History Lessons No 10: A Great 'Bringing Together'

There’s no news like old news… Except new news. When the Venice Biennale of 1974 was cancelled, Arts Review‘s critic was glad to be rid of its displays of ‘boring nationalism’; when it returned in 1976 he was just as glad it was back. And thanks to a certain Germano Celant it was tackling themes such as the environment and participation to boot.

There can surely be no doubt that the art world – indeed the world itself – needs one great bringing-together of contemporary art, every year or two.

The practical questions are two: how to make sure that the art most valuable to mankind is created; and how to make sure that it is shown. This isn’t the place or time to deal with the first question, but the second resolves itself into a matter of committees and places. Since 1895, the Venice Biennale had been that place. But by 1972, the same boring nationalism that ruined the United Nations and the Olympics, and the same boring money-seeking, power-seeking, and mental snobbery that raises false artistic reputations, had calcined and polluted the Biennale as it had Venice itself. No better international fair-ground than Venice had ever been devised; but had its system of sponsorship and funding via permanent national pavilions, doomed it to give up its crown to the flexible overnight caravanserai of temporary structures and neutral spaces; at Kassel, or Paris, or anywhere at all?

The 1974 Biennale was cancelled, and our British choice, Hockney, had his spectacular in Paris instead. It looked like the end for Venice; but serious committees fought out a reprieve. Renamed the Biennale of Visual Art and Architecture, it has emerged re-invigorated and multifarious; if still rather shaky on selection and discrimination.

Appropriately, to Venice and the world, urbi et orbi, a theme, ‘Environment’ with a sub-theme, ‘Participation’ (Ambiente e partecipazione) was chosen. ‘Cultural structures’ also was added to this. This, the various nations have interpreted, or dodged, in a number of ways, in their presentations of individuals or groups; but the range of activities is sociologically valid.

In addition to this, Germano Celant selected an ‘Ambiente’ show, in a series of rooms, demonstrating how artists from Puni, Tatlin, Kandinsky and Mondrian to Beuys and Warhol have designed total domestic environments. Across the lagoon, in the ex-Cantieri naval dockyard of the Giudecca, a hospital-corridor shaped plan gives individual cell-space to 86 artists; this ensures – or should ensure – that no contemporary worth looking at, is missed out because of national or theme shows. In practice, it’s a pretty mixed bag, but at least there are some new faces worth meeting; and it proves that any artist worth a public showing can still be given a traditional 10 by 15 metre roomspace, and create in it an atmosphere uniquely himself.

The other big theme-show in the main Giardini pavilion is a show of the whole artistic history, against the social and political background, of Spain from 1936 to 1976. This follows three threads: a re-creation of the Spanish Republican pavilion at the Paris Exhibition of 1936, for which Picasso painted Guernica; the historical story, set out on wooden fencing with photo and word; and around it all, Spanish art of the period is generously set out; though alas, the Picassos are inferior late works except for a couple of paintings.

Twenty-five architects – including James Stirling – are shown at the Zattere; Italian architecture during the Fascist regime, at San Lorenzo ex-church. Five graphic designers – Glaser, Davis, Hess, Cieslewicz, Yokoo – are on show at the Museo Correr; Ettore Sottsass has a show there too. The Deutsche Werkbund is shown at the Museum of Modern Art at Ca’ Pesaro; glass design at San Giorgio; Man Ray photographs at San Giorgio too.

The Spanish theme is followed with a war photo show; and the past 40 years of Spanish theatre, music, cinema, poetry and general culture surveyed. From 24 August to 5 September the cinema and television events take place at the Lido. Music arrives on 1 September; Peter Brook’s ‘IK’ theatre company has just passed through. And a permanent archive of modern art has been opened at the Ca’ Corner della Regina. Full documentation of the visual arts and architecture (on show until 10 October) is in the excellent two- volume catalogue, which retails in Venice at 10,000 lire (around £7); though of course the illustrations of installations are of those prior to the show.

The most favourable critical response has been gained by Kishin Shinoyama’s series of ravishing large colour-photos in the Japanese pavilion, a serious investigation of the oriental house as living environment. Beuys’ ad hoc work in the German pavilion, where the peeling walls of four years’ neglect surround a hole through to the water, human bones from the hole, rubble, a monument remembered, and a tram-line from childhood, was praised. Richard Long’s rectangular spiral of pink marble stones set in three lines and passing through doorways and rooms of the British pavilion has had a mixed response. Dani Karavan’s moving environmental architecture is hinted at by his display in the Israeli pavilion. Romania has a tribute to Brancusi’s park sculpture, by younger sculptors.

Of the ‘International Events ’72-’76’ artists at the Cantieri (who include John Davies and Philip Hyde from Britain), the acrid fable-lecture by Dennis Oppenheim, Darcy Lange’s classroom actualities, Charles Simonds and Giancarlo Croce have been well received. But for me, it was two of the Spanish artists who spoke to the heart, of real art and universal: Arroyo, and the young Francesc Torres, asking, in his installations, the great questions of life once again. The Biennale has regained its international status, and one looks forward to its future development with the greatest eagerness.

First published in Arts Review, Vol XXVIII 1976, no. 16, 6 August 1976

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