VENICE The preview for the Venice Biennale ended this weekend, and after the news media, collectors and dealers left, I wandered to the back of the Arsenale, the ancient former rope factory where part of the main exhibition always unfolds. Calm having descended, the public was now welcome (for $25.50 a ticket), but almost nobody was around. Suddenly I came upon a garden I dont recall having explored before.
It contained a tumbledown brick pavilion with rusting metal doors, open to the breeze and tucked in the shadows. The smell of jasmine and honeysuckle filled the warm air. Inside, 200 gymnastic rings had been hung close together, at various heights, like clustering vines, for a performance some nights earlier by William Forsythe, the dancer. A young woman was clambering from one ring to another, and at being discovered, mid-climb, she smiled shyly, as if acknowledging a shared secret.
Organized by Daniel Birnbaum, this 53rd version of the venerable Biennale is tidy, disciplined, cautious and unremarkable. If any show can be said to reflect a larger state of affairs in art now, this one suggests a somewhat dull, deflated contemporary art world, professionalized to a fault, in search of a fresh consensus. It has prompted the predictable cooing from wishful insiders, burbling vaguely about newfound introspection and gravity.
The Biennales ostensible theme is making worlds. Mr. Birnbaum has explained in a news release that this means an exhibition driven by the aspiration to explore worlds around us as well as worlds ahead, which hardly explains anything at all, of course, while implying that a regrettable inattention to worlds beyond the art world had prevailed. The main show is smaller than the Biennale two years ago, which in virtually every respect seemed more substantial high-minded and dead serious in light of novelty-addled excess. Part of the Arsenale this time is given over to an advertisement for Abu Dhabi. A prize went to Tobias Rehberger, the stylish German artist, for designing a new cafe. So much for gravity and introspection.
Mr. Birnbaum has also said his show is about possible new beginnings, to which end he has included works by the Gutai group, Japanese avant-gardists from the 1950s and 60s; Lygia Pape, the Brazilian artist who came to prominence around the same time; and Gordon Matta-Clark, the short-lived American iconoclast of the 1970s. The art crowd gladly talked them all up, as if they were news. Devising quasi-utopian projects of hippie-ish experimentalism by often fugitive means, they aimed to engage more than an art audience and to spread joy. They saw themselves as liberationists, optimists, fabulists and troublemakers without exactly being ideologues, who shared an almost alchemical knack for transforming scrappy materials and tests of sensual awareness into fine modernist forms.
Here they bring cool pleasures to several parts of the Biennales main exhibition. Papes moonbeams of gold thread a large, ethereal concoction in a vast darkened gallery, titled Ttéia, from 2002, two years before Pape died counts among the few coups de théâtre on view.
But the Biennale is meant to be a survey of new art, and while conscientious young artists now dutifully seem to raise all the right questions about urbanism, polyglot society and political activism, their answers look domesticated and already familiar. They look like other art-school-trained art, you might say, which is exactly what Pape and Matta-Clark and the Gutai group didnt want their work to look like, never mind that the art market ultimately found a way to make a buck off what they did, as it does nearly everything, eventually.
Here, notwithstanding how far-flung their origins, almost all the artists in Mr. Birnbaums show seem to have prominent galleries behind them in New York and Europe, which is not necessarily a problem, but its hardly proof of larger worlds being explored, either.
As for the national pavilions, video and film works from Canada (Mark Lewis), Serbia (Katarina Zdjelar) and the Netherlands (Fiona Tan) play for the spotlight. But Bruce Nauman commands center stage unlike any American representative since perhaps the young Robert Rauschenberg, 45 years ago.
A miniretrospective of Mr. Naumans career now occupies the American pavilion. It spills over into university buildings on the other side of the Grand Canal, where a new work, Days/Giorni, is split between two large rooms. Rows of paper-thin, white loudspeakers, twin gantlets, broadcast voices intoning the days of the week in syncopated varieties (English at one site, Italian at the other).
It claims center stage partly because, among the usual competitors, Britains entry, Steve McQueen, has phoned in his work, which is a video about the Biennales leafy Giardini in off-season. Claude Lévêque, representing France, has constructed an inexplicable monstrosity in the form of a cross-shaped prisonlike cell with black flags blown by electric fans, of no apparent meaning. Germany, eschewing nationalism, abdicates its pavilion to a British artist, Liam Gillick, who has installed bare pine kitchen cabinets. It is the lamest German entry in decades, by wide consensus.
Aficionados instead made a kerfuffle over The Collectors, by the Berlin-based team of Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, jointly occupying the Danish and Nordic pavilions. An installation about a broken-up family and their dead gay neighbor (his corpse floats in a pool outside the Nordic pavilion), its an inside joke, an elaborate stage set, clever but shallow.
Mr. Naumans work manages to be funnier, in dark ways that plumb psychic depths foreign to the likes of Elmgreen & Dragset. Formal panache lends visual rigor to what Mr. Nauman intends, at a glance, to appear jury-rigged and kind of dumb. The needle-stuck-in-the-groove annoyance that he also cultivates demands, like any grueling endeavor, a degree of sacrifice, which may try even the most sympathetic viewers patience.
But the effort is its own reward, a Beckett-like concept in line with Mr. Naumans philosophy. From the start John Cage and the Minimalist composers have also been lodestars to Mr. Nauman, whose art often makes odd music out of grating sounds, psychotic rants and everyday speech. Days/Giorni takes mindless recitation and turns it into a sort of polyphonic choir.
I mentioned, at the start, discovering Mr. Forsythes pavilion in the garden because it summoned to mind stumbling for the first time on the Biennale as a student in Italy years ago and finding, late one hot summer day, far from the crush of tourists and churches, in the silent, whitewashed pavilions of the tree-lined Giardini, a work by Mr. Nauman. Its strangeness seemed then, as his art still does, both a rebuke and a universe to be explored.
The memory of it made me wonder about the other big event taking place here, timed to coincide with the Biennale. François Pinault, the billionaire French collector, has installed part of his collection, like choice spoils of war, on long-term view at the Dogana, Venices former customs house, which the city has turned over to him and the architect Tadao Ando has refurbished.
The buildings renovation is a sober and airy arrangement of thick wood beams and concrete, with half-moon windows gazing onto bobbing yachts of Russian oligarchs in the sparkling lagoon. The view is apt. Mr. Pinaults relentless assortment of trendy blue-chip works from the last decade or so, lighted like so many cadavers in a medical school operating theater, reeks of pre-crash money and Bush-era cynicism. Their installation creates the weird, antiseptic aura of Dr. Nos lair.
It came as a relief to retreat back to the Giardini and give Mr. Birnbaums exhibition another shot. In the quiet after the opening, things emerged. Simon Starlings kinetic sculpture, a projector beaming onto a wall a black-and-white film about the construction of the same object at a metal fabricators in Berlin, made satisfying whirs and clanks. Tony Conrads large rectangles of yellowing paper, framed by slashes of colored pigment, post-Minimalist haikus from the 70s, slowly faded like aging doges in the late afternoon light.
Yoko Ono had posted on a typed sheet of paper, tacked to a gallery wall, an injunction titled Cleaning Piece III, from 1996.
Try to say nothing negative about anybody.
a) for three days
b) for 45 days
c) for three months
See what happens to your life.
That seemed like a signal to return to the garden behind the Arsenale, just before it closed, when the sun was still high in the sky.
The last visitors wearily trudged out. The rusty doors to the pavilion were still open. The young woman had left, and a distant belch of a ships horn broke the silence. No one was watching.
So I tried out Mr. Forsythes rings.
- Michael Kimmelman