So much of one’s feelings about a work or theory depend on when one reads them — something that will be very familiar to adherents of ‘reception theory’, which, according to Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker, is one of the art world’s current buzzwords, though we haven’t heard it bandied about much this side of the pond we have to say. Read Jane Jacobs’s book about top-down urban planning now (The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 1961), and it seems more screed than reasoned argument. Similarly, the argument of ‘The Rhetoric of the Image’ in Roland Barthes’s Mythologies — in which he picks apart how advertising works — now seems obvious. We understand quite clearly that the Panzani spaghetti advertisement, which he uses as his case study, uses a construction of Italy that signifies freshness and healthniess to sell its dried, store-bought pasta. This ‘Italianicity’ now comes across as just cheesy; which is to say it’s over-given — we see it straight away.
Back in the 2011 Venice Biennale, which we left off a week ago due to an unfortunate incident involving jet lag and pink champagne, we might revive this concept of ‘Italianicity’ to think through how the curated section of the biennale, Bice Curiger’s ‘ILLUMInations’, seemed like nothing so much as an art show. Art-show-icity. So much was familiar, and not re-signified in any way (Curiger’s argument throughout — light, apparently — was ultimately obscure (ha!)). And while there was good work on show, it was not clear (ha ha!) what was at stake. In an inversion of Barthes, while we wanted the spaghetti that was really on sale, we only got the advertisement, which clouded (ha ha ha!) over the individual pieces in its reiteration of many different art shows that had been seen and mounted before.
It might be fatigue, but something felt lacking: the semblance of an art show rather than the show itself.
For the record, and not to do down Curiger’s good choices, the measure a l’Italiano:
Luigi Ghirri’s photographs; Amalia Pica’s interrogation of education as the basis of state ideology (and she does this in colour); Omer Fast’s looped videos, which are seeming more and more about psychological pathologies (out, out, you damn spots — there is a very good article on his work from Afterall here); Emily Wardill, whose work has a good deal to say about hiding and showing; Christian Marclay’s The Clock (yes! really. Come fight me on this); RH Quaytman, the estimable Gerard Byrne (via his work about photographs that apparently show Loch Ness although no Loch Ness appears — Van Abbemuseum director Charles Esche used this as his own metaphor for the show); Karl Holmqvist’s ecstatic room of words and images made thereof.
All this, yes all this, lost in -icity! (For more images see the Centre for the Aesthetic Revolution.)