Lighting the Way

Cellophane-wrapped licorice candies, above, and black posters, left, both free for the taking, are among the art installations by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, the United States' representative at the Biennale. A curator likened the licorice to an
Cellophane-wrapped licorice candies, above, and black posters, left, both free for the taking, are among the art installations by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, the United States' representative at the Biennale. A curator likened the licorice to an "oil slick in space." (Photos By Blake Gopnik -- The Washington Post)

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By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 11, 2007

VENICE, June 10 Every day this week, The Post will look at some of the most notable art at the Venice Biennale.

Americans, as any European will tell you, are brash, insular and arrogant, incapable of subtle thought but happy to shove their simple-minded, flag-waving ideas down the world's throat. Since that impression has been gaining ground over the last few years -- the wars in Iraq and on terror haven't helped -- it's a lucky thing that the U.S. pavilion at this year's Venice Biennale is being filled with the art of Felix Gonzalez-Torres. It fights every one of those cliches.

Gonzalez-Torres's work, though deeply involved with "Americanness," is as subtle as could be -- understated, wry, witty and shrewd. It ranges from fine-art photographs of a Teddy Roosevelt memorial in New York to piles of free posters that visitors can take away; from a room carpeted in penny candy to a pair of vastly expensive outdoor reflecting pools, carved from single disks of marble 12 feet across. This art doesn't ever offer easy answers or, for that matter, ask esoteric or tendentious questions. It provides resonant objects for us to look at and think about.

The Venice Biennale, now in its 52nd edition, functions as a world's fair of contemporary art. It opened to the public on Sunday. Thirty-one permanent pavilions, representing some of the more established nation-states, are scattered across dedicated fairgrounds at the far eastern edge of Venice. This year, 45 other countries -- more than ever before -- have also found space for their displays in buildings all around the city. Visitors with the stamina to do the whole lot come away, in theory at least, with a good idea of where the planet's art is heading.

It makes sense to start, as many Biennale-goers do, with the U.S. pavilion, set smack in the middle of the exhibition grounds on the most prominent site. It fills a grand building designed in 1930, with the look and feel of an imposing neoclassical courthouse. The building radiates authority, and seems to presume status and privilege. But maybe that's not the kind of message the United States wants to be sending right now. (There has already been griping that, at this of all moments in history, the Biennale has chosen its first American director, curator Robert Storr. Smartly, however, he's gone out of his way to present art that questions imperialism of all kinds.) The art by Torres that is now filling the U.S. pavilion sends an absolutely different kind of message than the building it is in. In this project, any hint of a boastful, all-American vibe gets tempered and probed.

For one thing, Torres -- who was selected for this exhibition by the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs -- was an orphan, born in Cuba in 1957 and raised in Puerto Rico, who ended up in New York as an adult. He died quietly of AIDS in 1996, after barely a decade of artmaking. That makes him a notably unheroic figure. His death also makes him unavailable for the celebrity treatment that big-ticket artists tend to get these days, and which helps turn the opening days of the Biennale into such a zoo. (Could that be art star Matthew Barney over there, wearing the same outfit he was shot in for last month's cover of Italian Vogue? You bet.)

Some American visitors have complained that it makes no sense to have a dead guy in their national pavilion. But I think it helps the United States rise above the fray of career-building and market-priming that rules elsewhere at the Biennale. And it also happens to make the art of Gonzalez-Torres seem all the more alive.

Nancy Spector, a curator at New York's Guggenheim Museum who knew Gonzalez-Torres well and has organized the current project, has made death a dominant theme in the pavilion, as it often was in the artist's work.

There's a two-foot-tall stack of posters, free for the taking, that are nothing more than plain white sheets of paper, but with black mourning bands running all along each edge. They are like invitations to a funeral, left blank and then sized up to the festive scale of a Farrah Fawcett pinup. They suggest that mourning's always something worth attending to, even when there's no single object for our grief. Or that there's always something worthy of filling Gonzalez-Torres's black-edged blank. On offer in this venue, they seem to encourage public mourning for unspecified loss. Another similar stack of posters shows an almost all-black image of the sea at night. It strikes equally elegiac notes.

Gonzalez-Torres himself, however, might have tempered the pavilion's mostly dour tone with some campy fun. He once got a scantily clad man to go-go-dance his way around a room full of his solemn photos of the memorial tributes to President Theodore Roosevelt inscribed on the facade of New York's American Museum of Natural History.

I bet he'd also have wanted to throw some color into this show, which is now resolutely black and white. Spector, for instance, has realized the reflecting pools, sketched out by Gonzalez-Torres as needing to be made in "local stone," in cliched white Carrara marble, from quarries hundreds of miles south of Venice. Gonzalez-Torres might have preferred the rose-colored stone, from nearby Verona, that the Venetian empire used for its most showy buildings. One reading of the pools is as a pair of "perfect lovers," which does suggest an image rather sweetly pink.

But even as it stands, the pavilion isn't all mournful. That poster piece strikes a delicate balance between celebration and elegy, and this continues across the whole project. A piece called "Untitled (America)" -- there's a joke in giving a subtitle to something that claims it has no title in the first place -- consists of 12 strings of incandescent bulbs, suspended across the entrance courtyard and hanging in the building's vestibule. It's meant to evoke the twinkle of a Paris cafe's lights, except that in this case the bright bulbs screw into black sockets hanging from black wires.

The carpet of licorice hard candy that fills the middle of one room rejoices in the sparkle of its cellophane wrappers, and in the joyous gesture of offering the public an unlimited supply of sweets -- as with the posters, you're supposed to help yourself. And yet that frivolity is similarly tempered by the candy's jet-black color, by its potent, darkly earthy flavor and by the stomach-turning quantity of sugar on offer, fully 700 pounds of it. Too much of a good thing can be bad for you, as this entire planetful of humans needs to learn. (Spector likens the candy piece to an "oil slick in space.") The splendor of consumption has its dark side, too.

I don't want to imply that this work can or should be reduced to such simple sloganeering. Like all the best art, it suggests not only these notions but also very different ones as you take a longer look. Biennale pavilions usually depend on quick reads and instant appeal to score their points; they grab visitors as they speed by and give them something clean and clear to take away with them. This U.S. pavilion has the rare courage to resist the rush: To read this art, you have to take close note of the specifics of what it looks like; to make its good looks matter, you have to think through its meanings more than once. It's not about receiving a message, or getting a punch line. It's about having a rich experience of images and ideas, different each time you look.

Those 12 photographs of the memorial to Roosevelt are lovely, subtle things. They're shot in tender black and white, and capture the contemplative state that good commemoration is supposed to foster. But they also seem to question our commemorative, contemplative platitudes. Each photo shows one blank wall from the New York memorial, with a simple, all-capped noun -- "PATRIOT," "HUMANITARIAN," "STATESMAN," "SOLDIER" -- carved into it. Since no one's in sight in these images to do the contemplating, the commemoration on offer can quite suddenly begin to seem reductive, simple-minded, just a bunch of empty, portentous words.

When Gonzalez-Torres took his shots, there was trash trailing on the ground in front of "PATRIOT" and "SOLDIER." So much for honoring our glorious dead.

The Venice Biennale continues through Nov. 21. Visit http://www.labiennale.org/en.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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