The New York Times
By ROBERTA SMITH
Published: June 02, 2011
And now the fun begins. I spent the second day of press previews for the Venice Biennale in the Arsenale, a narrow gauntlet of art compared to the Giardini, with its discreet national pavilions and semblance of order. Here "ILLUMInations," as the Biennale exhibition is called -- having started in the spacious galleries of the Giardini's Central Pavilion -- becomes a kind of extended scrum, spliced with additional national pavilions. The impossible enormity of the Biennale beast begins to sink in. With all the additional pavilions scattered about town and the independent exhibitions that are out there, too, Venice currently has more contemporary art on offer than any one person can see, even without the usual considerations of time, money and eye-strain.
The Arsenale's onslaught of competing sensibilities and artistic missions can overwhelm. At the entrance, the Chinese artist Song Dong presents a labyrinth pieced together from salvaged panels, doors and room dividers and one pagoda-style roof fragment, conjuring both the upheavals and continuities of 20th-century Chinese life. The Slovakian artist Roman Ondak provides the latest in remade Duchampian readymades: an exact replication of the capsule and a bit of the chute that enabled 33 Chilean miners to return one at a time the earth's surface last year after being, for all intents and purposes, buried alive. Further in, James Turrell's latest baptism-by-light-installation, "The Ganzfield Piece" offers an immersive experience in immaterial color, pure perception and what might be called the fullness of emptiness.
The documentary impulse runs strong, especially in "Boloss," by the Algerian-born French artist Mohamed Bourouissa, which consists of a two-screen video about a tense, back-alley poker game and the young African and Arab men who partake, and the large black and white photographs from Dayanita Singh's "File Room" series, which show drab, largely unattended rooms stuffed with paper archives, bagged, bundled or stacked like so many desiccated lives.
Several younger artists - Luca Francesconi, Rebecca Warren, Ryan Gander, Carol Bove, Ida Ekblad and Anya Titova pick apart and reassemble various modernist art, design and decor vocabularies, sometimes reviving, sometimes embalming.
The national pavilions provide moments of semi-brightness, among them "The Black Arch" at Saudi Arabia, an off-putting yet intriguing New Age-y installation -- gleaming chrome forms, projections of both Islamic and Christian mosaics and rustic folk music -- by the sisters Shadia Alem and Raja Alem; and, representing Turkey, "Plan B," by Ayse Erkmen, an elaborate network of chugging motors and lengths of brightly painted pipes that evidently pumps water from the canal just outside the window, purifies it and returns it to the Venetian effluvia, a closed system of futile improvement.
A new and historic Biennale low is reached in the vast Italian Pavilion where Vittorio Sgarbi, an Italian art historian, television personality and former under-secretary of culture, has overseen a ludicrously dense installation of work by some 260 Italian artists, almost all of it unredeemable still-born schlock. Bristling with an unbelievably venomous hatred of art, the exhibition would be a national scandal, if Italy weren't already plagued by so many.
On the way back toward the entrance, many viewers were brought to a stand-still by Christian Marclay's time-telling 24-hour video, "The Clock," pieced together from snippets of thousands of films. As closing-time was announced over the public address system, the piece exerted its usual spell-binding effect. The big couches arrayed before the immense screen -- which were covered with gray fabric for the New York showing of the work, and are now outfitted in summer white -- were full of people. One man rose, and moved toward the exit, commenting, "Bellissimo, bellissimo." For some reason, his words were immensely comforting.