50th Venice Biennale

Various Venues

Waiting is often seen as the undesirable bit that occurs before events, the space between the action. Although it is a resolutely active process that we experience at the time as overwhelming, we tend to forget the physical and mental encounter of a period of anticipation once it has passed. Travel on any scale is riddled with such moments of stasis. Transport by its very nature requires waiting, while co-ordinating groups of people moving through a city is painfully stilted. The act of waiting also has a tangible, inherent presence in art production and viewing: waiting for paint to dry or an artwork to release its meaning, or anticipating the end of a performance or video piece.

This year's Venice Biennale embodied all of these modes of waiting. Portentously, over the entrance to the Italian Pavilion hung Sam Durant's text piece Like, Man, I'm Tired (of Waiting) (2002). Time was stretched and tucked, with convoluted installations that took a lot of time and effort to unravel, and to add to it all there were queues for just about everything. 'Utopia Station', for example, was a curatorial cacophony, an instantaneous deluge of works that required a long-drawn-out process of mental reconstruction to glean any meaning.

A surprising number of works incorporated the notion of waiting to go somewhere. 

There were also a surprising number of individual pieces that incorporated the notion of waiting to go somewhere or reflected on the nature of travel. Graham Gussin's Terrain Vague (2003) - the actual coach in which he travelled to Venice - has a ponderous presence, not least of all because of the discrepancy between the size of the vehicle and the dimensions of the door to the space. The coach was dissembled, shipped across to the island, then reconstructed inside the building so that it appeared as trapped as a ship in a bottle, forever waiting to be released to fulfil its function - a reflection on the narrative of his journey. A film screened at the back of the vehicle transcribed this relationship between the physicality of travel and the psychology of expectation and memory into a formal, narrative construction. A camera on the outside of the coach recorded segments of the journey through the Alps. These segments were then edited into a Möbius strip of recollection: they ran forwards until the moment of arrival at the garage at the end of the St Gotthard Pass, where the order was reversed and the film returned back to the beginning of the journey, only to start over again. The time twist held the geography in an idealized, geometrical place, like a distant memory played over and over until it becomes free of context and specificity.

In the German Pavilion Martin Kippenberger's Lüftungsschacht METRO-Net World connection, Venedig (Ventilation shaft, METRO-Net World Connection, Venice, 1993-2003), on the other hand, evoked a specific example of waiting for a very particular moment - the arrival of a metro train. Word got around that the metal grille embedded in the marble floor was to be stood on and something was to be waited for. Every ten minutes or so a rumbling noise and gusts of air emanated from below. The trains didn't stop and I missed it twice.

In the Arsenale, Sabah Naim's City People (2003) depicted a more literal version of Kippenberger's city commuters. Snippets of footage showed people - mainly men - standing, sitting and leaning, obviously between activities. They were waiting in groups or alone, scratching their balls absent-mindedly or gazing into the middle distance. A series of paintings incorporating stills from the video were augmented by panels of pattern made by the rolling, folding and stratification of newspapers. The connotations of newspapers as a prop for passing time, however, gave way to the political imp- lications of an Egyptian artist handling mass-media.

Vehicles, and especially cars, might be identified as a sub-theme throughout the Biennale. It's almost as if certain artists became preoccupied by the absence of cars on the island and sought prominence through novelty. Damián Ortega's Cosmic Thing (2001), a deconstructed Volkswagen with its constituent parts suspended from the ceiling, seemed startled by its own physical fact. Simon Starling's Fiat 126 bolted on to the wall by its chassis was bothevidence of its own individual journey and an evocation of the whole production history of Fiat. Starling drove the car, which had been produced in Turin, to Poland, where Fiats used to be manufactured. Once in Poland, he replaced some of the original red panels - the boot, front doors and bonnet - with white counterparts so that the car resembled the Polish flag. He then drove it back to Italy. In contrast to Kippenberger's slice of mundanity and Gussin's formal approach, Starling's journey became epic through its historical and political implications.

The Biennale experience could be characterized by another of Sam Durant's text pieces in the entrance to the Arsenale, See You in Chicago in August (2002). A longing to be in another time and place was overwhelming as the art roared, the temperature soared and strangers bickered in long queues. The lure of Durant's lightbox and the promise of better things to come were as straightforward and satisfying as a journey home.

Issue 77

First published in Issue 77

September 2003

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Janiva Ellis, Catchphrase Coping Mechanism, 2019, oil on linen, 2.2 x 1.8 m. Courtesy: the artist and 47 Canal, New York; photograph: Joerg Lohse

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