Art in the press

Venice Biennale: what befits a woman?

A feminist art historian takes on the "feminist biennale" headed by women curators for the first time ever, and showcasing an unprecedented number of women artists. (New Feminism) (Critical Essay)

Women are omnipresent in this year's Venice Biennale, beginning with the two visual-arts directors--Maria de Corral, organizing "The Experience of Art" in the Italian Pavilion, and Rosa Martinez, producing "Always a Little Further" at the Arsenale--and ending with the women who walked off with the lion's (or lioness') share of the prizes. That the major curators were women is a noteworthy fact in itself: the first time in 110 years that women have held this important position. Both have proven records and are well known on the international contemporary-art circuit. De Corral was curator of the Spanish pavilion at the 1988 Venice Biennale and has served as director of the visual arts sector of Spain's La Caixa Foundation (1981-91) and of the Reina Sofia Museum (1991-94), organizing exhibitions for both institutions. Martinez has been artistic director of the Barcelona Biennale (1988-92), co-curator of Manifesta (1996), curator of the Istanbul (1997) and SITE Santa Fe (1999) biennales, and of the Spanish pavilion at Venice (2003). She has also been involved in explicitly feminist issues. In the catalogue to "Fusion Cuisine," a show of international women artists at the Deste Center for Contemporary Art in Athens, Greece, in 2002, she published two outspoken essays, one titled "New Feminism (First Manifesto)" and the second "Thinking Sex is Thinking Power." In the "First Manifesto," Martinez poses a question: "If we write the word 'new' before the word 'feminism,' would some people still be suspicious or even afraid?" And in the next sentence she declares:

They should not! New Feminism is an inclusive movement that gathers a series of radical but flexible strategies to reinvent the emotional, sexual, economical and geopolitical distribution of power.... New Feminism is aware of the strong role of women in the economic development of their societies and asks for a better distribution of the benefits.... New feminism puts into question the backlash of the nineties that still pretends that equality between men and women has already been achieved.

Martinez puts her words into action in the Arsenale exhibition at the Biennale. Almost exactly half the works in "Always a Little Further" are by women. The exhibition includes many younger women artists (as well as the ever-young, over-90 Louise Bourgeois), and is introduced by an antechamber featuring the production of those famous feminist furies, the Guerrilla Girls, and a spectacular large-scale chandelier by Joana Vasconcelos that close inspection reveals to be made not of the delicate glass for which Venice is famous, but rather of many thousands of tiny o.b. tampons, signifiers of basic femininity throughout the world. The Arsenale show is broadly international in its reach. It includes the Spanish artist Pilaf Albarracin, the Egyptian-born Ghada Amer, the Lebanese-born Mona Hatoum, the Turkish Semiha Berksoy, the Guatamalan Regina Jose Galindo, the Palestinian Emily Jacir, the Korean Kimsooja, the Pakistani-born Shazia Sikander, the German Paloma Varga Weisz, the Brazilian Valeska Soares and the Japanese Mariko Mori.

"The Experience of Art," curated by de Corral, encompasses a larger time span; in addition to many young artists, it features a number of more established figures (some of them dead, among them Philip Guston, Agnes Martin and Francis Bacon). This show, too, contains an extensive range of art in a variety of styles and mediums by contemporary women of many nationalities, including the Americans Barbara Kruger--who won the Golden Lion for lifetime achievement--and Jenny Holzer; Monica Bonvicini of Venice; Candice Breitz (based in Berlin) and Marlene Dumas (who lives in Amsterdam), both born in South Africa; Tania Bruguera of Cuba; Tacita Dean and Rachel Whiteread, both from the UK; as well as Finland's Eija-Liisa Ahtila.

The national pavilions include fewer women artists, yet those who do represent their countries are, almost without exception, outstanding. They include Annette Messager, who won the coveted prize for the best national pavilion for France; Rebecca Belmore, representing Canada with an ambitious performance-based video; Miyako Ishiuchi, a veteran photographer who is presenting a powerful group of images relating to her mother in the Japanese pavilion; and, off-site, the Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist, who created a site-specific ceiling video projection for the church of San Stae. Kiki Smith's off-site, adjunct exhibition, "Homespun Tales," at the Fondazione Querini Stampalia, is one of the artist's best shows in recent years. Even such relatively modest work as Jelena Tomasevic's small, figurative "Joy of Life" series in the Serbia and Montenegro pavilion offers food for thought as well as visual pleasure.

Yet what I find particularly admirable about the wide array of women's art at this year's Biennale is not only the high quality of much of it, but the fact that I cannot make any striking generalizations about it. "What befits a woman?," philosopher Sue Larsen asked in a memorable lecture presented at the beginning of the Women's Liberation Movement, in the late '60s. And her answer was a resounding "Nothing." This does not mean that women are not socially conditioned in a way that differs from the social conditioning of men; of course they are. But it is to say that whatever is good is good for both men and women; whatever bad, bad for both sexes. In a way, the triumph of the 2005 Biennale lies in the fact that there is no single women's style or iconography or medium that stands out as the dominant one--nothing that tells you right away, "Yes, this is by a woman artist, this is the way art by a woman should be." Of course, there are certain themes--the body, for instance--that in some cases are self-referential and hence, gender revealing. And in other cases, certain art or craft forms traditionally associated with women in certain societies are employed, but usually in greatly altered form. Being a woman and an artist does make a difference, in the same way that nationality, so crucial but so ephemeral in today's transient art world, does. But one might say there are as many differences as there are different women. There is no single signifier of femininity on view in the work in Venice.

I should now like to turn to a discussion of individual works, issues and artists, partly to elaborate my contention about the range and variety of women's art at the Biennale, partly for the pure pleasure of exploring and differentiating the experiences under consideration, putting into words what began as inchoate feeling--always the pleasure of writing about art that one enjoys.
Both Kruger and Holzer have long been known for work based on words. Yet in both cases, their pieces in Venice are somewhat unexpected in view of each artist's past production, though far from entirely novel. Using large capital letters, Barbara Kruger has transformed the bland, fascist-era facade of the Italian pavilion into a denunciation of money and power--and, quite overtly, aims her message at the Bush regime. While the forthright, provocative tone is familiar, and while Kruger has done architectural-scale work in the past, the effect of shimmering transparency and the integration of the words with the elements of the building's facade are new. The words, alternating English and Italian in large capital letters, were executed in stippled patterns of red, white and green, the colors of the Italian flag (the white letters outlined in black to make them visible on the whitish facade). The four columns supporting the entryway, two on either side, are emblazoned with the words "money" and "power" ("money, potere" to the left and "soldi, power") to the right, while the wall surface behind them declares, on the far left, "Pretend things are going as planned." The right side of the facade proclaims "God is on my side. He told me so." Over the door Kruger inscribed what has come to read as the virtual motto of the Bush regime, "Admit nothing, blame everyone." To those of us who are used to Kruger's customary black, red or white lettering interspersed with fragmentary photographs, the dynamic dimensionality of this work on a palpably stony surface, along with its colorful presence, are compelling.

Unexpected, as well, is the intensely personal energy of Holzer's installation Purple Cross (2004), an array of 10 double-sided, corner-straddling LED signs with red and blue diodes and stainless-steel housings. The text is a poem by the American Henri Cole. His "Blur" from Middle Earth (2003) spurts out its message in evanescent parallel and crisscrossing bands of rapidly moving words (as with Kruger's piece, alternating between Italian and English) that produce a vibrant purple haze. The poem's meaning is perpetually ambiguous--indeed, at one moment the piece declares, "I project the ambiguities." In the Biennale catalogue, Cole comments on the artwork embodying his poem:

Ten bloodlike rivers of words ... either glide by tranquilly and seem to move toward some invisible sea or crash into one another with a fierceness that is alienating and causes the text to disintegrate. Sometimes even the air in the room is purple, plunging the viewer into arterial-like colors and into the realm of the body. This seems to me perfect for a poem about selfhood and love, in which the Christian ideal of self-abnegation gets confused with sexuality.

Two of the national pavilions executed by women offer a similar contrast in form and feeling. In the Japanese pavilion, Ishiuchi presents an interrelated group of photographs and a video installation under the title Mother's 2000-2005--traces of the future, creating a portrait of a quietly extraordinary woman. The actual subject herself only appears once or twice; the "portrait" is built up metonymically, in terms of the objects the mother once wore or used: chemises, girdles, shoes, lipsticks, false teeth. There are also close-ups of patches of scarred or diseased skin. These elements together stand for the maternal body in all its specificity, a portrait at once objective yet personal. The artist speaks of a "sadness beyond imagination" involved in recording this relationship, evidently a difficult one, and this sadness is conveyed by the very textures and configurations of the images: the slight bulge of a worn but well-maintained pair of red, pointed-toe shoes, specific to a vanished fashion moment, suggesting the feet that once wore them; the glowing yet slightly dented surface of a lipstick tube, large, centrally placed like a votive offering; and, perhaps most poignantly, in the transparency and lacy intricacy of a suspended slip, a memorial to feminine coquetry, still bearing the imprint of the lost maternal body. The photograph as the guardian of precious if discordant private memories, so different from, say, Susan Sontag's hostile view of photography as a violator of persons and privacy, is the message of Ishiuchi's powerful and thought-provoking installation, a message continued on a set of TV monitors showing about 50 works selected from three of the artist's earlier series.

If the Japanese pavilion is cool and understated, yet at the same time disturbing and deeply moving, the French one is hot and volatile: in Messager's dimly lit "Casino" lurk many weirdly childish and threatening objects that heighten the dreamlike ambience and the sense of irrational dislocation we have come to associate with the artist's work. The pavilion is divided into three distinct sections. In the first, the unlikely hero of the piece, Pinocchio, rides helplessly on a bolster through a veritable forest of bolsters, a dream-puppet swishing through a bed-encumbered nightscape. Something entirely different occurs in the second room: billows of red silk pour through a door toward the viewer like a waterfall of blood, a menstrual (or placental) apotheosis, a red sea rising and falling as indefinable forms, lit from below, thrust their mysterious way up through the crimson waves, emerging and disappearing. In the last room, a tall net cylinder imprisons a strange collection of stuffed animals, toys and disjointed body parts; the silence is soon shattered by a frightening cacophony as a hidden mechanism abruptly hurls the mass of objects into the air, like a miniature volcano erupting. Just as suddenly, the objects settle down again. Certainly Messager has not provided the happy ending of Collodi's moralistic story: there seem to be no winners in this phantasmagoric casino of the unconscious, but the trajectory has been exciting and suggestive, the apparatus both sensual and scary.

There isn't much painting on view at the Biennale, by either men or women, but two women artists provide memorable contributions in that medium: Marlene Dumas and Jelena Tomasevic. In the Italian pavilion, Dumas's stark, thinly painted oils of the heads of dead women--seen close up, mouths gaping, eyes shut, either in profile or slightly turned as though on a mortuary slab--are both elegant and appalling. Identified by first names only, they are true portraits, the features distinctive, the brushwork as ephemeral as life itself. Though the context is never specified, the paintings speak of troubled times and places.

Tomasevic's little figurative pieces--hardly "paintings" in the strict sense of the word--combine acrylic and Sellotape on canvas. Widely spaced, they punctuate brushily textured dark gray walls in staggered rows to form a wraparound installation. Tomasevic's room is one component of the Serbia and Montenegro pavilion, in which two other artists contribute as well; the overall presentation is titled "The Eros of Slight Offence." Tomasevic's images are, indeed, as stated in the catalogue by the commissioner of the pavilion, "of the order of 'modest trespasses' ... that penetrate unexpected places." These precisely drawn vignettes have something of the cartoon about them, although the humor is low-key, scarcely adumbrated. In one, a handsome, bearded older man, a famous intellectual, perhaps, is shown in half-length close-up with his head in the grip of a giant pair of pliers that draws blood; the handles of the pliers are bright yellow, the blood red; all else is black and white or grisaille. A young woman photographer, much more delicately sketched, snaps a picture in the background. In another image, a seductive female in a strapless dress lies on a couch under a large lamp hanging by a cord above her, while the right side of the image is blocked off by what seems to be a wall and pavement. It is difficult to describe the effect of these paintings, or to say how their memorable strangeness is achieved; yet they have remained in my head ever since I saw them.

Video and film are brilliantly and variously deployed by many women artists at the Biennale. Rist's ceiling installation in the dark interior of San Stae, swirling above viewers comfortably ensconced on mattresses on the floor, is a tour de force of restless, evocative visual sensuality, featuring the female body in endless dynamic permutations, a Sistine Ceiling for our times. Two beautiful young redheaded nudes are the featured players. At times we see a Marian figure, at others, a water-nymph, Persephone or Everywoman, merging with flowers and fruits in constant metamorphoses. As the scene shifts between close-up and distant views, the images break apart and scatter, then come together again in kaleidoscopic interpenetration. Woman's sex swims above our head, corporeal and incorporeal, dissolving into a film of abstract color. The ambitions piece both incorporates and denies the solid architecture of the vaulted ceiling on which it is projected; as such, it is extraordinarily disorienting. When I saw it, it brought on an attack of vertigo that remained with me for the rest of my stay in Venice.

Several other video and film pieces by women were equally memorable if less ambitious, one being the elegant installation by the Bangladeshi-born Londoner, Runa Islam, Be the First to See What You See as You See It, a 16mm film with sound. Strategically placed in the middle of the Corderie, the first of the three Arsenale structures, the film is anti-narrative in the extreme, featuring a young woman and a quantity of fragile china, a piece of which, in one tense sequence, slips--or is pushed--off a table with agonizing slowness as the observer watches with mounting suspense. The mutations of esthetic creation and willed destruction are played out before our eyes as the fragile vessel--doomed from the start--crashes from its linen-draped support, so reminiscent of the Cezanne table in The Black Clock, to ultimate oblivion on the floor. The role of the artist herself is ambiguous: destroyer (of the vessels), creator (of the film that records the process) or a bit of both.

On the other hand, in the Italian pavilion, there is the overtly narrative DVD installation for four projectors called The Hour of Prayer, a 15-minute piece by Eija-Liisa Ahtila subtitled "A Short-Story from the Year 2004." It movingly relates a major incident in the artist's recent life, the injury and ultimate death of her dog, and Ahtila's subsequent flight to an artist's colony in Benin. The contrast between the snowy landscape of Finland, where the dog broke his leg, and the heat-stricken terrain of Benin is part of the story, brought to a climax in the howls of the African dogs that line up before the tropical village church in a kind of ceremony of canine prayer for their departed brother. The piece is kept from the sentimentality inherent in the subject--the death of a loved animal--by its objectivity of tone, by the stark visual contrasts of the filmic material and by the dreamlike juxtaposition of inner vision with details of external reality.

A different kind of story--political rather than personal--is powerfully presented in Galindo's video record of two performance pieces indirectly indicting the violence toward women in the artist's native Guatemala. More generally, the works extend their implications to encompass the female body as a vehicle of expression. (Galindo won the Biennale's prize for a younger artist.) What is at stake in Piel/Skin, a performance of 2001, is the female body--the artist's--naked in the modern city. It is important that Galindo's unclad walk takes place in an urban setting--in this case, Venice, during an earlier biennale. The performance denies the time-honored connection of the female nude with nature. By contrast, there is nothing either seductive or "natural" about the body on view in this film. The artist prepares for her ordeal by systematically shaving off all the hair from her head and body, in a gesture of total divestment. She makes her performance into an act of willed vulnerability, rendered even more poignant by the white bikini marks that link her firmly to contemporary reality. She strides alone through the brick-lined streets of the city, where nature, if it intrudes at all, is held firmly in place by a park fence guarding a monument, an ironic reminder of the natural world in the form of withered grass and seedy foliage around the base of an ill-kept statue. In another piece, Who Can Remove the Footprints? (2003), the artist, dressed in black, the color of mourning, bathes her bare feet in a basin of blood and walks through Ciudad de Guatemala, leaving a path of red footprints in her wake.

The political--in this case, feminist politics--may also be dealt with more lightheartedly in performance and its record, as it is by the Spanish performance and video artist, Pilar Albarracin. Her two videos in the Arsenale counteract the "siege of sterereotypes" besetting the contemporary Spanish woman. In previous performances, Albarracin has hilariously deconstructed the passionate flamenco singer, the flamenco dancer, the devoted cook and housewife. In one of the videos in the present exhibition, titled Viva Espana, Albarracin, strikingly dressed as the very modern and self-determined Spanish woman she is, strides through the streets of Madrid, trying to get rid of a group of musicians playing the traditional paso doble, Que viva Espana; she is literally attempting to shake off the imprisoning weight of the mythic past. In I Will Dance on Your Grave, two pairs of feet, one shod in the traditional strapped red shoes of the Spanish dancer, the other in the heeled black boots of her male partner, duke it out for dominance on a stony floor. The issue here is not the footwork of passion but its underlying violence.

In a similar vein, but in a very different formal configuration, Candice Breitz tears apart the Hollywood construction of the family in two six-screen installations. Both Mother and Father use footage lifted from recent films with recognizable stars to pillory the cliches of parentood: the serf-sacrificing mother, the over-protective father. But by taking these figures out of their blockbuster context and reconfiguring them within a reductive and obsessively repetitive framework, Breitz renders increasingly suspect the emotion, the moralism, and the entire meaning of the performers' phrases and gestures. We come to focus on the actors and their pronouncements as pure performance, devoid of any relationship to the purported human value their media presence is selling to the public.

Obviously, it is impossible to discuss in detail all the work by women in the 2005 Venice Biennale. Nevertheless, it is clear what a formidable presence women have in this important show. Of course, this presence extends to the many women acting as curators and commissioners for the national pavilions, and the many women writing for the individual artists in the catalogue.

Criticism? Maybe a little more sex and silliness would have been a welcome addition, adding a bit of spice to the mix. I am thinking particularly of the Russian (male) Blue Noses group, whose sidesplitting little video boxes in the Arsenale provided welcome comic relief, sending up in a matter of seconds the macho pursuit of the female body-beautiful. And where are the women artists from mainland China? But these are minor cavils in the face of the impressive achievements of women artists from all over the world, working in every medium and in a multiplicity of styles and expressive contexts. One hopes that this year's Biennale will provide a salutary example for future international exhibitions, both in Venice and elsewhere.
I would like to thank my research assistant, Lindsay Harris, for providing valuable background material about women artists and the Venice Biennale.

Linda Nochlin is the Lila Acheson Wallace Professor of Modern Art at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts. She is co-curating (with Maura Reilly) an exhibition of contemporary women artists to open at the Brooklyn Museum in 2007.

Art in America; 9/1/2005; Nochlin, Linda

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