Writing Art History Since 2002

First Title

Giardini Della Biennale & Arsenale | Venice

The frame tightly holds the face of a young man, then another, then another. Only their faces are visible as the six-minute video presentation progresses. There is no context, although slowly one realises that they are weightlifting. For the most part, though, we only see their faces, the taught contours of their backs. The young men sweat, they strain, they persevere, they exist in a closely defined geography – nothing intrudes.Elsewhere in the vast Italian Pavilion, another video installation. There are in fact many in Maria de Corral’s impressive curatorial exercise for this year’s Venice Biennale, elegantly titled The Experience of Art. In this particular video work six women, famous women – Faye Dunaway, Diane Keaton, Shirley MacLaine, Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon and Meryl Streep – all simulate the ecstasies of womanhood. They laugh, they cry, they argue, they act. In the room next door, six men, famous men – Tony Danza, Dustin Hoffman, Harvey Keitel, Steve Martin, Donald Sutherland and Jon Voight – do much the same, albeit with a male inflection. Like the famous women acting out their scripts, the men are also tightly framed, their images collectively severed from the original context in which they appeared. A featureless black encompasses them. Everything they do, including the stuttering artificiality of the dialogue they deliver, takes place within the territory of the frame. Nothing outside intrudes.On a short hiatus from these and other video works, I met with Robin Rhode. Alongside Candice Breitz, Marlene Dumas, Zwelethu Mthethwa and William Kentridge, he is one of the five South African participants on De Corral’s show (Searle appears on Rosa Martinez’s Always a Little Further). His contribution consists of a series of timid, almost fragile video pieces. In Horse (2002), five children struggle to ride the chalk outline of a playground horse, while See Saw (2002) presents two boys playing on a fictional see saw, both works featuring a meditative, almost transcendental score. Seated on a café chair, Rhode made a statement about his work that seemed to magnify the impact of my experience of Mthethwa and Breitz’s above, respectively titled Flex (2002), and Mother (2005) and Father (2005).”Whether I create work in Barcelona or Mexico City, Japan or South Africa, the frame becomes completely autonomous,” he stated. “This allows my work to become relational, from the South African context to other contexts.” Further into our conversation, he added, emphatically: “I am not relying on the social context of South Africa to exist internationally.” Neither does Breitz, nor Mthethwa it would appear. The tightly circumscribed geographies they manage to stake ownership of have a peculiar grip, and like Dumas’ oil on canvass studies, tightly rendered portraits of corpses, they present a nowhere world that is familiar yet strange – like a MacDonald’s drive-thru.Writing in his book Non-places (1992), social scientist Marc Auge remarked: “If a place can be defined as relational, historical and concerned with identity, then a space which cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity will be a non-place.” The hypothesis he proposes is that supermodernity produces non-places, although the first is never completely erased, the second never totally completed; “they are like palimpsests on which the scrambled game of identity and relations is ceaselessly written”.One obtains glimmers of what Auge means wandering through the Italian Pavilion, the works De Corral has assembled often defying any relational imperative or historical bearing of witness. “I wanted an exhibition that would speak of intensity and not categories,” she writes in her catalogue essay. Of course, this is not to say that history and identity don’t ever assert themselves in this show. Captions clearly allocate to each participating artist a nationality – this is after all the Olympics, albeit of art.Stan Douglas’ black and white film Inconsolable Memories, for instance, a remake of Tomas Guiterrez Alea’s 1968 film Memories of Underdevelopment, is all about historical moment and place. It freely describes early 1960s Cuba at a time when the country was experiencing mass exodus. The manner in which the work is achieved, however, is poetic and beautifully strange. His images shimmer, the noir quality reminding one of John Cassavetes’ 1959 film Shadows and Jean Luc Godard’s Alphaville, from 1965. Notably, the film’s action takes shape around close-ups of Sergio, the chief protagonist. People, not context, are key focus of this Canadian artist’s film.Many of the works exhibited by De Coral, who realised a stronger group show than Martinez in my view, are celebrations of artistic consciousness and self-awareness. In this context, William Kentridge’s impressive presentation was the apotheosis of this subtext. Nine distinct projections are used to show his two works, individually titled Fragments for Georges Méliès and Journey to the Moon (2003). The films are littered with visual clues, which anchor our experience of the two works in the process-bound aesthetic of the artist. An espresso cup, a pair of scissors, a procession of ants; collectively they become more than a simple disunity of parts. They are things from the real world made other, launch pads for and into the imagination, itself a placeless world.I don’t want to make too much of this theory of place and non-space, after all, Mthethwa has long used the frame to eloquently outline South Africa’s pressing social context. Searle’s video works (much less didactically of late) have always presented themselves as palimpsests on which the scrambled game of identity is written, to borrow from Auge. The point: at an event that often feels like a sustained assault on the senses, grasping at straws and unravelling threads is less an imperative than a peculiar joy offered by this most famous of gatherings.Sean O’Toole

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