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A series of images by Riyas Komu
A series of images by Riyas Komu at the 52d International Art Exhibition at the Venice Biennale gives the political a human face. (ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images)

In Venice, sober art amid the spectacle

VENICE -- Nothing illustrates the art world's inner conflicts more vividly than this year's Venice Biennale, the giant international exhibition of contemporary art. Set in a city of once - fabulous imperial wealth that is now a spectacularly picturesque tourist attraction, the exhibition's preview opening last week brought together the art world's most powerful and wealthy players for three days and nights of sumptuous partying, intense schmoozing, and, oh yeah, looking at art.

Then they were all off to the massive Art Basel fair in Switzerland for more of the same, followed by the openings of Documenta 12 , a humongous expo that happens every five years in Kassel, Germany; and Sculpture Projects Munster , a show in nearby Munster, Germany, that takes place only every 10 years.

These are paradoxical times for contemporary art. With works fetching record prices and money flowing into the market from American hedge funders and Russian and Asian plutocrats, it would seem the art has never been so highly valued. At the same time there abides within the art world much uncertainty about the deeper value of art. In light of human disasters in Iraq and Darfur, the looming calamity of global warming, and many other worldly troubles, it becomes increasingly difficult to know how and how much art matters other than as a speculative commodity. Does it have a spiritual or moral value commensurate with its current commercial worth?

In Venice, more than 70 exhibitions make a contemporary art fan's visit a terrifically exciting treasure hunt. There are big group shows in palatial old buildings in the historic inner city; solo exhibitions in pavilions dedicated to individual nations in the Giardini , the expansive park at the east end of town; and many small shows in locations that will test a visitor's map-reading skills. Whether you are thrilled or disappointed by any one presentation, there's always another to look forward to.

At the center of this nearly overwhelming profusion of artistic exhibitionism is the 52d International Art Exhibition, the show that everyone scrutinizes and opines about most intensely. A sprawling compendium of works by 100 international artists, this year's model was assembled by Robert Storr, the Biennale's first American director.

Called "Think With the Senses -- Feel With the Mind: Art in the Present Tense," the exhibition is a strikingly sober affair that awkwardly combines examples of classic Modernist style and works of dry, politically charged Conceptualism. It seems designed to call the art world to task for its free-spending, pleasure-loving ways. Against the carnivalesque spirit of the Biennale as a whole, it aims to set art itself on a path of morally high-minded purpose and steer it away from the dangers of decadent entertainment and flashy spectacle.

The exhibition takes place in two venues: the Italian Pavilion, a modern building in the Giardini, and the Arsenale , an immense brick complex that was a great ship-building factory from the 14th to the 16th century. The show is neatly installed in both locations, with each artist given his or her own generous amount of space. At a time when art is often unruly, noisy, and resistant to compartmentalization, this show is unusually calm and orderly.

There is not much that looks shockingly new in the show. It runs the usual gamut of painting, sculpture, large-scale photography, video, and installations. An impression of conservatism is enhanced in the white galleries of the Italian Pavilion, where abstract paintings by such familiar modern masters as Ellsworth Kelly , Robert Ryman , and Gerhard Richter are prominently featured.

Many other artists, however, assert urgently political statements. Emily Prince has produced hand-drawn portraits of almost all the American soldiers who have been killed in the Iraq war. Each is on a playing-card-size piece of paper, and the drawings have been pinned to the wall to create a rough, mural-scale map of the continental United States.

Adel Abdessemed created a set of pale green neon signs spelling the word "Exil" (without the e), and they've been placed over doorways throughout the show like exit signs; they're about the plight of political refugees all over the world. Abdessemed also produced a set of minimalistic circular works out of razor wire that he calls "Wall Drawings." They allude too obviously to the boundaries and prisons existing worldwide to separate or incarcerate people.

A short film by Paolo Canevari shows a boy in front of a building partially destroyed during the Serbo-Croation war practicing soccer moves using a ball shaped like a human skull. And Emily Jacir created an installation of texts and photographs documenting the 1972 assassination of the Arab writer Wael Zuaiter by agents of the Israeli secret service in retribution for the killings of Israeli athletes in the Munich Olympics.

Much of the politically animated work lacks subtlety, but some artists make their points with impressive efficiency. Jenny Holzer's enlarged, silkscreened copies of declassified documents relating to the US war on terror deliver hard-hitting combinations of visual and ideological punch.

By contrast, a series of lovingly painted portraits of clerics of various faiths by Y. Z. Kami offers a slower, more thoughtfully complex meditation on politics and religion. The set of five paintings is pointedly titled "Conversation in Jerusalem." And though they are more flatly painted, a series of images of a woman in a traditional headscarf by Riyas Komu also gives the political a human face.

Storr's title, "Think With the Senses -- Feel With the Mind," recommends an admirably holistic way of making and responding to art. He thereby counters tendencies in the art world toward fractious polarization between, say, supporters of painting and promoters of Conceptualism. Generally, one gets the feeling that Storr wants art to be taken more seriously than mere entertainment. He sees being an artist as a grave responsibility -- a responsibility to uphold enduring aesthetic values and to contribute to the creation of a more humane world. There is not much humor in the show, and not much sex, either. This is no time for fooling around and indulging in hedonistic pleasures, the exhibition seems to be saying.

There are some moments of great beauty, nevertheless. Most breathtaking are the huge tapestry-like works of El Anatsui , of Nigeria. Anatsui uses bottle caps, metallic liquor bottle bands, and fine wire to knit together huge swathes of fabric that hang like curtains. In gold, silver, and jewellike colors, they appear from a distance as if they might have been created for a Byzantine church 800 years ago. Up close you see what rubbish they're actually made of, and the sacred and the profane are nicely wed.

There are too few surprisingly imaginative works in the show. An exception is a short film by Joshua Mosely in which claymation figures of the philosophers Blaise Pascal and Jean-Jacques Rousseau hide in a forest from a large, threatening claymation dog. It is funny, conceptually intriguing, and technically amazing.

The exhibition comes to a perplexing climax on the top floor of the Italian Pavilion where, after ascending a short flight of stairs, you pass through a gold-beaded curtain -- a work by Felix Gonzalez-Torres -- and enter a gallery occupied by what seems a motley assembly of works by various artists, including the German bad boy Martin Kippenberger and the Minimalist string sculptor Fred Sandback . What connects the artists is the fact that they are all more or less recently deceased. The room is a kind of memorial. In light of the somber, righteous mood of the rest of show, it may be taken as a lesson to us all: We're all going to die, so let's be careful about how we proceed in the time we have left.

Coincidentally, the artist who was selected (not by Storr) to represent the United States in its national pavilion is one of those included in that memorial room -- Felix Gonzalez-Torres, the Cuban-born Conceptual artist whose brief career was based in New York. He died of AIDS in 1996.

Organized by Nancy Spector , curator of contemporary art at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Gonzalez-Torres show is even more funereal than Storr's memorial chamber. Gonzalez-Torres was known for exhibiting stacks of poster-like prints that viewers were invited to take for free. Each of the stacked prints in this show has a black-and-white image of dark, rippling water on one side and black bands bordering a white rectangle on the other. Also on view is one of the artist's signature fields of wrapped candies -- pieces of black licorice, in this case -- that viewers can take and eat. The stacked pages and the candies are continually replenished, so, in a sense, the works they make up live on forever. Gonzalez-Torres's art was about resurrection as well as death.

Gonzalez-Torres's work grew out of a time when AIDS was taking the lives of many American artists. It speaks to a different sense of grief, anxiety, and political distress than that of today. For a more immediate sense of the present, one of the essential satellite exhibitions of the Biennale, called "Hamster Wheel," is on view in an industrial space near the Arsenale.

"Hamster Wheel" is an intentionally anarchic show featuring a large, roughly cobbled-together wooden sculpture resembling a roller coaster by a group called Gelitin . It also includes funky works by Franz West , Rachel Harrison , Urs Fischer , and others. It is as messy, distracting, and juvenile as Storr's show is lucid, sedate, and grown up. But there is something forced about its exuberance; it is viscerally sardonic, but there is not a lot of real joy in it.

One thing missing in the Biennale is a sense of the future. For much of the 20th century, modern art was driven by a belief in the possibilities of innovation: the idea that new forms and attitudes could create a new and better world. It's harder for artists to believe that now, it seems.

One of the best of all the Biennale's various exhibitions, a solo show by Gerard Byrne in the Irish Pavilion, does speak about the future, but in a wonderfully ironic manner. It features a film called "1984 and Beyond" in which actors playing well-known 20th-century science fiction writers like Ray Bradbury , Robert Heinlein , and Arthur C. Clarke excitedly converse about what they imagine life will be like in the technologically advanced future. Based on transcripts of an actual discussion that took place in 1963, the conversation is fascinating and hilarious. Aside from the specifics the writers envision -- video telephones, space travel, machines or drugs that eliminate the need for sleep -- what is most impressive is the optimism they express. They have a belief in progress that now seems absurdly naive.

Many technological wonders have indeed been achieved by human ingenuity over the past half century, and yet it seems that we are less able than ever to believe that humans are going to create a peaceful, flourishing life on earth anytime soon.

Different as they are, both Storr's exhibition and the "Hamster Wheel" show -- as well as the dozens of other exhibitions on view throughout Venice -- reflect a sense of art and human culture running in place with no clear sense of direction -- like, well, a hamster in a wheel. Which is not to say that it is not altogether tremendously entertaining.

Ken Johnson can be reached at


The Venice Biennale

At: various locations, Venice,

through Nov. 21