Death in Venice

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The distinguished thing itself. Isn’t that what Henry James, on his death bed, called death? The distinguished thing is a motif of sorts at this Biennale. The U.S., of course, is represented by the late Felix Gonzalez-Torres. (Though the pavilion doesn’t include his loveliest commentary on mortality, Untitled (Perfect Lovers), two simple round wall clocks hung side by side and perfectly synchronized, so that even their second hands are sweeping in unison. It’s a wonderful image of two shared lives ticking away.) And in the big international show at the Arsenale there’s Tijuanatanjierchandelier, a large and mesmerizing installation that was one of the last works by Jason Rhoades, the Los Angeles artist who died last year.

Also at the Arsenale, I Will Die, the morbidly fascinating video installation on ten large screens by Yang Zhenzhong, who asked hundreds of people all around the world, young and old, to look into his camera and repeat those three words, which, of course, will someday be true for all of them. And for everyone who is watching. People stay watching this one for a while.

But the tour de force in this department belongs once again to the French artist Sophie Calle. She’s representing France this year with her witty revenge on an ex-boyfriend, but she also has a very different piece in the International show. On a single day in February 2006 Calle learned that she had been named to represent France at the Biennale and that her mother had just a month left to live. Her mother agreed to let a camera record her last days, hours and even minutes. The heart breaking climax of this installation, which also includes pictures and wall texts, is a 13-minute video that appears at first to be a still photograph. Calle’s mother lies motionless in a bed, with only the very slightest rise and fall of her chest to indicate that she’s still breathing. At some point, though it’s impossible to say just when, she dies before our eyes. Tender, fearless and unforgettable.

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