For much of its 108 years, the Venice Biennale has been the art world's equivalent of a motor show. Every two years, the 30 or so pavilions in the Biennale gardens polish up their new artistic vehicles, taking their national identities out for a spin. This year, with over 60 countries vying for prizes, organizers have sought to defuse possible tensions. In the medieval ship-building spaces of the Arsenale, next to the Giardini, Biennale director Francesco Bonami presents hectares of art that blurs international borders and, in the final "Utopia Station" section, has a Buddhist monk chanting a mantra of peace. If the 50th Venice Biennale seeks to explode the old nationalistic model, its defining work is perhaps Damián Ortega's Cosmic Thing, 2001. Here in the rear of the Arsenale, the Mexican artist dismantles a 1983 Volkswagen Beetle, and suspends it by wire, piece by piece.
Yet despite all the talk of deconstruction, the Biennale remains something of a car show for Australia and New Zealand. "Up until now, being able to produce your own car has been the symbol of the sophistication of a society - it's the top of engineering, it's the greatest thing you can do," says New Zealand's co-curator, Boris Kremer. "These days, it would seem it's maybe less about cars and more about art." It's a moot point in the case of Kiwi artist Michael Stevenson, who for the Biennale has placed a restored 1960s Land Rover lookalike smack bang in the middle of the round 18th century church of La Maddalena.
Owner of a finely calibrated sense of irony, Stevenson was inspired by the world of Italian advertising, which often places cars in classical settings to suggest the timelessness of the vehicles' design. "And now we've got this ridiculous design within this very classical architecture," Stevenson says.
His installation, "This Is the Trekka," doesn't celebrate any ordinary car. In 1966, at the height of the Cold War and with the world anticipating imminent nuclear conflict, isolationist New Zealand sought to produce its own cross-country automobile. But with no history of Henry Ford–style mass production, Auckland businessman Noel Turner's novel idea was to secretly import Skoda engines and chassis from iron-curtained Czechoslovakia, for which he bartered dairy products and suitcases full of sausage casings.
If the Trekka's story, which ended in 1972 with the introduction of Japanese cars to New Zealand, seems stranger than fiction, so too is Stevenson's exhibition. Around his comical khaki box on wheels ("You can have it any color as long as it's green," was the car's original sales pitch), the artist has erected walls of Warholian boxes, on which Creamery Butter replaces Brillo pads. Retro TVs display 1960s anticommunist propaganda, while a photo by Marti Friedlander shows New Zealanders demonstrating against the Soviet suppression of the Prague Spring. Did we mention the table of sausage casings?
But perhaps Stevenson's strangest exhibit is a 2-m-high hydraulic computer known as the "Moniac." Designed by the economist W.A. Phillips in 1949, it is a labyrinth of Plexiglas pipes filled with red fluid to represent money circulating through New Zealand's economy. "Linked, the Trekka and the Moniac become a wishful mixed metaphor," writes co-curator Robert Leonard in the catalog. "The Trekka powering the national economy, making it pump."
Employing fictional devices and conspiracy theories, Stevenson cleverly concocts a time capsule of New Zealand before globalization, of innocence mixed with paranoia. (His previous exhibition used a similar technique to document German artist Jörg Immendorff's disastrous visit to Auckland in 1987, just as the world's stock markets collapsed.) And so, with "This Is the Trekka," a car is not a car but a bittersweet metaphor for a country's search for artistic autonomy.
Half an hour's vaporetto ride away, in the middle of the Giardini, the Australian pavilion, too, is awash with car culture. Enter architect Philip Cox's backyard shed-like structure, and artist Patricia Piccinini greets visitors with a row of fluorescent racing car helmets. Down some stairs, her sculptures are arranged on pristine white-upholstered car interiors. "I'm in a car every day," says Piccinini of her aesthetic obsession. "I drive around a lot."
But there's a point to her car fetish. Piccinini is interested in how everyday life is being shaped by technology - in particular, by what she sees as the relentless production line of genetic engineering. At the heart of her Venice show is a video called Plasmid Region, an icky David Cronenberg-type affair in which an animated stem cell gives birth to alarming new biological forms. "That's the beautiful and frightening thing," says Piccinini, "because it just keeps making them. Making and making and making."
The rampant creation of Plasmid Region parallels Piccinini's own artistic outpouring. Call her the Henry Ford of Australian contemporary art. Piccinini's Venice installation, "We Are Family," showcases her latest, beautifully manufactured progeny. Made from silicone, acrylic and human hair, what looks like a cross between a human and a pig is surrounded by her sucklings. Nearby, two pre-teen boys, Ollie and Solly, lean against a wall engrossed in a game of Nintendo, prematurely aged like the cloned sheep Dolly. Upstairs, a young girl plays with a litter of moist, fleshy biotech lumps. Intimate in scale and melancholy in mood, Piccinini's "family" is a gently cautionary tale of what could happen when we treat human life as if it were another car on the production line.
Meanwhile, back at La Maddalena, Michael Stevenson is opening up the bonnet of his car for public scrutiny. "It's just a very intriguing object when you understand the way it's put together," he says, revealing the Czech motor within the body of his Kiwi Trekka. Whether journeying back to a fearful past or zooming towards a frightening future, both Australia and New Zealand offer visitors to the Biennale similarly challenging glimpses of their nation's psyches. n