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Pushing boundaries at Venice Biennale

Roderick Conway Morris, International Herald Tribune

VENICE At the German pavilion, hired extras shut the door behind visitors as they enter and caper around singing "This is so contemporary!" while others close in to engage us in one-to-one discussions on such issues as "the market economy." In a specially constructed, windowless pavilion standing on the docks of the Arsenale, we find ourselves on a dance floor with ghostly projected images twirling and pirouetting around us.

The Austrian pavilion has been transformed into a kind of artificial mountain with a complex web of wooden beams and staircases within. In the Egyptian pavilion a full-size wooden boat, supported high above a patch of sand, provides the ideal backdrop to an as-yet-unwritten production titled "The Ship of the Desert." Music, bird song, dog barks and a host of other sounds emit from hidden speakers as we move from space to space. There are screens endlessly repeating DVDs and videos at every turn.

Since its inception in 1895, Venice's Biennale has expanded beyond the visual arts into other areas, with separate annual and biennial festivals, exhibitions and programs to celebrate film, architecture, music, theater and dance. But meanwhile, at the visual arts event, the distinctions between the disciplines have progressively been broken down.

This year there is a record number of participating countries Ц more than 70 Ц and, unusually, the curators of the international exhibitions are both women, María de Corral and Rosa Martínez, both from Spain.

In the first room of Martínez's "Always a Little Further" show at the Arsenale, there is a display of large spoof hoardings by the Guerrilla Girls, an anonymous cooperative "formed in 1985 to condemn the art world for the pathetically low numbers of women and artists of color then exhibiting in galleries and museums."

Whether under the influence of the Guerrilla Girls or not, with the exception of the prize for an artist in the international exhibitions, awarded to the German sculptor Thomas Schütte for his work in María de Corral's "The Experience of Art" at the Italia pavilion, the prize judges distributed all their major awards to women: Barbara Kruger received a lifetime achievement Golden Lion; Annette Messager won the prize for best national pavilion, for France; and Regina José Galindo, exhibiting at the Arsenale, was named best young artist for her gory film of a "hymen replacement" operation (a procedure carried out in many countries where virginity is a must for marriage), and a film record of her ritually shaving and flagellating herself, dipping her feet in a bowl of blood and leaving footprints in the street to protest the violence against women in her native Guatemala.

Outstanding at the national pavilions is the Japanese Ishiuchi Miyako's "mother's 2000-2005: traces of the future." Ishiuchi's mother was a strong-willed woman, and her relationship with her daughter, now recognized as one of Japan's most distinguished photographers, was difficult. When her mother died at 84, the artist was surprised by the violence of her reaction.

"Somebody who had always been there was suddenly gone and, confronted by the reality of that loss, helplessness and regret surged over me with unimaginable grief," she writes. "Objects that my mother had used in her daily life were suddenly rendered useless. Her old undergarments, which had lost the only value they had, seemed to me to be almost pieces of her skin. Thus, just like her body, when they were no longer of any use, I thought I should burn them or put them in the trash, but I found myself unable to perform this simple act. Feeling that it would be easier to dispose of them if I photographed them first, I began to do so."

Out of her grief, Ishiuchi has created a record of a profoundly personal response to an experience with universal resonance, sensitive but unsentimental, suggestive not only of one family's history but of the changing lot of women in 20th-century Japan.

The Australian Ricky Swallow pulled off a coup by getting the actress Cate Blanchett to open his show, "This Time, Another Year," at their national pavilion. His meticulously carved objects in wood are inspired by Dutch still-life painting and the 16th-17th-century English master of decorative carving, Grinling Gibbons. Swallow's work dwells on the passage of time, the transience of existence, the memento mori. A skeleton sits on a chair clasping a staff, a skull lies sunken in a beanbag, snakes slither through the vents of an upturned cyclist's helmet lying of the ground, hinting at the death of its owner.

There is also a memento mori element in the close-ups of faces Ц in sleep or in death, we cannot be sure Ц in the powerful paintings of Marlene Dumas, who appears in Corral's selection at the Italia pavilion, one of the few figurative artists featured here. Of Afrikaner stock, Dumas was born in the Cape region 50 years ago, but she went to Amsterdam to continue her studies and has been based there since. At first she experimented with collages and pictures using text, but she was inexorably drawn back to painting. Her ideas come from a range of sources, including images in the news and movies, and she cites artistic inspirations as varied as Manet, Millais, Picasso and de Kooning. But she has forged a distinctive, economical and arresting style of her own, achieving striking effects with virtually monochrome colors and decisive brush strokes.

There is a high quotient of DVD/video pieces in the Italia pavilion. For those willing to persist, the Finnish Eija-Liisa Ahtila's "The Hour of Prayer" was more rewarding than most. Played on a continuous screen divided in four parts, sometimes showing multiple scenes, sometimes a seamless panorama, it is an oddball self-professed small story of the sadness and disorientation caused by the loss of a beloved pet dog. It ends with a haunting, original, unaccompanied, bluesy solo.

Unaccompanied voices are starkly presented in the Colombian Juan Manuel Echavarría's video sequence at the Latin-American pavilion at Palazzo Cavalli Franchetti. These moving songs, composed by the Afro-Colombian singers themselves, relate incidents of oppression, false accusation, murder and massacre, and through the channel of these video recordings, a living art form is able to reach an audience unimagined and unimaginable to its creators.

Ironically, given the anarchic content of their work, the Russian Blue Noses, at the Arsenale, have found a very orderly solution to the eternal problem of showing film material at art shows to large numbers of visitors without making them line up or crowd into dark, airless viewing spaces. The Russian installation consists of a circle of open-topped cardboard packing cases, out of which come strange, munchkinlike noises. On peering inside, we witness the Blue Noses in miniature, in their trademark undershorts and socks, indulging in daft repetitive acts Ц rolling around on the floor, being trampled on and frolicking with nude women.

But for minimalist postmodern theater of the absurd, the palm should surely go to Daniel Knorr in the Romanian pavilion. He has left the national pavilion entirely empty. The fire exit door stands open, leading to a tree-lined street behind the building in the residential neighborhood of Sant'Elena. Through the door we see passing women with bags of groceries, mothers pushing baby carriages, old men with sticks. Can these, too, be hired extras performing for our benefit?

These passers-by intermittently notice the open door and try to enter, keeping the charming Romanian pavilion attendant occupied, explaining to them that if they want to come in, they will have to go to the main entrance and buy a ticket. Brave new world of revolutionary, all-inclusive conceptual art? Market forces being what they are, not here, not yet, anyway.

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