the 53rd Venice Biennale the crisis or the recession Biennale. Curator Daniel Birnbaum diverts this response, using the terminology of economics, to a strictly artistic domain and comments: today we must revise the paths followed by art, which in recent times have been determined by dominant institutional and market mechanisms. In this sense, the Biennale curator follows the path of so-called critical discourse, despite the fact that the political or social chords in the exhibition are no different from those of the previous Biennale, curated by Robert Storr of the United States (this is not a characteristic feature of the national pavilions either this year). Birnbaum infiltrates a critical position more subtly, by speaking about ethics (only) through aesthetics or the inner logic of art.

Birnbaum has titled this Biennale Fare Mundi or Making Worlds, and dispassionately, with the resignation of the intellectual, indicates that art may possibly help us to find new beginnings. In the modern Western intellectual tradition, so much focus has been placed on the end (of history, modernism, the author, art, painting etc.), that in the discussions of the art world the direction of thought has been reversed - it is only logical to create something anew or to transform something already in existence. Birnbaum's title for the exhibition draws on an essay Ways of Worldmaking by the American philosopher Nelson Goodman, noting that in various languages the word "to make" has different intonation: artisan, creative, technical, grand, rhetorical, theological etc., furthermore, these differences "found in translation" are not a deforming deviation, but enrich the world we all inhabit together (with meanings).

The second linguistic and theoretical accent stressed by Birnbaum is the position of pluralism, that is the conviction that the world is not a single, unchanging entity, but instead is a number of worlds, made up of various versions. "The message is simple - don't be mindful of the mind, the essence is not of the essence, and the meaning is meaningless. It's better to focus on versions rather than worlds. Naturally, we want to differentiate between versions which have meaning and those that do not and to speak about things and worlds to which they apply, but these things and worlds and even what they are made from - meaning, anti-meaning, mind, energy or something else altogether - are modelled on versions. (..) The making of the world begins with one version and ends with another." (Goodman, N. Ways of Worldmaking. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co, 1978, p. 96-97.)

So much for the theoretical position underlying the exhibition, which implies an (admittedly mild) confrontation with the art establishment. Let's then move on to the facts, which according to Goodman's essay mentioned above "are loaded with theory". The into-nation of Birnbaum's Making Worlds is constructivist and somewhat monotonous. The exhibition combines the principles, meanings and interests characteristic of the artistic and thinking space in rigid proportions, viz: a rejection of the essentialist position (which can be characterised by Duchamp's question: "How do you create a work of art that is not a work of art?"). In its place, it offers a reinterpretation, a transition from art-as-object to art-as-experience, which is absorbed by the consciousness concentrating together isolated phenomena and concepts, and which is not incompatible with a parallel enthusiasm for abstract forms of art as a primarily visual sphere (thus the exhibition breathes new life into the modernist heritage). Throughout all of this, elements such as image, perception, routine, time and space are analysed. Monotony, too, in this situation is obviously a deliberate position - a desire to avoid becoming part of the fetishist visual industry, i.e. to create a spectacle or show. Art must be given the status of an intellectual activity. However, although Birnbaum as philosopher represents the intellectual position in the most direct way, most of the exhibition's works remain objects for observation, rather than thought. The reasons behind this will be reviewed at the end of this article.

The former (neo) avant-garde
Throughout two zones, the Arsenale and the Palazzo delle Esposizioni Gardens, the historic and the contemporary neo-avantgarde, based on conceptualist traditions including studies of the boundaries in abstract conceptual art, weaves like a red thread. The historic wing is represented by greats such as the Americans John Baldessari, Gordon Matta-Clark, Joanne Jones, Sherrie Levine and Yoko Ono, as well as artists of more marginal status: the Japanese group Gutai, multiaction and multimedia pioneers not only in Japan; André Cadere, who back in the 1960's used to "forget" his multicoloured cylinder poles at exhibition openings and other social events and which can now be just as "coincidentally" seen in various places at the Biennale; two Brazil-ians literate in post-colonial discourse, Cildo Meireles and Lygia Pape; and Palermo, who died far too young and was a pupil of Boyce and a contemporary of Gerhard Richter, whose work Himmelsrichtungen - paintings / sculptures / objects / interiors which study the structures of artworks and spatial materials - has been restored in its original space, scale and materials as it was in the 1976 Venice Biennale. Mean-while the contemporary conceptualist zone is represented by artists from the "relationships aesthetic", as termed by Nicola Bourrieau: Philippe Parreno, Rirkrit Tiravanija (author of the Biennale bookshop interior), Dominique Gonzales-Foerster, Simon Starling and Carsten Höller, as well as an entertaining extension of the "relationships aesthetic", for example Aleksandra Mir's Venice postcards which are meant to be taken home, or Miranda July's pedestals inviting visitors to have their photographs taken at the end garden of the Arsenale. The key element in the appreciation of all of these works is either a re-reading of the significance of art, or the role of the viewer as an active partici-pant/user. To quote Nelson Goodman again, an interest not so much about "what is art?, but "when is art?".

From an art history/ critical perspective, the works (or the movements represented in them) of the aforementioned and many other Biennale artists belong to, or at least once belonged to, the neo-avant-garde scene - however limitedly relevant this designation might be today. Yet the time factor, which is another constant theme running through the Biennale, means that this is yesterday's avantgarde or today's establishment, and instead of the anticipated making/creation of meanings (worlds), there is a risk-free, almost academic stroll down well-trodden paths.

Even more so against this respectable background, therefore, the works or "worlds" which follow the absurd or epatage tradition stand out. The wittiest is by the Barcelona duo of David Bestue and Mark Vives who present a neo-Dada "physics of irony," the almost one hour-long Acciones en casa, about how to live everyday life unusually (for example, moving about the room on pieces of soap, or gluing yourself to the corridor), and a three minute loop journey (a sketch on Darwinian progress) in which three characters transform into each other through minute changes: a horse, a human and a motorcycle (also in reverse sequence). On the other hand, Experimentet by the Swedish artist Nathalie Djurberg presents a terrifying, grotesquely overgrown Garden of Eden and plasticine animation films about sexual manias between characters from various epochs. It is such a counterpoint to the over-all mood of the Biennale that it even received recognition from the honourable jury. Similar to Djurberg's work in their intonations of parody, visible excesses and mechanical monotony, are Paul Chan's scenes from the Marquis de Sade and Hans Peter Feldmann's micro-worlds constructed from toys and other things, which in the form of a rotating shadow theatre merge, then break into pieces, in all three of these examples some sort of broad sign/ metaphor for "world making" processes (in the works of Djurberg and Chan these are covetousness and cynical power).

Space and time
Notwithstanding the atonal chords highlighted, on the whole the overall intonation of the exhibition is far from being creatively provocative. Birnbaum puts together his artistic landscape intelligently and coolly studying the foundations of the world (worlds), space and time, from various perspectives and meanings. In this exhibition, space is even - in its way - the central category, and more than one critic has pointed out the clear dominance of a modelling and architectonic approach. The curator himself, in several interviews explaining the exhibition and what he considers important in it, begins with the work Ville Spatiale, adapted for the Biennale by the architect and urban planning theoretician Yona Friedman, and which he has modelled since the 1950's - a situationist-inspired utopian and visionary model-structure made from recycled materials above the heads of Arsenale visitors. In the works displayed in Making Worlds, space appears (is studied) both as something general and also concrete - as being subjective, global, anthropological, physical, architectural, geographic, cosmologic and so on.

The most striking examples (where geometric abstraction becomes a universal structure, or two dimensions become three or more) include both the linear, delicate golden strings created by Lygia Pape leading into the Arsenale exposition, and the spatially explosive Galactica, a grandiose spiderweb of droplets by Tomas Saraceno, a complex weaving of cords in the Giardini exposition. Pling Pling by Cildo Meireles, a journey in colour through physical and conscious space is equally universal. Some other spaces are: an arrangement of private and global worlds made from hundreds of everyday images such as souvenirs, magazines, records, t-shirts etc. by the African Georges Adéagbo; Chu Yun's Con-stellation, a consumer culture Milky Way - the twinkling of lights of household electronic goods in the dark (a vision of today in contrast to Kant's starry skies above); the project by Aleksandra Mir with the poetic name All places encompass all others - a million postcards bearing images of the Alps, ocean surfers, skyscrapers gleaming in the sunset, snowy forests and rosy flamingos, all marked with the cheerful title Venice; or the mythographies of geographical identity (a Siberian winter) continuing the Russian conceptualist tradition by Elena Yelagina and Igor Makarevich.

The second fundamental theme weaving its way through the exhibition is time. The making worlds already announced in the title is in itself work based in time, and this is also reflected in the exhibition's works. In the Biennale there are many time-oriented and ephemeral events, and the non-ephemeral creations also have significance for artistic or historical time, that is, time which connects and continues (interprets) what is in the past (it is not coincidental that many works in the Biennale are re-readings of older works, as if casting doubt on the unequivocal nature of linear time), as well as perceptual time. For example, the work El sueňo de una cosa by Philippe Parreno is a series of white paintings (inspired by Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage) on which, periodically, a minute-long film shot at the North Pole is screened. In Parreno's own words, it functions as "an airport for light, shadow and elementary particles", which makes time an illusion. One of the most poetic works about the illusion of time or its constant "nowness" (encapsulating time) is the haiku-like Instructions by Yoko Ono, which she has been creating since the 1960's ("Cut a hole in a bag filled with seeds of any kind and place the bag where there is wind.")

The reflection of time in the exhibition curated by Birnbaum is not coincidental, it is also tied to his philosophical interest in phenomenology, and the complexity and subjectivity of perception is a key theme in a number of works in the Biennale. One of the most interesting in this regard is Dominique Gonzales-Foerster's monologue on the ambivalent nature of artistic success and failure, based on her experience as an invited artist at five Venice Biennales; in her perception, they have all remained in her consciousness as an undefined (successful? failed?) event. On this occasion also, when her intended work - a film - didn't work out, because the actor she had lined up refused to take part. Foerster's long monologue in the Giardini is synchronised, in a laconic way, by a sign with the author's name crossed out and an annotation of the work next to a locked, overgrown garden at the tailend of the Arsenale exhibition.

The phenomenology we have already mentioned, which has played a decisive role in the career of the curator and philosopher Birnbaum, is of critical importance not only in individual works, but in the overall construct of the Biennale. This is evident even in the choice of media, with the exhibition having few video works, large-scale photographs and paintings, instead there are many installations, objects and paintings which, all too often, are channelled to the viewer's perception as disparate elements: images, figures and spatial details, and it is left up to the viewer to "join up the dots".

This is not unique to this exhibition only, of course, but rather is typical of a range of contemporary artistic events. However, the phenomenological approach, which according to Birnbaum means refraining from "making a show" in favour of making the viewers become creators (from the given elements to combine preconceptions, meanings and narratives: philosophical, metaphorical, symbolic, poetic, political etc.), entails the risk that those who are not ready engage in the concentration of their internal consciousness and subjective energy actively enough are left with only that which can be seen superficially. Furthermore, at times it seems that the curator-philosopher's approach in orchestrating the Biennale occasionally both instrument-alises artworks and places too much responsibility on the interaction between art and intellect, the visual and the conceptual, including in those cases where the meanings are only external. This of course does not take place without the cooperation of the artists.

And the stamp of recession on the Biennale, mentioned at the start, perhaps may not only be economic in nature after all. Possibly, it also affects the worlds of visionary art - the versions of these today are focussed inwards in the aesthetic field as well. Less is more.

/Translator into English: Filips Birzulis/
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