For most residents of Europe and North America, the nineteenth century has become a hazy memory. The colonial wars that devastated large swaths of Africa and drained European treasuries have now become romanticized, the terror and violence aestheticized à la Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa (albeit the Hollywood version, complete with teak camp chairs and billowing white muslin dresses). A quick survey of Check List Luanda Pop at the 52nd Venice Biennale, however, brings the recent past back in visceral ways. For those living in the Third World, the nineteenth century remains close. (See Part One of this post.)
In contrast, the major First World players seemed intent upon eliding history. The American, British, and French pavilions featured artists -- Sophie Calle, Tracey Emin, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres -- whose oeuvres are largely lyric in nature. For each of these artists, art rises from personal experience. The curators of these pavilions have refused to truly engage history on any meaningful level, choosing instead to go the formal and lyric route, because that route cleaves closest to safety.
Gonzalez-Torres was, in many ways, a bold choice. Gonzalez-Torres was openly gay, and several of the pieces in the American pavilion were created after Gonzalez-Torres's lover died from AIDS-related complications. In the late 1980s and early '90s, when Gonzalez-Torres first began exhibiting his "endless stacks" and candy pieces, the work was considered highly subversive, even aggressive. (One of Gonzalez-Torres's candy pieces, a memorial to his lover, invites viewers to taste his vanished lover's sweetness.) Almost fifteen years have passed between Gonzalez-Torres's death (in 1994) and the 52nd Biennale. In those intervening years, Gonzalez-Torres entered the American canon. The work was powerful then partly because it crossed so many lines, because it introduced an interiority, and an experience, still taboo in mainstream America.
Yet the viewer feels little of this in the American pavilion. There, the Gonzalez-Torres installation largely feels formal. Nancy Spector (of the Guggenheim Museum in New York City) mounted an elegant installation of the artist's work. There are a few "political" works, such as Gonzalez-Torres's "endless stack" of offset prints reading "Veteran's Day Sale," or Untitled (Public Opinion, or Everybody has One), a candy piece featuring cellophane-wrapped licorice candies. There are also a number of abstract pieces, such as Gonzalez-Torres's light-bulb sculptures, that read -- in the American pavilion's elegant context -- as beautiful and "bourgeois."
Consider Oscar Muñoz's video installation Proyecto de Memorial (Memorial Project) (2004-2005), as a foil to Gonzalez-Torre's lyric engagement. Muñoz filmed himself painting the faces of those who "disappeared" during Colombia's drug wars. We see the artist's fingers, grasping a paintbrush. Our focus remains directed towards the individual faces. Absorbed by the act of painting, we watch each face flesh out and develop into an individual. Muñoz paints these miniature portraits with water, on grey stone. The images evaporate within seconds, leaving behind a piece of blank stone. Savvy viewers with a long memory might recall the United States' messy involvement in Colombia and several other Latin American countries. Muñoz tells a story that has largely been suppressed. He chooses not grief's private language, but memorial's public idiom.
Like lyric poetry, the works in the French and British pavilions represent formal (and aestheticized) iterations of subjective (and often deeply private) experiences. I found it surprising to walk into the British pavilion and find Tracey Emin's erotic sketches. The experience is a bit like walking into an alternate universe where Sappho, and not Homer, is considered the "poet laureate" of ancient Greece. And yet it lacks some of the frisson and subversion implicit in that comment, for I do not believe that the choice to exhibit Emin came from a desire to subvert history in order to give us herstory. The personal is very often the political. In Gonzalez-Torres's case, the personal is very, very political. Yet Gonzalez-Torres's works are swamped by his fellow artists' relentless focus on selfhood and subjectivity.
Rather, Tracey Emin and Sophie Calle take us back to bourgeois comfort, for the bourgeois world remains the kernel of these artists' obsessions. Both Emin and Calle interrogate the rules, procedures, and languages that structure this world. Their installations, with their focus upon eroticism and desire (Emin's installation features a series of erotic sketches, Calle's installation takes a lover's break-up letter as its point of departure), remain bound up in the bourgeois realm of pleasure and consumption.
There is, of course, a time and a place for such works, just as there is a time and a place for Sappho and for Homer. But next to those works that do reach out and address history, these works, with their myopic focus upon private transgressions and personal moments, read to me as "thin." Each set of works (which we might crassly divide into the "private" and the "public," those concerned with the nation, versus those concerned with the individual) takes up a very different type of discourse.
The structure of the Venice Biennale calls upon each pavilion to generate a national identity. It asks the artist to represent a nation. The art that goes on these walls, despite the artist's best efforts, will be read in terms of the "nation." Viewers expect these works to take part in national mythologies. Here, art comes to be identified with a collective (a society, a place, a nation). There is a sense that art is part and parcel of a broader community, and that cultural production should bear some responsibility for that community.
Perhaps the developed nations no longer feel the same urgency. For the developing nations, the stakes seem so much higher. The Biennale is a chance to fabricate a myth, to put up a front. It is an arena for new nations to try out identities and tell stories -- in other words, it is a chance for new nations to play at power and agency, to take on things that developed nations already take for granted. The developed nations seem to turn away from history, while the emerging nations reach out to seize history with both hands. For the emerging nations, the old histories -- the old concept of the nation and its attendant myths -- have not yet lost their force.
In this context, the refusal to engage history raises a host of other questions. Why do curators choose to turn inwards and engage the private subject at this moment? What are we trying to evade? Why the lacuna? Why this silence? By circling in domesticity's waters, the curators of the French and British pavilions avoid making overt political statements on behalf of their nations, but they also (perhaps inadvertently) give off an image of callousness and irresponsibility. They seem uninterested (or unwilling) to take part in the Biennale's larger conversation.