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One-Liner Works Bear Messages Worth Repeating

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 21, 2009

VENICE -- Last in a series of articles on the 53rd Venice Biennale.

A slide of a little bonsai gets projected on a wall at real-tree size.

A crummy house from American suburbia floats in a harbor in Venice.

A bunch of funky pedestals inscribed with funny captions -- "We don't know each other, we're just hugging for the picture," "The Guilty One" -- invite visitors to mount them and have their photos taken by their friends.

It seems as if one-liners rule the art world. The most puzzling thing about these single-conceit works? It's that they were some of the most compelling pieces in "Making Worlds," the huge group show that is the main event at this year's Venice Biennale.

There is other good art here, and it is maybe more complex: eclectic photo-installations by Wolfgang Tillmans and cryptic sculptures by Rachel Harrison (both known in Washington from recent Hirshhorn shows), as well as an important survey of Hans-Peter Feldmann, a 68-year-old German whose strange photographic inventories have been hugely influential. But their subtleties seem to be eclipsed by the punch of the new one-liners.

It's said the Biennale is the Olympics of the art world. If that's right, we may be at a moment when novelty events like unicycle hockey and underwater rugby have more purchase than a classic long jump or marathon.

* * *

But maybe the punch-line pieces in Venice aren't novelties at all. It could be that innovative art has always had something one-linerish about it, at least for the first people who saw it.

Caravaggio, in his early years, was read as a guy with a limited shtick: making his sacred figures as coarse as possible. He was the Don Rickles of papal Rome. Cézanne, because of one lame comment he once made about nature's geometry, came to be billed as Mister Sphere-Cone-and-Cube, even though that single take barely fits his pictures.

In the early 1960s, when minimal abstraction first appeared, even its supporters thought it had a single point: to reach the very limits of what could count as art, leaving all aesthetics behind. Yet in the five decades since, the supposed one-liner of minimalism has delivered up a vast range of meanings to its viewers, from the political to the conceptual to sheer sensual delight.

Almost every work of art can be a one-liner, if all you care about is finding a punch line that fits. The trick is to delve deeper than that.

That enlarged bonsai, by British Berliner Ceal Floyer, is full of telling peculiarities. It's got the scale of a big tree but not nearly as many leaves as you'd expect, and each leaf is too chunky to seem right. Its textures look distinctly real -- more real than any toy or model could -- and yet it's got the subtle wrongness of a man-made replica. The shrinking of the bonsai process, coupled with the re-enlargement to tree size, produces an object that's unlike any other.

It also produces a weird play between object and image. We're used to thinking of changes of scale as being something very photographic. Here, however, the scale-change starts out in the real world of things, and then photography is used to put the situation right again -- to give tree size back to a tree that has lost it.

Floyer couldn't have predicted such effects when she first sketched out her "joke." It turns out her piece doesn't boil down to pure conceit; it needed to be realized to come alive.

There's probably just as much to unpack from the other pieces mentioned at the start of this review. You could find complex social dynamics playing out in the comic pedestals, which are by a Los Angeles artist named Miranda July. They might also trigger thoughts about art and tourist sights and how visitors to Venice interact with both -- as well as about works of high art functioning as gags.

In the floating suburban house by Mike Bouchet, an American who now lives in Frankfurt, there seems to be a parallel between the picturesque waters of Venice and Katrina's disastrous flooding of New Orleans. (Bouchet's house sank into the lagoon as he installed it and had to be refloated.) There's also stuff in Bouchet's work about old European decay that's picturesque vs. new American decay that reads as regrettable.

* * *

Is it artificial, and disingenuous, to dig for Shakespearean depths in a blown-up bonsai? Right from the start, the best thumbsuckers by Titian or Cézanne push you to look longer and probe deeper. Whereas works by Floyer, July and Bouchet actively invite a superficial read, at least at first. Their speed is a big part of their appeal. The way we take in art today, that speed may be a virtue.

This year, the Venice Biennale is bigger than ever. Not counting the dozens of unsanctioned shows it pulls into its orbit, the Biennale itself includes 77 national exhibitions and 44 "collateral events." Then it's got "Making Worlds," for which Biennale Director Daniel Birnbaum has invited more than 100 artists to present something like 400 works, filling a building-and-a-half on the Biennale's fairgrounds and an entire industrial complex on its Arsenale site. It's a week's work just to scratch the surface of all the art on view. With so much competing for a weary viewer's eyes, an artwork almost has a duty to lay out its main "argument" at once, one-liner-style.

Art today may need to work more like a scientific study that comes with an abstract than like a slow-burn lyric poem. So long as the depths are there in the end, there's nothing wrong with that.

The funny thing is that this isn't how one-liners first turned up in contemporary art. One of the best things about Birnbaum's show is some of the older, rarely seen conceptual works it includes, from as far back as the 1950s.

Birnbaum has installed a gripping display of art by Japan's pioneering Gutai group, for instance, including a piece from 1955 that is a row of 12 raucous fire bells, wired with a button that invites visitors to set them ringing all at once. Another piece, from 1962, is called "Make Your Own Painting," and is nothing more than three primed canvases awaiting a viewer's touch. Elsewhere Birnbaum has hung a whole wall of typed-out "Instruction Pieces" by Yoko Ono, presenting art ideas such as "Put your shadows together until they become one" (from 1963) and "Cut a hole in a bag filled with seeds of any kind and place the bag where there is wind" (from 1961).

These pieces were about paring art down to single gestures, just to see what would happen if you did and as a way of escaping from a world of fancy objects intended for sale. Today's one-liners depend on such vintage conceptual exercises. They wouldn't have been possible without them. But the new works look too good to be reduced to pure idea and they aren't really all that minimal in their conceits.

At their best, they can even turn the whole idea of the one-liner into something fiendishly complex. Birnbaum invited Brooklyn artist Spencer Finch to present a piece called "Moonlight (Venice, March 10, 2009)." It started with Finch taking a meter reading of the color and intensity of the light cast by the moon on a spring night in Venice. Then he cut variously colored plastic sheets to fit the window panes in his Arsenale space, using them to filter daylight entering the room until its readings matched the moonlight he had metered months before. It seems like as simple a conceit as any -- light taken from one place and time and re-created someplace else -- but it doesn't actually deliver its punch line: You can't tell just from looking that there's moonlight in Finch's space; his piece looks more like attractive stained glass. We simply won't see moonlight in an inside space by day; we'll always look instead at the colored filters that bring it into being.

"Moonlight (Venice, March 10, 2009)" proposes art's ultimate and classic one-liner: a simple, objective match between the world and a realistic work of art. And then it reveals the complexities that lurk behind such matching. You could say that it's about watching a great one-liner fail.

Is that its punch line?

The 53rd Venice Biennale continues through Nov. 22; http://www.labiennale.org. For panoramas and more coverage of the Biennale, visit http://washingtonpost.com/museums.

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