There is always a certain mystique associated with the Venice Biennale - the original international art event that draws thousands of art world elite who flock to Venice with covert enthusiasm and anticipation. This year artists, writers, collectors and curators alike seemed disappointed. It seems that compared to previous biennales, the general word on the canal was that this, the 49th Biennale, didn't come close to impressing viewers during its opening week. The Biennale is open to the public this year from June 10 through November 4, 2001.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment was the curatorial efforts of the highly respected Curator, Harold Szeemann, who was responsible for the 49th International Exhibition of Art held in the Italian Pavilion of the Biennale Gardini and the Arsenale, which is part of the city's old Military Zone. Szeemann's exhibition revolves around what he deems a "Plateau of Humankind." The open-ended vagueness of this concept resulted in an exhibition that seemed a haphazard array of many of the big named artists of the moment that relied on tremendous generalizations, and denied any sense of critical dialogue between the works.
Therefore, the selection of Latin American artists included in this exhibition comes as no surprise. Which is not to say that some of the projects did not appear compelling - in fact, the lack of any real discursive thread throughout the exhibition did allow for certain artists to stand out as interesting installations on their own. In the Arsenale segment of Szeeman's exhibition were two rooms devoted to Gustavo Artigas's (b. 1970, Mexico City, lives and works in Mexico City) projects done for inSITE 2000 in San Diego, California. Szeemann included a video of the basketball and soccer games that the artist staged simultaneously on a basketball court between teams from Tijuana and San Diego, and photo documentation of a handball court he had erected on the Mexico/ U.S. border. While Artigas's project was more interesting in its original context of inSITE, conceptually the work is clever in that it plays out the complexities of power dynamics in the border region. Another piece that deserves mention is Santiago Sierra's (b. 1966, Madrid, lives and works in Mexico City) video documentation of his project in which he paid 200 non-Europeans living in Europe to dye their hair blonde. One of the more provocative works in the Arsenale was by the Guatemalan artist Luis Gonzales Palma (b. 1957, Guatemala City, lives and works in Guatemala City). He exhibited photographs combined with textiles and embroidery that reflect a contemplative poignancy that is poetically moving. Poetic in a completely different vein is Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto's (b. 1964, Rio de Janeiro, lives and works in Rio de Janeiro) installation in which various spices in rich browns and yellows are hung from the ceiling in large white gauze sacks. The combined effect of the beautiful colors slowly seeping through the gauze and the fragrant aroma of the spices addresses the sensory experience of art by simultaneously creating a soothing and pleasurable experience on the level of smell, sight, and touch. Perhaps among the most compelling works by a Latin American artist is a video installation by Venezuelan Javier Téllez (b. 1969, Venezuela, lives and works in New York). His installation consists of tennis ball machines constantly shooting bright tennis balls against four walls onto which images of the mentally ill are projected together with images of children playing with a spinning top. Negotiating the difficulty of watching the projected imagery and enduring the jarring noise of tennis balls pounding against the wooden structure is an experience fraught with frustration and anxiety, evoked both on a mental and physical level.
There were fewer Latin American artists included in the exhibition that was held in the Italian Pavilion at the Gardini. One of the most notable was Mexican artist Yishai Jusidman (b. 1963, Mexico City, lives and works in Mexico City), whose work combines imagery of Japanese sumo wrestlers with geometric planes of color. The formal language of the large heavy figures in various contorted wrestling poses serve as a bizarre contrast to the flat edges of brightly colored geometric planes in the background.
Of the separate Latin American pavilions at the Gardini, Ernesto Neto's work in the Brazilian Pavilion was a joyful respite to the cerebral work that dominated the rest of the exhibition. One of Neto's two pieces installed in the Brazilian Pavilion consisted of a series of womblike chambers constructed out of soft white gauze and tiny white foam granular balls. In true Brazilian form, participants were requested to take off their shoes and climb into Neto's construction, where simply walking through the pliant surface of foam balls and the maze of white gauze became awkward and laborious. Further into the piece, a soft pink light is filtered through the layers of gauze basking everything in a soft sweet glow. Brazil also displayed new works by Vik Muniz, whose conceptual bent served as an interesting counterpoint to the phenomenological installation by Neto. Also worth mentioning is the work of Rimer Cardillo in the Uruguayan Pavilion. Cardillo's sculpture comprised of casts of animals embedded in symmetrical patterns in perfectly molded mound of earth suggests an eerie sense of piety and ritual.