Art After Modernism-Fall Semester 2013

Biennale Dismay and a Note On Apartment Art

      This week’s readings were definitely eye openers for me. To write about every issue covered would take a month of Sundays to address. It’s strange how in the past I’ve tried to find out about some of these issues and must have searched Google erroneously because I gave up my searches after a while. But this week’s readings have opened up all of that. It pays to be able to begin researching after having a better start at it than zero like before. I found so many supporting articles my head was spinning. I am grateful.

Julian Stallabrass’ explanation about biennials and the other global art venues I read about gave explanations to what I have only felt in my gut and could barely articulate.  The last time I attended a biennale was back in 2002. I was involved in the film side of things, but I went to the Giardini on a day off to look at the architectural concepts. At that time, I was overwhelmed by the magnitude of creative brilliance and paid only cursory attention to the art that was placed outside for public view along the main travelling route. Having little free time to enjoy anything was an issue then. Today, I find myself wondering how I would have responded if the Giardini exhibitions were focused on art that year instead of architecture. I might have come away with a stronger viewpoint on all I witnessed.

Nevertheless, I did come away with thoughts about how the pavilions were staunchly nation oriented, not necessarily displaying as I had hoped the larger-than-one-country important global concerns of that time. Some countries presented slight global branching, albeit from an interior eye, so to speak.  They are specific nation’s pavilions, after all. Our own United States pavilion featured design proposals for the new World Trade Center accompanied by photographs of Ground Zero taken by Joel Meyerowitz. The display felt slight as compared to the real issues of loss of life, terrorism, and war. Outside the pavilion was a large twisted heap of metal from one of the Twin Towers. I recall thinking it must have cost our country a fortune to ship it there. Having close ties to 9/11, the whole of our country’s representation in that international intellectual venue hit me hard.

I thought it was such a superficial portrayal of the actual horrors and real fear experienced in Manhattan, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, indeed in the whole of the United States, not to mention for the innocent peoples of Afghanistan and Iraq. Right there with me in Italy I relived my own experiences of confusion and concern for dear friends and colleagues while being riveted to the news. I thought about all of the phone calls and e-mails to try to reach them—waiting, waiting, waiting—finally hearing their tearful stories. I remembered eerie experiences of being in NYC in the weeks after 9/11. All of the suffering of the bereaved, the subsequent loss of jobs might have been represented in some way. What I got instead was a chunk of metal on view outside our United States pavilion that was far smaller than any one piece I witnessed being hauled away from Ground Zero—no ash, no flyers with faces of missing loved ones, no strange scent in the air of something hard to define but that made one’s spine feel like a Rhodesian Ridgeback’s, nothing that elicited the strange silence that had been NYC streets. I wanted more as a justification for my country’s representation even if it was the year for architecture. I told myself that if it had been the year for art to be represented at the biennale instead of architecture, I would most likely be viewing a more humanistic exhibition that could stand many breaths away from the United States government’s self-consumed ideas about supremacy and clout that, to me, were what was billed under the guise of rebuilding hope for our future. If I had still carried with me the printed out e-mail I had received from my mother (right or wrong in its suggestion), I would have stuck it up inside our pavilion with the chewing gum from my mouth because in just a few words of concern it felt more passionate:

                                      Sent: Tuesday, September 11, 2001 7:43 PM

                                      Subject: Where are you?

                                     > — REBEKAH>

                                     > wrote:

                                     > > Stephanie, In view of today’s acts of war aganist

                                     > > our country, I very much need to know exactly where

                                     > > you are.  Mother

In the end I felt ripped off by my own country.

It was odd, too, that I was at the biennale not as a representative of my country, but for Canada.  All of us were invited to a lavish luncheon at a posh restaurant hosted by the Canadian Embassy to Italy…paid for by Canadian tax dollars. It was a very uncomfortable experience. To make matters worse, I attended another event (paid for by Canadian tax dollars) that took place in a contessa’s home (rented for the evening) with beverages and food served by her personal staff. From the tall elegant windows, drinks in hand, we looked across the narrow canal into the Guggenheim’s darkened windows and spoke about “Peggy’s collection”.  People in tuxes and gowns surrounded me. My faux pas was that I didn’t understand it was a “glowing” event meant for clothing other than the jeans and retro 70’s polyester jacket that I wore. As it stood after receiving many sideways glances, my attire finally went unnoticed when the veiled wife of a Canadian architect who had immigrated to Toronto from the Middle East burst in past one of the contessa’s staff (she had not been invited?!) to find him snuggling with one of his students who was dressed in an expensive gown into which she (perhaps he in a fit of passion?) had cut slits in sexy places that were held together with gold colored safety pins. Oy! The man’s wife was whisked away after her “scene” as people called it and everything settled down to where it was “supposed” to be with a book signing by all of the architects, engineers, and artists who were involved in the Canadian pavilion exhibition, “…a free copy for each of you…”, and speeches…blah, blah, blah. Need I say that I left very soon feeling utterly dismayed with myself? My copy of the book sits out of reach on a high shelf collecting desert dust; its cover is no longer gleaming white.

My accounts are not meant to bash biennales, but to stress that for a very long time I have felt confused and off-kilter against my desires to eventually be a part of one again even in the small way in which I was before, and these thoughts are now further complicated in regard to what I have learned this week of what they have become (or perhaps were then, but did not know the whole of it).  Is it true, as Stallabrass pointed out by numerous examples, that what one wants to think of as a unique honor is really to take part in a watered down art world homogeny produced only upon Western values and desires? Have our truly international (and now transnational) art venues that are supposed to include artists who say something become yet another pulsing vein in the life force of the spectacle? There is no doubt that politics play a role in biennials, but even that seems softened with an eye toward the tastes and expectations of the majority, and worse a elitist, exclusionary, consumerist (?) majority.


      At first, I had no understanding of Julian Stallabrass’ mention of Apartment Art. It seemed that his explanation made no sense of that art as ephemeral when set against an ice wall filled with luxury consumer items that were dug out by the public to eventually destroy the wall. So, I dug deeper. I was surprised to find that barely any mention is made in our American Google search engine; one must attach the name of Gao Minglu to find anything of substance. I was surprised that I had never heard of apartment art until now. It appears to have been a very important response by Chinese artists to government control (legal restrictions on galleries and museums) and traditional museum patronage. “Acclaimed curator and founder of Apartment Art, Gao Minglu, says the movement was made up of ‘art that responded to the moment, the condition of making art in the early 1990s in China.’ What began with artists transforming their apartments and homes into private galleries to compensate for the lack of commercial gallery support, resulted in a full-blown underground art movement. In addition to restricted space, artists were limited to the materials readily available to them. What resulted was a ‘Dada-influenced movement’ that ‘relied on ready-made objects, performances and Zen Buddhism.’[1]

One conceptual Apartment Art artist, Song Dong, began in the late 1990s to perform a daily ritual of writing his dairy with water on a stone. While I have found no documentation to support my thoughts, I believe that his rise in the world of conceptual Chinese artists would not have taken place if there had never been a kind of relief offered up to some Chinese artists via the 1998 Beijing exhibition, Inside/Out: New Chinese Art.  He has exhibited at the Moma (NY), PS1 (NY), SFMoma (California), the Walker Art Museum (Minneapolis), Centre Pompidou (Paris), and in two biennials, Sao Paolo Biennale (2004), Istanbul Biennale (2003). The struggles and fortitude of artists outside of the ever more mainstream Westernized world is always inspiring whether or not their work is labeled as part of an homogenous new art world. Suddenly I find myself back where I started by questioning the biennial culture, selected curators and artists, associated politics and structure, and the oftentimes failed intentions of our Westernized art assemblies.

To me, the most interesting artists in the readings this week were mentioned in Pamela M. Lee’s introduction to her book, Forgetting the Art World. Overall, I agree with her approach of looking at the world’s art and issues of globalization through the lens of “the work of art’s world”. With her eye toward new and important art venues, curators, and artists who are making a difference in how we might view the art in our more globally connected world, I will keep her name as prominent for future reference. I am grateful to have learned about her scholarship. I hope that she will expand her investigations even further beyond the artists she wrote about in her book, which might in turn enable me a greater understanding beyond this vicious circle spinning around inside my head.


[1] Author Unknown. “Apartment Art”. ArtSpeak China, June 28, 2011.

Reading List:

  • Pamela H. Lee. Forgetting the Art World. Cambridge: MIT Press. 2012. Print.
  • Julian Stallabrass. “New World Order”. Contemporary Art: A Very Short History. New York: Oxford University Press.  2004. Pp. 19-49. Print.

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