ART / Sunk under the weight of culture: Andrew Graham-Dixon looks at the failed attempt to create a brave new world order at the Venice Biennale

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VARIOUS theories have been advanced to explain the sinking of Venice but the real culprit may be the Biennale. Since its inception in 1895 this event has ensured that for five days in June every second year the city must support the weight of the following: several thousand works of art; a vast and amorphous group of art dealers, curators, critics, collectors, socialites and sundry other kinds of hanger-on customarily referred to as the international art community; and (much the heaviest item) all the drink that the international art community consumes during what is by general consent a massive booze-up disguised as a visual arts festival.

The theme of the 45th Venice Biennale varied according to which of the many statements issued by its organiser-in-chief, Achille Bonito Oliva, you chose to believe. 'State of Emergency' was one possibility, but the most likely candidate (on the basis that it appeared in more than one press release) was 'The Cardinal Points of Art', one of those conveniently vague phrases beloved of continental exhibition organisers.

According to Oliva: 'The present historical moment is one of political fragmentation and social division bordering on tribal warfare. The offerings of culture must therefore adopt a broadly international character. Art's internationalism constitutes its moral nature.' Following these worthy sentiments to their logical conclusion, the Biennale organisers had recommended that the major participating countries, each of which owns a pavilion in the Giardini, the public park where the event takes place, should give over part of their exhibiting space to an artist from a less privileged country.

The Giardini is an odd place, a microcosm of international power relations circa 1910; the British pavilion, flanked by West Germany and France, lords it on top of the hill that dominates the most imposing of the Giardini's leafy avenues, America stands slightly to one side, and many countries are absent. But this is the Biennale that attempts to redraw its own anachronistic map of the world: the Jeux sans Frontieres Biennale, devoted to peace and love and a spirit of international co-operation. The Hungarian pavilion contained work by an American, the American pavilion contained work by a Frenchwoman and the Israeli pavilion contained work by one Japanese and several Russians. An event whose raison d'etre has always been a form of cultural jingoism seems to have turned politically correct.

In fact, it has only done so half- heartedly: most of the exhibiting nations had resisted this subversive threat to sovereignty. The message to artists from countries that are not on the Biennale's map was fairly brusque: tough luck. Painters and sculptors from South Africa, from Ethiopia or Somalia or Mexico, can still count themselves fortunate if the odd corner is found for them to show in one of the annexes of the enormous Italian pavilion. Given the quality of most of the work there, it may be that the art world is not quite ready for the massive geographical reorientation suggested by the rhetoric of the 1993 Biennale. An entire pavilion given over (say) to the work of Bartolommeo Manzoni Borghese, San Marino's representative and a painter of breathtakingly inept portraits and seascapes, is not a pleasant thought.

Having said that, the entire pavilion that has actually been given over to Japan's representative, Yayoi Kusama, who exhibits wall-hung silver lurex knitted sculptures in rooms painted yellow with black polka dots, is not a pleasant reality. Neither is the entire pavilion given over to Belgium's representative, Jan Vercruysse, whose contribution includes several marble sculptures of a giant turtle pushing a beach ball along with its nose. The Spanish and Czech and Canadian pavilions are also spectacularly poor, although perhaps the Venezuelan pavilion - devoted to the work of one Miguel von Dangel, who makes enormous fibreglass sculptures of disembowelled animals - is the worst of all.

If this really is the Biennale that wants to signal the fracturing of the old nationalistic pecking order of modern art, what it suggests most vividly is not a levelling up, but a levelling down - a brave new world order where all artists from all countries are as bad as each other. It is customary to say that every Venice Biennale represents a new low, a new falling off of standards, and people were saying it a lot last week. But the outrage is misplaced, because to suggest that the Biennale is a true measure of the state of contemporary art is rather like suggesting that you can judge the state of contemporary popular music by tuning into the Eurovision Song Contest. All that anyone can ever hope to take away from a visit to the event are one or two memorable experiences to offset the numerous nuls points.

The two most remarkable pavilions might have been planned in tandem. Each amounted to a striking repudiation of the old guiding concept of the Biennale, originally invented as a showcase for the artistic achievements and, by implication, cultural health of the participating nations. Each took the form of an indictment of the country that it represented. And each was remarkable for the fact that it contained nothing much like a work of art.

Russia was represented by Ilya Kabakov, who lives and works in New York but who has spent most of his life virtually in hiding in Moscow, unable to show in his own country. He has responded to the Russian invitation to exhibit in Venice by converting the Russian pavilion into a building site. The Neoclassical building is surrounded by the kind of wooden palisade that you often see in Italy surrounding churches in restauro. A handpainted sign tells you where to enter. You find yourself in a darkened corridor, lit by a single naked lightbulb, full of rubble and the detritus that painter decorators leave around when they have not yet completed their work: paintpots and brushes, crumpled bits of cloth and other items of obscure rubbish. The central hall, pitch dark, is occupied by a large and ramshackle edifice of scaffolding past which visitors have to process in single file before finding themselves, suddenly, out in the open air at the back of the building. Emerging into sunlight, you stand on a balcony and look down into the garden, where a small plywood model of the building you have just left, fitted with loudspeakers, blares out a tinny recording of Soviet military music of the 1950s. The effect is hardly subtle but bluntness, here, is the whole point. Modern Russia is a ruin, the people trying to rebuild it have given up half way through and the past is a shaming joke, sad and pointless.

Germany was represented by Hans Haacke, who has been making text- heavy protest art of one form or another, targeting corporations for activities such as trade with South Africa, for more than 20 years. In Venice, he has created what may turn out to be the one work for which he will be remembered. Haacke has transformed the German pavilion into another kind of ruin, another echoing chamber full of rubble. He has responded to the grandiose architecture with admirable straightforwardness by taking the floor up. But he has also had the broken floor tiles left in situ, heaped in uneven piles that visitors walk on and over: the result is a perpetual crash and thunder like the sound of crockery being smashed. On the far wall of this enormous room Haacke has simply placed a large inscription which reads 'Germania'. Again, the point is hardly subtle, although there is a performance element here which slightly complicates it: modern Germany, like modern Russia, is represented as a ruin, but one that makes the viewer complicit in its ruination, a participant to the crashing chaos that he witnesses.

Kabakov's and Haacke's contributions may be the two most powerful and despairing politically motivated works of art seen in Europe for a long time. But their summary violence, their vigorous emptying out of spaces designed to house easel paintings and sculptures on plinths, also lend them the character of a paradox. This is art that might be said to respond to catastrophe by indicting the very idea of art: art which suggests that there are more important things to do, just now, than wander around a park in the Venetian sunshine in the company of wealthy collectors comparing the state of painting in Holland and Denmark or assessing the strength of contemporary Icelandic conceptualism.

Richard Hamilton's recent politically motivated work, installed in the British pavilion, which is right next to the German pavilion and only some 50 yards from the Russian one, suffers by comparison. In this context Hamilton's paintings on the subject of Northern Ireland, or the Gulf war, seem infected by a kind of artistic arrogance that Haacke's and Kabakov's work suggests has had its day. Hamilton's new pictures implicitly suggest that the modern artist can still, as Picasso once did with Guernica, play a significant role in world politics. But the truth may be that no one, outside the limited audience for the work of Hamilton (or any other contemporary artist), could care less about his political views. Haacke's and Kabakov's work is less hubristic and more realistic because it combines outrage with the sad knowledge of art's political irrelevance.

Hamilton's work is at least preferable to a lot of the other junk in a Biennale riddled with supposedly politically conscious art. The Israeli contribution is a greenhouse full of tomato plants and geraniums, irrigated by a fantastically complicated and expensive watering system, erected by an architect called Avital Geva. This was Green propaganda, a way of advising the peoples of the world to grow their own. Funny how often ecologically-minded artists devise installations that require vast amounts of space and electricity.

The Aperto, or younger artists' section of the Biennale, staged in the appropriately named Cordiere (or old rope shops) was as dispiriting as usual, although there were one or two exceptions to the rule of mediocrity: notably the most pre-publicised work in the Biennale, Damien Hirst's Mother and Child Divided, which consisted of a carefully bisected cow and calf placed in four glass cases filled with formaldehyde. This turned out to be a considerably less dumbly gruesome than its own advance publicity had suggested: another of Hirst's blunt statements of the fact of mortality, tempered by the discovery of a peculiar kind of beauty. Half vanitas, half science lesson, Hirst's piece turned viewers into scalpels, allowing them, in effect, the strange experience of walking through an animal's carefully sectioned body and seeing its anatomy unfold like a landscape.

Perhaps the most fitting emblem of the Biennale was the Yugoslavian pavilion. It had been confiscated from Yugoslavia by the Biennale organisers, who refused to display work by an unfortunate Croatian artist who turned up unaware of their decision. Instead, the Non-Yugoslav Pavilion, as it was designated in the Biennale press material, was consecrated to a mostly witless display of work arranged under the rubric 'Machines for Peace'. The most politically irrelevant art in the Biennale was to be found here and, too, the most gratuitously sentimental political art; a piece by Mario Ceroli titled Project for Peace, which consisted of 100 white flags planted on the gallery floor. Peace, love and understanding: tell it to the Croatian artist stranded in Venice with a year's work and nowhere to show it. After the coups de theatre of the Russian and German pavilions, almost everything else in the Biennale comes to seem more or less like graffiti, babble, white noise: fiddling while Eastern Europe burns.

(Photographs omitted)