The Long Run To Venice

As the odometer of art history turns toward 2000, it's apparent that we're nearing the end of something more than the century. Take the art world's version of the Cannes Film Festival, the Venice Biennale (open through Oct. 10), as a bellwether. While every form of expression from architectural models to baseball encyclopedias is now being turned into electronic images, visual artists are left holding a bag with all this real, physical stuff in it. They seem to feel behind the times, and some react by creating little scandals of morbidity. In the biennale's Aperto gallery, a section for hot young artists whose work is to varying degrees impolite, Britain's Damien Hirst exhibits "Mother and Child Divided." It consists of a real cow and calf longitudinally halved, each preserved in two giant vitrines, entrails pressed to the walls like a child making faces against a window.

Not all of the biennale is so hideous. Amid the dozen or so national pavilions, set in the shady giardini, this year's American entry is a solo show by Parisian-born sculptor Louise Bourgeois, 81. A kind of Ruth Gordon with a French accent, she's a self-described "long-distance runner" who says, "I want to bother people, I want to worry them." (Notice she doesn't say "shock.") For decades she's made marble and bronze assume hauntingly awkward organic form. "Cell (Arch of Hysteria)" (1992-93) contains a convulsing figure and a sinister band saw, surrounded by circular metal walls. "Nature Study" (1984) looks like a headless rabbit with a vertical row of breasts.

Street fair: For all its disturbing intensity, Bourgeois's work comes from an unembittered artist. Married to art historian Robert Goldwater (who died in 1973), Bourgeois arrived in the United States in 1938. She had her first New York solo show in 1945. Bourgeois has two grown sons (one a writer, one a lawyer), still lives in Manhattan and maintains a spacious studio in Brooklyn. "What I needed from my children," she reflects, "was that they did not end up in a war or in jail or in a hospital. And that's all I wanted. So I got that, so I'm a satisfied person. "As for the biennale, Bourgeois is, well, diffident: "The Venice Biennale is a fair, just like the 23rd Street fair... You don't get very much out of a fair."

This particular fair is a confusing collage of high-sounding themes. The biennale this year is supposed to be about "cultural nomadism." One of its parts, an international show in the host Italian Pavilion, is concerned with the "de-territorialization" of art. At other sites are " Trans-actions," featuring such multimedia artists as American playwright Robert Wilson, whose installation of, essentially, a mud floor surprisingly won the sculpture prize. (The young hotshot Apertoprize also went to an American, video artist Matthew Barney.) Yet, some prizes went to old, established artists: the painting award was shared by British pop pioneer Richard Hamilton and Spanish abstractionist Antoni Tapies.

The prize-winning pavilion was Germany's, where Hans Haacke, a naturalized U.S. citizen, represented his native country. Haacke stuck a big photograph of Hitler at the 1934 Venice Biennale in the entrance and jackhammered up the whole stone floor. As you walk over the shards, in front of the word GERMANIA in huge metal letters on the rear wall, your feet make ominous, hollow crashing noises which seem to warn-especially with the Bosnian border just 170 miles away-that a kind of Kristallnacht is upon us again.

Like Cannes, the biennale has long been a festive trade show. But now, with political ideas in charge, the 45th edition proves that these huge, what's-happening-now extravaganzas can no longer say much that's esthetically coherent. As one museum director says, "What we've got left is just the social event, and that's about it."