Like A Virgin:
Column Inches #10 in Venice

by Tony Phillips

Venice’s 110-year-old international art exhibition offers a single take away this year: one is never too old for hymen reconstruction. For the first time in its august history, the reins of the Venice Biennale were handed over to — “beedle dee, dee dee dee” — two ladies. The resulting girl-on-girl action Maria de Corral and Rosa Martinez curate — on view through November 6th — is enough to resurrect Venetian grand dame Peggy Guggenheim from the corner grave of her Palazzo Venier dei Leoni where she lies buried next to her beloved lapdogs.

Peg would be so thrilled by the girl power on display, she’d walk on water, marching her bitches right up the Grand Canal until she reached the exhibition’s front door — the Arsenale, a Venetian shipyard that first opened in the 12th century — and only then would she start to wonder. Surely Peg would be curious why an arts collective named The Guerilla Girls inventoried her palazzo bathroom and emblazoned the art they found inside onto a billboard. Or cast Pam Anderson as Gloria Steinem and Catherine Zeta Jones as Bella Abzug in their imagined chick-flick The Birth of Feminism. Or even, rather rudely, point out the aforementioned curators were rather rudely introduced at a Biennale press conference as “The Spanish girls.” This exhibition is nothing if not topical.

But even if Peg managed to convince herself she liked what she saw in the Biennale’s foyer, her “beloved babies” Hong Kong, Peacock, Sir Herbert, Gypsy and the rest would be freaked out by these Guerillas. Little dogs don’t like big Guerillas, and these girls are 800-pounders. But Peg's dogs might just content themselves with Joana Vasconcelos’s stainless steel “Chandelier” hung just low enough for sniffing and handily strung with 14,000 tampons. Who knows what will transpire when they arrive at the room juxtaposing hymen reconstruction surgery with Spain’s tomato flinging holiday?

Still, it’s hard to dislike an art show that sparks dialogue like: “I think it’s an installation. No, it’s the bathroom.” If the art world had its own version of Fashion Week, it would look something like the 51st Venice Biennale. And taking on the rabid sexism of the art world is certainly a noble cause, but did they have to do it in one fell swoop? And if one follows Guerilla Girls’ logic that for thousands of years men have created art subjugating women through objectification — the skimpier the ensemble, the better. Nude? Better still. — Then where are the cocks? If women are really in the driver’s seat this year, as both curators and creators, bring on it on. No?

Well, no. Even UK "naturists" Gilbert and George keep their clothes on in their sublime British pavillion. In fact, that’s the main problem with this exhibit. If this year’s edition is a corrective measure, then the ladies miss the opportunity to turn the tables, but rather opt to set it, making it look really pretty. Runa Islam literally throws a tea party, Bruna Esposito peels some onions and Subodh Gupta installs glistening, symmetrical pots and pans making the Arsenale look like a corner of Williams & Sonoma while the curators use precious catalog space to inform, “The desire of sharing and multiplying is clear in the serial repetition of the piece.” Huh? What piece? Where’s the beef? After a few minutes staring at Boy George’s muse Leigh Bowery — one of the most engaging rooms in the show — thinking, “Wow, he was hung,” something’s amiss. If one really wants to dismantle sexism, follow the advice of another arts alpha female: dress the women and undress the men.

Or maybe just stay at home with a Playgirl. And that’s not to say the exhibition’s a complete miss. It’s much too comprehensive for that, but most of its triumphs are cinematic. There’s Candice Breitz’ installation “Mothers” isolating six of our big screen divas against a black drop. Candy manipulates Faye, Meryl, Julia and company into addressing each other and everything from eating disorders to complete nervous breakdowns in this trompe l'clipjob. Lypsinka must be going through it. Francesco Vezzoli imagines a remake of Caligula with Karen Black, Milla Jovovich, Helen Mirren and none of than Courtney Love as the emperor himself. Turkish designer Hussein Chalayan casts everybody’s favorite fashion plate Tilda Swinton — who opens in today's Jim Jarmusch's diva-fest Broken Flowers — as another crazy scientist. And Christina Garcia Rodero snaps San Francisco’s Folsom Street in all its down and dirty, leathered glory.

There’s even a pavilion in which guards converge on each new visitor, surrounding them and chanting, “Ohhhhhh, this is so contemporary, contemporary, contemporary!” And, indeed, it is, but before leaving one is drawn back to Bruna Esposito’s sculpture “Scattered Precipitation.” All those empty onion peels on cool marble are a bit like the exhibition itself: the meat ripped out of its shell leaving behind a pile of rubbish. Let’s hope in two years time amid the scattered precipitation, it’s going to start raining men.