All things hybrid, recombinant and mutant

Ian Haig

There is a scene in the Coen brothers’ film The Big Lebowski (1998) that prepared me for the 50th Venice Biennale. Julianne Moore is a conceptual artist entertaining an 80s looking black-garbed German video artist. She’s giggling on the phone to her agent about the Biennale, “Darling…the Biennale…” The posturing world of contemporary art as the butt of a joke in this very funny scene kept coming back to me in Venice.

One of my agendas, after queuing an hour for tickets, was to figure out how, or if, new media was integrated in the Biennale. I don’t necessarily mean the obvious computer-based, interactive point-and-click model of new media, but ways of thinking about the form as different kinds of physical and non-physical spaces, and all things hybrid, recombinant and mutant.

This year the Biennale’s theme, “Dreams and Conflicts: The dictatorship of the viewer”, ensured that much of the work was strongly embodied in issues of sociological crisis and cultural conflict. Curators seemed compelled to contextualise contemporary art with an overwrought and heavy-handed social consciousness. The curated show Utopian Station about self-sustainable communities, took the Biennale’s theme to heart and the result looked like a bad hippy commune—complete with John and Yoko’s “Give Peace a Chance.” Thankfully not all artists ran with the loaded theme.

Appearing like a set of embassies from countries with cash, the institutionally controlled, government regulated and culturally endorsed international pavilions in the Giardini, make up a large component of the Biennale. They function as part international art show, part art trade show and part tourist expo (the Singapore Pavilion even offered tourist brochures).

Some of the more memorable works included Italian Diego Perrone’s A dog dead of old age (2003), in the curated show The Zone in the Giardini. Perrone’s dark and foreboding animation depicted a hyperreal computer generated dog in the throes of death, caught between the living and the hereafter. If any work in the Biennale audio-visually and perversely articulated the theme of ‘crisis’, this was it. The Estonian pavilion featured the fictional artist John Smith created by Marko Maetamm and Kaido Ole. Marko and Kaido (2003) offered a spatial narrative to be followed through a series of rooms in a mutant, sci-fi, Boys’ Annual mix. The Australian pavilion, as we know, featured Patricia Piccinini’s continuing biotech preoccupations.

Much of the video work was disappointing. Exceptions included Yang Zhenzhong’s Let’s Puff (2002), which used 2 video screens. One featured a girl strenuously blowing in the air towards a screen opposite and causing the action to accelerate and slow down in time with her blowing: a simple piece that extended the artificiality of video and notions of screen space. Notable also was Dan Graham’s important 1974 precursor to interactive new media work, Opposing mirrors and video monitors on time delay. This closed circuit TV video installation and mirrors captured the viewer’s image from a few seconds before and allowed you to watch yourself as both subject and object: a work based around simple notions of participation. Most of the other videos were recordings of the banalities of everyday life, a style that seems to be an international phenomenon.

Other highlights in this enormous event were works in the curated Zone of Urgency, part of the large Asenale Show. Much of Asenale was predictably austere, precious and boring, taking place in huge derelict shipping assembly warehouses. But Zone of Urgency offered a far funkier engagement with contemporary art, with lots of refreshing cacophonous noise and media arts spaces, a barrage to the senses playing with notions of survivalism and cultural resistance. The show included the web work of Heavy Industries and Alfredo and Isobel Aquilizan’s fantastic chrome-plated World War 2 Army Jeep, M201, in god we trust (2003) which seemed like the product of a crazed survivalist and religious zealot.

Less advertised components of the Biennale contained some of the more perverse and genuinely strange work. The Absolute Generations show at the Palazzo Zenobio featured Russian artist Oleg Kulik and his mutant Sportswomen, a stuffed, zombified version of tennis player Martina Hinghis. Cabinet of Manipulation, by Ben, a kind of mutant 19th century laboratory in a large room, dealt in all manner of human and non-human transformations. Though I missed it, I was intrigued by stories of Maurizio Cattelan’s remote-controlled animatronic boy Charlie, who roamed around the Giardini grounds on his tricycle, freaking everyone out.

After 4 days overdosing on contemporary art, I left feeling that while Venice is great for the artists involved, the event is only a blip on the radar of what’s actually occurring in contemporary art at any given time. It is too big and unfocused. The sheer scale only amplifies the more banal examples of contemporary art, rather than offering a concise and focused undertaking. One also gets the impression that the Biennale’s attraction is partly due to its picturesque European setting, in the middle of summer. I’m sure the artists in the The Big Lebowski would have loved it.

New media at the Biennale is not canonised as ‘new media’ nor ghettoised as such. It was refreshing to see ‘new media’ coming under the larger and expansive rubic of contemporary art, a sign that the term is as redundant as ‘light art’, ‘earth art’ or ‘body art.’ This distinction was also apparent in Paris at the Pompidou Centre and the new Palais de Tokyo gallery. At these institutions, new media comes under the subset of video art and contemporary hybrid practice. The Palais de Tokyo, a huge contemporary art institution, is very much a hybrid space, with art, design, fashion and lifestyle converging under one roof in shows that include video and painting with new media. The Venice Biennale, for all its problems, proves that new media can and does sit side by side with other contemporary practices.

Dreams and Conflicts: The dictatorship of the viewer, The Venice Biennale, Venice, 2003 www.labiennale.org

RealTime issue #58 Dec-Jan 2003 pg. 35

© Ian Haig; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2003