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Media Arts at Venice and Documenta 2007

by John Potts

The media in media arts at the Venice Biennale and Documenta in 2007 are ‘old’ media: video, film, photography. The technologies formerly known as ‘new media’ have almost zero presence: there are two or three works in the national pavilions at Venice, but these seem more like tourist promotion devices. There is a techno-utopian CGI installation inside a tent in the Chinese pavilion, representing one of the few nations where a techno-utopian vision may still exist; and a psychedelic computer-generated work in the Swiss pavilion, trying perhaps too hard to convey a contemporary, ‘cutting-edge’ national image. These were exceptions to the rule of no new media in Venice, and exceptions were similarly lacking in Documenta. This absence of computer-based or interactive works is consistent with the recent trend in big international exhibitions, which favour traditional art forms, old media, and installations, along with a historical perspective reflected in the inclusion of works from early Modernism, and from much earlier periods.  

Recent international exhibitions have featured a strong component of video works; and video screens are prominent at both Venice and Documenta. There is also a pleasing degree of invention regarding their content and their installation. Artists and curators at both shows have considered the strengths and also the weaknesses inherent in video art, which both relate to the engagement of the viewer. Many video works of the last few years could pass as documentaries – long, detailed, politically worthy – and out of place in an art exhibition, where it is not possible to view the works in the manner experienced in the cinema, or even on TV. Most of the video works in Venice and Documenta avoid this problem through an astute placement of screens in the architecture of works, and in many instances through the relative brevity of the content. Through these means, the message often  emerges sharply from the medium.

The theme of Robert Storr’s exhibition for the 52nd Venice Biennale is ‘Think with the Senses – Feel with the Mind. Art in the Present Tense.’ This rather anaemic concept has very little purchase when the viewer is immersed in the show itself. Storr’s abstract conception is simply swept away by the urgency of the works, many of which are direct, often brutal responses to the realities of the contemporary world. The theme emanating from the works, especially those housed in the Arsenale, is violence: the violence of war, occupation, displacement, hatred. A related theme concerns the barriers erected in hostile and fearful times: at detention camps, refugee camps, within brutalised or paranoid states.

Rosemary Laing’s large colour photographs of the Woomera detention centre are a stark testament to the force of barriers, while Paolo Canenavari offers a confronting video work containing a teenage boy kicking around a human skull football-style in front of a bombed-out Belgrade building. Photographic and video works document the experience of war – Neil Hamon presents photos of British soldiers from 1917 to 2002 – and its impact: evacuations, camps, and worse. A more subtle piece on the effect of political violence is by Oscar Munoz, whose video installation Proyecto para un Memorial has on its five screens drawings of faces being traced with a brush then slowly fading. It seems that digital manipulation must be involved, until you realise that the faces are painted with water on a footpath: they vanish through evaporation. The work is a simple and elegant evocation of the ‘disappeared’ in Latin America. 

Still images from Proyecto para un Memorial, Oscar Munoz

Not all of the works pursue the topic of violence and not all leap directly to their theme. Yang Fudong’s Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest is a five-part film work, shot on black and white 35 mm, with each part screening in its own enclosed room. This extended and segmented film is so intriguing, and the 35 mm grain is so alluring, even after transfer to DVD, that it invites long-term viewing. The first part, running at 29 minutes, is redolent of French New Wave cinema, with a languor possessing the characters reminiscent of Resnais. A female voice-over also echoes Marker’s Sans Soleil. Yet the mist rolling over the Chinese countryside in which the intellectuals travel evokes traditional Chinese landscape paining. The blend of constituent elements shifts throughout the five parts, rendering this work a fascinating oasis within the Arsenale.

Still from Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest, Yang Fudong

Several of the national pavilions within the Venice Biennale make imaginative use of video technology, encasing the image in installations that probe the technics of bodies and screens. Andreas Fogarasi for Hungary divides a large pavilion into public viewing spaces, where viewers are herded into awkward black boxes that control point-of-view. Eric Duykaerts (Belgium) constructs a glass maze holding a video monitor at its centre. Aernout Milk (Netherlands) builds video into an architecture dividing citizens from non-citizen subjects. The Spanish pavilion is more lyrical, projecting video onto tiny objects such as light bulbs. The Australian contributions succeed in arresting the viewer by differing means, ranging from Susan Norrie’s multi-screen installation Havoc, based on environmental disaster in East Java, to Daniel von Sturmer’s philosophical video installation The Object of Things, and Callum Morton's reconstruction of a corporate foyer as a type of purgatory.

An outstanding video work in the Italian pavilion is Democrazy by Franceso Vezzoli. The installation is in the form of an electioneering tent, complete with red, white and blue balloons, in which two 60 second American presidential campaign ads play on opposing screens. On one screen, presidential candidate Patricia Hill is played by Sharon Stone, while on the other French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy plays rival candidate Patrick Hill. In making these videos, Vezzoli enlisted the help of professional campaign advisers from Public Strategies, who devised the 2004 George Bush campaign, and Squier Knapp Dunn, who worked on one of Bill Clinton’s campaigns. The result is a note-perfect replication of a US TV election ad. Sharon Stone is rendered – through hair, makeup, wardrobe and camera angle – into a Hilary Clinton-esque politician, while Lévy is similarly modelled into a US presidential aspirant.

There is the temptation to see Stone as the Democrat and Lévy as the Republican, but the two ads are so similar that the political positions are inter-changeable, as signalled by the near-identical names of the candidates. He intones ‘I want a strong America’; she declares the quite meaningless ‘We are not the world’s greatest country for nothing.’ All the familiar features of the American political ad are there: the deep assuring male voice-over, the fake vox pops, the shots of the candidates meeting the people, images of the personal alongside the presidential. If you stand in the middle of the tent, the audio from the two ads blends into one audio entity: a testament to the slick, highly sophisticated, manipulative and empty forms of mediatised democracy.  

Still from Democrazy, Franceso Vezzoli

The 12th Documenta exhibition, in Kassel, Germany, is curated by Roger Buergel and Ruth Noack. They posed three questions to artists: Is Modernity our antiquity? What is bare life? What is to be done? The trouble with this three-pronged provocation is that it’s very difficult to respond to all three at once; the works in Documenta tend to favour one orientation over the others. Many works explore the formal domain of the first question, developing aspects of abstraction, minimalism or other legacies of modernism. The Agamben-esque second question is reflected in photographic and video works documenting refugees, detention camps, the aftermath of war; while the third Lenin-esque question is addressed directly by some artists, but otherwise hangs in the air as an unanswered question.

George Osodi’s digital photographs - sequenced in an old-fashioned slide show on a large monitor - reveal the wildly divergent consequences of the oil industry in Nigeria: enormous profits and abject bare-life poverty. Ahlam Shibli documents life in a number of Palestinian refugee camps. Amar Kanwar offers a more lyrical work in an eight-screened installation touching on the experiences of women on the subcontinent. One video work removed from the world of refugees and detention, yet interested in themes of surveillance and representation, is Harun Farocki’s Deep Play. Twelve screens aligned across the installation show the 2006 football World Cup final using every available angle and technology. As well as the TV live feed of the match, we see the surveillance cameras’ vision of the stadium, as well as various computer generated enhancements, mapping of players’ vectors and analysis of their movements. The most sophisticated image technologies and tools of analysis map the game and its audience in an all-encompassing scope.

Still from Deep Play, Harun Farocki

Despite the proliferation of video and photographic works at Documenta, some of the most compelling works used pre-modern techniques. Lu Hao’s depiction of major construction in Beijing in 2005 is made using traditional Chinese realist painting. Spread out on elongated scrolls, this work offers an elegiac view on progress and development. Ai Wei Wei provides the most ingenious comment of all on the theme of mass migration in the globalised age. His work Fairytale involves the transport of 1001 Chinese citizens to Documenta in five stages. Awaiting their arrival are 1001 wooden chairs from the Quing dynasty, spread throughout the four main venues of Documenta. These antique chairs attest both to the Chinese past and to the contemporary Chinese citizens they will serve. The chairs also offer a welcome respite for the sore feet of Documenta visitors.