Visual Arts


Italy's Venice Biennale is considered the oldest, largest and most important art party in the world--and Phoenix has just received its engraved invitation to attend.

The person who has bagged the invite for the Valley of the Sun is Marilyn Zeitlin, director of the Arizona State University Art Museum. Zeitlin has been named curator of "Buried Secrets," a series of five video and sound installations created by California artist Bill Viola, which the United States Information Agency, in conjunction with the National Endowment for the Arts, has chosen to represent the United States at next year's Venice Biennale. The honor will put Zeitlin, Arizona State University and the Valley on the international-art-world map. Celebrating its 100th birthday in 1995, the Venice Biennale is an international contemporary art exposition that hosts visual arts shows and ancillary events staged by 27 different countries from around the world. These countries have built and maintain their own national pavilions specifically for the biannual art extravaganza in the public gardens of this perpetually sinking city. While even the New York Times has contacted Zeitlin for information about her award, local media attention to ASU's involvement with the Venice Biennale has been underwhelming, considering the regional importance of the USIA's selection. I suppose attention to the arts has been deflected by more important matters, like the Suns losing in the NBA playoffs, a singular, heart-rending cultural event that magically transformed local news media into babbling boobs. Despite the embarrassing lack of recognition at home, Zeitlin remains graciously philosophical.

"I consider this a huge honor," she says. "This project will put Arizona on the map in a new way. I think what it says is that you don't have to be from Los Angeles, New York, Chicago or Houston to make it in the big time--that you can do good work anywhere."
There are other benefits attached to Zeitlin's accomplishment on behalf of the ASU Art Museum. After "Buried Secrets" is on display at the Venice Biennale from June through August, 1995, it will become a traveling exhibition, slated to open at ASU in September of 1995. From there, it will be at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, in time for the 1996 Chicago Art Fair. Viola's five-part installation will continue to tour, earning revenue for the museum at each venue. A major exhibition catalogue for the show is in the works, which will gradually reimburse the museum for some of the financial outlay required to mount the exhibition in Venice. "We have to raise a tremendous amount of money in order to be able to participate in the Biennale," Zeitlin says. "But if you give people in the art world the opportunity to have their names on something like this, they're very eager to see that happen." There's another benefit, too. "This will vastly elevate the museum's visibility," Zeitlin notes. And higher visibility spells potentially more money from funding sources, such as foundations and corporations, which means bigger and better shows for the public. Participating in the Biennale will also pave the way for the ASU Art Museum to obtain museum accreditation, something which it doesn't have. "It will also make it easier for us to borrow works of art for exhibition purposes because there will be the sense that this museum has the ability to pull off big things," adds Zeitlin.

And big things are what the venerable Venice Biennale itself has always specialized in. Classic modern masters such as Auguste Renoir, James Whistler, Gustav Klimt, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, Henry Moore and Diego Rivera have all participated in the now sacrosanct contemporary arts fete that has been called everything from the most prestigious to the most archaic of international art expositions. Newsweek art critic Peter Plagens once baldly characterized the Venice Biennale and its clones as ". . . overcrowded as swap meets and as internally combative as bodybuilder pageants," which is probably the reason for their ongoing allure. The history of the Venice Biennale is, in great part, the history of contemporary art itself. With all its Sturm und Drang, schmaltz and schmooze, its tale is as melodramatic as any overwrought Italian opera and as complicated as Italian politics itself.

A popular meeting place for artists at the turn of the century, Venice organized its first Biennale as a showcase for modern art in 1895 to honor the silver wedding anniversary of Italy's King Umberto I and his queen, Margherita. In 1807, valuable 14th- and 15th-century buildings had been razed in the eastern part of Venice by order of Napoleon Bonaparte. Over the bones of these monuments, the French conqueror had laid out public gardens. It was in these gardens that the first exhibition building for the Biennale was built, long since replaced by the more modern pavilions that have sprung up since 1907, when segments of the Giardini Pubblici were first sold to participating nations, which built extravagant exhibition pavilions at their own expense. (The Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice now owns and manages the U.S. pavilion, which is a neoclassical monstrosity designed to look like Monticello.) Controversy has always swirled around the Venice Biennale; even the very first one was tainted by a scandal involving a painting by Giacommo Grosso, in which wanton, naked women languished shamelessly around the flowery coffin of Don Giovanni. Cardinal Guiseppe Sarto, later Pope Pius X, wrote apoplectic epistles about the canvas to both festival organizers and his flock in a vain attempt to protect public morals, all to no avail. Grosso's painting became the hit of the Biennale, winning first prize by public vote (a practice that continued until 1968) and the festival's stamp of artistic excellence.

For the remainder of the 19th century, however, the Biennale mostly featured less incendiary subject matter, like historical pieces and traditional academic painting. Even Picasso himself was turned down for exhibition in the 1910 Biennale. (At that point, everyone else was turning him down, too.)

During the rule of Benito Mussolini, the Biennale disintegrated into a blunt instrument of cultural propaganda for Il Duce's fascist regime. Das Fhrer himself, Adolf Hitler, attended the 1934 festivities, this eerie event itself memorialized in an installation piece created by German artist Hans Haacke for the 1993 Biennale.

Following World War II, the Biennale made up for lost time, showing the work of a number of great artists banned during the war as "degenerate."

In 1964, American art dealers Leo Castelli and his wife, Ileana Sonnabend, were accused of wheeling and dealing their way through that year's Biennale, helping Robert Rauschenberg cop international grand prize for painting (the first time an American had won) and firmly establishing the legitimacy of pop art in the international art world. One of their more questionable tactics in the quest to elevate pop art was their abortive attempt to increase U.S. exhibition space by converting the former American Consulate building into temporary gallery space. Italians still bristle with indignation at the very mention of what they continue to believe was a conspiracy. Student activists protesting the commercialization of the art world took over the festival grounds in 1968, taking paintings down entirely or hanging them upside down. Prizes were eliminated in the aftermath, though finally reinstated in 1986, and the exposition's prestige grew.

Politics again intervened in 1988 when infighting between the Italian Communist and Christian Democrat parties threatened to close down the Biennale for the first time since World War II.

Outrageousness reigned supreme in 1990 when an installation by a group called Gran Fury coupled photographs of the pope with those of an erect penis and texts discussing AIDS, safe sex and condoms. Sculptor Jeff Koons got his fair share of the limelight with giant, airbrushed photos and polychromed sculptures of himself and newly acquired significant other, Ilona Staller, porn queen turned Italian parliament member, showing them engaged in, ahem, various sexual activities. And the 1993 Biennale (they skipped a year, so that the 46th Biennale could be celebrated during its 100th year), saddled with multicultural baggage in the thematic guise of "cultural nomadism," rattled the cages of animal-rights activists, who actually went to court to bar exhibition of Japanese artist Yukinori Yanagi's "World Flag Ant Farm." Yanagi's sculpture used live ants in see-through plastic ant farms to slowly decimate colored sand in the configuration of national flags. Yes, readers, the ants were actually liberated by court order and the piece remained on display minus the ants. Who knows what drama will unfold at the 1995 Venice Biennale? Bill Viola's projected installations, which traditionally deal with more spiritual, mystical and universal concerns, demonstrate none of the abominable kitschiness, boring appropriationism and slavishness to current style of much postmodernist work plaguing the Biennale--and the art world in general--in recent times. Viola and Zeitlin are suitable art ambassadors for the Valley of the Sun. And they just may quietly walk away with the gran premio of next year's Biennale.

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Kathleen Vanesian