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Art in the Present Tense: Robert Storr and Hou Hanru's Dialogues of Difference

 By Wenny Teo
This year, ushering you past the crumbling palaces along the Grand Canal towards the Giardini, the main site of the 52nd Venice Biennial, are a smattering of large pink plastic crocodiles, attached to a number of the splendid facades of that historical buildings flanking Venice's main artery of turbid green water. Every two years, as a sort of ritualised cultural pilgrimage, collectors, museum professionals, gallerists and art aficionados alike populate the watery city, traversing its uncountable bridges and meandering through its labyrinthine passageways to view the world's oldest and arguably the most important display of international contemporary art.
The incongruous juxtaposition of large pink reptiles scaling the moribund beauty of Venetian architecture is typical of the atmosphere of the Biennial, that lends to the unique topography of a city so steeped in tradition an element of spontaneity, a ferment of artistic innovation and aesthetic breakthroughs, the shock of the new amidst the charm of the old. Robert Storr is the first American curator ever appointed in the history of the Biennial, a former curator at the Museum of Modern Art and currently the dean of the Yale Art School. The main exhibition is split between the imposing fascist-styled Italian Pavilion (no longer used by the host nation) in the leafy Giardini where 30 fixed National pavilions are also held, and the cavernous space of the Arsenale, the former shipyard. Entitled 'Think with the Senses, Feel with the Mind – Art in the Present Tense', Storr's curatorial stance is at once sober and coherent, and the anti-Cartesian implications of the title of Storr's exhibition is reflective of the nature of the works selected. However the humorous crocodiles that lead the visitor towards the exhibition, whether chosen intentionally or not, belie a pressing element of threat, the sense of global socio-political uncertainty and meditations on the nature of life and death, that makes the exhibition textually dense and weighted with a latent sense of danger despite its setting in the Serene Republic. This is the art of uncertain times, and according to Storr, the present is indeed , tense.
Upon entering the cool atrium of the Italian Pavilion where part of Storr's exhibition is held, the visitor is immediately stranded in a sea of Sigmar Polke's large-scale paintings. The surfaces of these works are complex, multi-textural, dark and suggestive of untold depths within the contemplative abstraction. The work is almost alchemical, comprised of delicate layers of fabric and paint characteristic of Polke's innovative blending of chemicals, materials and light. It hints at the terror of the sublime and the infinite, at once suggestive of the meditative and perceptual experience of the works in this section of Storr's exhibition. Further along, imposing paintings by Ellsworth Kelly, Gerhard Richter and Robert Ryman contribute to the enigmatic and subtle sensation of disquiet, the space of the pavilion itself becoming a locus of subtle tone and gradiations, a sensory experience. At first, this mystifying and almost nostalgic return to large-scale abstraction lulls the visitor into a formal appreciation of these works. One notes the composition, line and plane, the colour-field hypnotism of Kelly and the sparse richness of Richter. There is nothing risqué here, contemplative rather than dynamic, the works pulse with a quiet, but equally disquieting restrain.
As one walks through the exhibition however, there is an ensuing sense of gravity that is almost bleak, and a precursor to the more overt sense of tension that fills the space of the Arsenale. Included as an echo to the national pavilions, Storr has included the artist Sophie Calle, who is also representing France and is one of the most interesting artists at this year's Biennial. In a rather intense work, Calle presents a somewhat overtly intimate elegy to her dead mother, whom Calle found out would die on the same day she received the invitation to participate in the Venice Biennial. In what must be the most moving and disturbing work in the exhibition, Calle presents a video of her mother's last moments of life. Calle's sobering piece encapsulates a thematic focus of the exhibition as a whole, a memento mori that traverses the boundaries of the intensely personal and the universal, an exploration of these complex dialogues through the dark prism of death. Another female artist, the accomplished Jenny Holzer, kept to her modus operandi of using words to create a tapestry of different syntaxes, this time presenting silk screen prints of declassified military documents on the Iraq war and the infamous Guantanamo Bay. Documentary-styled, textually intense and politically motivated works would form the bulk of the works in the Arsenale this year, and Holzer's work in the Italian Pavilion succinctly ties into this. Storr's choice of sober pieces for the latter pavilion, with an attentiveness to the formal and as some critics called it, 'funerary', is in keeping with Storr's dictum that to '"make sense" of things in a given moment or circumstance is to grasp their full complexity intellectually, emotionally and perceptually'. The truth of that imperative is tested in the space of the Arsenale, where 'Think with the Senses, Feel with the Mind' continues.
The space of the Arsenale is typically reserved for engaging and fresh works by relatively new artists from all over the world, a tendency that often leads to a somewhat chaotic agglomeration of stylistic diversity. This year however, Storr's display has a firm curatorial coherence, and again taps into themes that centre on the anxieties of our age. As he stated, 'no attempt has been made (…) to be programmatically "representative," either in terms of styles, mediums, generations, nations or cultures. Instead certain qualities and concerns widely found in contemporary art have been used as magnetic poles for gathering work from all seven continents, in all media, in various styles and of all generations now active.' According to Storr it would appear that these 'qualities and concerns' have a distinctly political current in the Arsenale, giving the first impression that the exhibition plays too heavily on discourses of power. Oppression, war, destruction and loss are dispersed with an even hand across the seemingly endless exhibition, a barrage on our sensibilities and a challenge to our preconceived notions of the central and marginal, and for the first time, the African Pavilion, featuring an impressive lineup of artists from the continent was held in the main space of the Arsenale. The attempt to unite the intellectual and the intuitive through chilling reminders of how much of the world is caught in an ambit of political unrest may seem overly rhetorical at first, with much of the work comprised of war torn landscapes, wordy narratives and politically motivated statements, documents of death tolls and finely wrought portraits of killed soldiers. In a video work by Paolo Canevari, a young boy kicks a football in a derelict former army base in Serbia, and as the video progresses it becomes painfully obvious to the viewer that what he is kicking is in fact the cast of a human skull. Though a majority of the works similarly succeed in instilling in the viewer a visceral sense of unease, an excess of information and emphasis on the numerical statistics of war becomes somewhat taxing, and there is an effect of de-sensitization as the viewer progresses through the exhibition. There is a parallel between this and the general apathy of the citizens of developed nations, so used to media reports of war and carnage in far off places. However, there is some reprieve to be found amidst these reminders of war and suffering. The addition of newer artists such as the Ghanaian-born El-Anatsui, whose ornate tapestry of bottle-caps, flattened tin cans and other such quotidian materials adds a dimension of colour and decorative intensity to the textually-dense presentation of some of the more obviously political works. Yang Fudong's subtle video series Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest occupies centrally placed viewing rooms in the centre of seven of the halls. The reflective mood of these videos is an echo of the contemplative tones of the classical Chinese tradition, and each of the videos is structured around the narratives of individuality, liberty and the re-imagining of history in an ever changing present.
The artist Yang Zhenzhong's work 'People of Different Ages and Status Make the Statement 'I Will Die' succinctly encapsulates one of the interconnecting thematics of Storr's exhibition, the negotiation of the delicate spaces between the personal and universal. Death is not an end point, but a unifying factor of human existence. Furthermore, the knowledge of the inevitability of death is offset by the direct appeal to the emotive and sensory. Death becomes the trope of the exhibition; a factor that ties it together, though Storr carefully avoids over-sentimentality. As Storr phrases it, 'really great art makes you think, makes you use your senses, makes you feel. I am trying to present this on a variety of registers, revealing the interpenetration of the intellect and intuition'. Yang Zhenzhong's video is stripped of pretence, with an unpolished and frank presentation typical to his aesthetic. The work consists of men and women from ten different locations, each looking into the camera and saying 'I will die' in their own languages. Though the work at first appears na?ve, it is precisely this element of na?veté that adds to its significance. Almost all the people in the video laugh or appear amused, self-conscious, imbuing the video with a sense of lightness and humour despite the gravity of the statement made. It is an endearing work that appeals to the viewer, granting a rare glimpse of the spectrum of humanity, at once light-hearted and tragic.  
It is through works like these that the viewer is made aware that Storr's curatorial vision is far from narrow, and not entirely apocalyptical. Part of Storr's project, to present an intermingling of the intellect and the sensory, is not only to challenge established systems of power, but to attempt to relocate the marginal and periphery, altering our precepts of centricity and alerting us to a wider sense of commonality. The more sinister and foreboding renderings of war and death are offset by the factuality of the way in which these works are presented to the viewer. As Storr phrased it, 'I wasn't trying to deliver a message, but like Bruce Nauman, I wanted to say, 'Please Pay Attention Please.''
Storr gives voice to notions of alterity through an emphasis on the socio-political, an attempt to move towards the dissolution of Cartesian divisions and the Manichean delirium of putative comparisons. Hou Hanru, another well-established curator and the commissioner of the Chinese pavilion this year, used a different approach towards these ideals. The two eminent curators have entered into a dialogue concerning the direction of international contemporary art and the relevance of alternate models and systems of thinking and feeling when confronted with discourses of difference, with the increasing proliferation of biennials and art fairs, and the increasing mobility and aesthetic confluences of a globalised world.
Hou, in an interview featuring a discussion between himself and Storr, also deals with the question of 'how modernity has been reinvented throughout history in different parts of the world and how this, in turn, provides an opportunity to think about a world that is dynamic, contemporary, modern and open, not based on a single dominant organisational or interpretive model'. For this reason perhaps, Hou turned to a very simple strategy to subvert these models of dominance and centricities of power by choosing four female artists for the Chinese pavilion this year. Though the feminist imperative has risen to significant levels of importance in artistic practice and criticism in the West, with France, the UK and Germany all choosing female artists to represent their countries in this years Biennial, the relevance of the selection of four women artists to represent China cannot be underestimated nor easily overlooked. China has traditionally been a patriarchal, male-centric country, dominated by masculine discourses, from its cultural idioms to its political figures, and as Hou phrased it, China's modernisation process has been founded on a 'masculine vision of the world: rational, linear, speedy, vertical, progressive, efficient and utopian'. Picking up on the theme of Storr's exhibition, Hou chooses to emphasise the intermingling of the intellectual and sensory though a premising of the feminine, while at the same time challenging the stereotypes of femininity: the irrational, the sensate, the emotive and delicate, through a selection of women artists who play against these tropes as much as they play up to them.
All four artists appear to be concerned with the fabric of everyday life, towards transfiguring the quotidian into the marvellous, an ideal reflected in the title of the exhibition Everyday Miracles. The exhibition is divided between the Cisterne building with its staunch line-up of disused and rusted petrol tanks (onto which the artist Xu Zhen, in the last biennial projected images directly onto), and the Vergine gardens. Yin Xiuzhen's installation simply entitled 'Arsenale' makes use of the unique spatial configuration and architecture of the Cisterne building in a distinctive but unobtrusive way. The artist suspended hundreds of what she calles 'TV tower weapons' from the ceiling of the warehouse, horizontal, pointed and intricate sculptures of colourful textile, plates and knives. Their sharp-looking tips face the same direction, like arrows caught in mid-flight hurtling towards an unseen target. The work is not only the most aesthetically pleasing of the 4 artists selected but also the most symbolically dense. It recollects and echoes the threatening atmosphere of the Arsenale exhibition, but on a different register. It is suggestive of the more sinister elements of urbanisation, such as media manipulation, and surveillence, the by-products of modern society and its systems of control. At the same time, the use of domestic materials, the lush intricacy of traditional fabrics and objects, provides a sharp contrast to the violent image of artillery suggested by the installation. The phallic and aggressive is offset by the feminine and decorative, the artist thereby reclaims and rewrites the symbolic value of these elements, reshaping the language of power.
Kan Xuan's video works, installed between the petrol tanks on small monitors is a pastiche of the artists' varied experiments and explorations into the medium. Her work has always been idiosyncratic and complex, but relies on a relatively simple artistic sensibility to carry across different tonalities of meaning and intent. Kan Xuan – Ai! for example, shows a woman running down a crowded tunnel, shouting after the artist. The video is on an endless loop, the woman never quite managing to catch up with the artist who is never shown on camera, the urgency in the woman's voice and the echo of her footsteps as she runs through the tunnel adds a dimension of tension and suspense to the video, as if she were the harbinger of bad news, the camera follows her with a desperation that is filled with anxiety. Kan Xuan's other video series deals with a different theme. Using religious iconography, including images of the Buddha, Kan Xuan's video series Or Everything is more meditative and minimal, the black and white images are continually distorted, the faces ripple and pulse in a lifelike manner. These images of peace and piety are rendered somewhat sinister, suddenly sensate and hypnotic. Hou has avoided exhibiting Kan Xuan's more overtly gendered works, eschewing overt tones of the feminine for more subtle and questioning explorations of identity and subjectivity.
In the Vergine gardens however, the two works installed onto the grass appear somewhat clumsy. ShenYuan's installation Le Premiere Voyage consists of a large milk bottle and pacifier, in which documentary styled videos of Chinese children adopted by Westerners are played. Shen Yuan's intention was to document the processes of migration and cultural displacement, through chronicling the initiation of these children into a foreign landscape. The heavy-handed symbolism of the installation in relation to the video comes across instead as trite, distracting from the content. The awkwardness of these oversized objects can perhaps be read as a reflection of the uncomfortable processes of cultural assimilation and the disjuncture of geographic relocation, but the lack of symbolic subtly significantly clouds its effect and affect on the viewer.
Cao Fei, the youngest of the four artists, frequently chooses to explore the radical youth culture of her urban generation. Rarely looking back into the past, her work forages into the future with an unabashed and distinctive aesthetic, synthesizing the energy and dynamism of change and progress with the virtual world of multimedia and cyber culture. Her intention was to offer a 'truly collaborative, immersive and open-ended entertainment experience, where together people create and inhabit a virtual world of their own design'. Taking the form of a large inflated white tent, viewers are invited to enter into the space and sit among large cushions, watching various projected images and to play the popular game 'Second Life'. While the idea behind the installation is an interesting one, the presentation and lack of aesthetic complexity was disappointing, coming from an artist whose work usually encapsulates the youthful energy and innovativeness of her generation.
However, Hou's curatorial vision of a premising discussion of alterity, difference, cultural dislocation and migration through feminine discourses cannot be judged too harshly. The four artists have each previously shown remarkable works that deal with female subjectivity in more overt tones, with an interest in the bodily, marginal, sexual and abject featuring in their diverse oeuvres. Hou's selection of works is more subtle and nuanced, rather than playing up to stereotypes of woman's art, the works are succinct examples of the candour and complexity of Chinese contemporary art in their own right. In contrast to Storr's sober exhibition and curatorial program, an expose of geopolitical systems of dominance through the appeal to the mind and senses, Hou's national pavilion is lighter, taking a more candid approach to notions of difference in the global society, a platform for dialogic exchange and exploration. Though the challenge faced by the two curators was vastly different, both sought to give voice to discourses of diversity, going against the grain of what is conventionally expected of curating international, large scale exhibitions and national pavilions, developing new critical methodologies of thinking and sensing the art of today's globalised world.