The Venetian Carnival

Jenny Holzer, the 4-year-old American "word artist," is the official sensation of this year's gathering of art-world tribes, the 44th Venice Biennale (through Sept. 30). Her spectacular display of deadpan "Truisms," blazing across rows of LED (light-emitting diode) signs, and her Roman-letter "Laments," carved into marble floors and benches, was awarded the grand prize for the best national pavilion. The unofficial rude-boy-in-church prize went to Jeff Koons, who displayed his work in the "Aperto"--or open--section for young artists, held farther down the canal in the cavernous old rope factory, the Corderie dell'Arsenale. Koons, who likes to tweak the nose of the art world, collaborated with Cicciolina, the former porn actress who's a member of the Italian Parliament. They posed naked for three big, soft-core photos and one unbearably unerotic sculpture.

The Biennale, centered in the collegial Giardini di Castello, is the oldest, most prestigious international art festival. Since the trend is to have more countries represented by fewer artists, a solo turn in Venice is practically an Oscar. Two years ago the United States chose the blue-chip painter Jasper Johns. In opting for a younger, conceptual artist this time, America has recaptured an edge in contemporary art conceded to Europe in recent years. And as Holzer herself puts it, "I'm glad they picked a woman for the Biennale--pregnant pause--finally. Her most quoted truism, ABUSE OF POWER COMES AS NO SURPRISE, has some extra irony for feminist art lovers who may buy a Holzer T shirt in St. Mark's Square.

The unpretentious-to-a-fault Holzer started as a painter. In 1977, reeling from an intimidating postgraduate reading list-- and feeling inspired by lower Manhattan's billboards and signs--she turned to texts. Her straight-faced declarations range from naive anarchism ("ANY SURPLUS IS IMMORAL") to the visceral discoveries of motherhood ("I AM INDIFFERENT TO MYSELF BUT NOT TO MY CHILD ). She's printed them on posters and put them in lights in Times Square and Candlestick Park, but she makes a sharp distinction regarding contexts. "It's art when it's in a formal installation like this," she said in Venice. "It's just pronouncements when it's in public places." Do the combined . echoes of Samuel Beckett and' "Dick and Jane" make her a new kind of poet? "I would be an extremely bad poet if you wanted to call it poetry," she replies.

So what makes "The Venice Installation" any more than a Dan Flavin piece that won't shut up? The poignancy of Holzer's unique combination of confession and spectacle for one thing. And the fact that it's simply a visual knockout. The effect is like looking out from the center of the carousel on Saturday night and still being able to read all the neon signs.

Among the best of the other national pavilions (there are about 30 altogether) is Britain's, with a display of several daunting works by the Indian-born sculptor Anish Kapoor. His is an organic minimalism: a big trapezoidal sandstone form with a mysterious black opening in its side or a great purple bowl turned upright, large enough to swallow a man. West Germany's offering is almost good enough to overcome its building--designed by Albert Speer in the '30s. Plain industrial photographs by Bernd and Hilla Becher flank a central room by Reinhard Mucha, a Dusseldorf sculptor. He's constructed--with felt, stainless steel and multiple brass replicas of a little table--a transformation of his studio. The East German pavilion offers a surprisingly poignant collection of perestroika painting: neo-expressionism from artists who had real social reasons for working that way. Their sincere, if a bit slapdash, canvases are actually the only substantial painting in the Biennale.

That's part of the Biennale's problem. Ordinary old art just won't cutit anymore in the international art carnivals of Venice, Kassel and Sao Paulo. They're as overcrowded as swap meets and as internally combative as bodybuilder pageants. Holzer needed a marble-carving company, an electric-signage engineer and a lighting expert to take her show on the road. U.S. curator Michael Auping of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y., gingerly contends that the budget for Holzer's work was "under $800,000."

Curators' rhetoric: In the absence of heavy funding, other artists make do with industrial detritus, coated with glitz and garnished with curators' rhetoric. The long aisle running down the middle of the Aperto provided a view of several such efforts. There's a giant plastic high-heeled shoe from Alain Sechas, a Colombian working in Paris. And an anodized-aluminum "Don Quixote" by Izhar Patkin, an Israeli working in New York. Worse, a school of would be Koonskinners have latched onto the notion that fake advertising (of themselves) makes the chicest postmodern art, which in turn makes the best advertising (for themselves). France's Phillipe Perrin has converted his niche at the Aperto into an austere pastiche of a movie lobby where a rogue-cop film is playing, starring the artist, of course: Cindy Sherman meets Dirty Harry. It all portends the total demise of subtlety, intimacy and refinement.

In spite of the big-bang works, this is a flat Biennale. The bevy of curators who searched for the Aperto art carried with them all the currently "correct" sentiments. Their press statements mention "new developments of the past two years," "dialoguing" and an avoidance of "hedonistic works to be exhibited in a gallery or apartment." The curator of the French pavilion avoided art entirely and filled his space with architectural proposals--to redesign the pavilion. All of this so confused the award jury that it gave the under-35 prize to the 36-year-old Kapoor, the sculpture prize to the Bechers and the painting award to Giovanni Anselmo, an Italian who works in stone.

The ample preview crowds, dressed discreetly baggy or mondo-spandex in the art world's international black, seemed to know something was wrong. They wandered the Biennale's gravel paths as if pondering Holzer's old reading list. Or maybe they were just realizing the truth expressed by one of the Biennale's organizers: that today's artists are mostly concerned with the simple difficulty of trying to make an image in a society already filled up with them--by the art world as well as by vulgar commerce. An art dealer, toting one of the ubiquitous shopping bags from Anish Kapoor's show at the British pavilion, called out to another, "See you on campus." Perhaps the class of 1992 will give them a little more to cheer about.