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Venice Biennale

At last a chance to find out what the Venice Biennale is all about.  Founded in 1895 and held on odd years, this is the leading contemporary art exhibition in the world (with architecture on the even years). This year marks the 55th, after various breaks for wars.

Initially there were national pavilions, structured around the big old nations. Just like the academies and schools in Rome, where in general the major European nations got the prime slots and erected impressive buildings that shout of old empires, while the newcomers fit in around the fringes, so the Giardini, just past Piazza San Marco on the way to the Lido, form the prime venue.  Britain has a neo-classical-style pavilion, Germany’s was rebuilt in 1938 to suitably fascistic designs…

The national pavilions – each with its own curator and project – grew more and more numerous, and in 1980 the Corderie dell’Arsenale was also opened, adding a ‘new street’ to the biennale. By 2007 there were some 106 countries, the Arsenale was expanded beyond just the rope-making section, and even then the two main venues could no longer hold all the pavilions. The desperate search began for additional venues elsewhere in the city. This year there are several first appearances from countries as varied as the Vatican, Angola, Bahrain and the Bahamas.

Meanwhile, from 1993 onwards, an additional strand was added – the International Exhibition, organized by a curator appointed by the Biennale. This year Massimiliano Gioni, Italian-born director of exhibitions at New York’s New Museum of Contemporary Art, has organized Il Palazzo Enciclopedico, The Encyclopaedic Palace. The question he poses, rather clumsily entitled “An exhibition-research” (which sounds a lot better in Italian) according to the information leaflet “wishes to reflect on [artists’] creative urges and pushes the question even further:  what is the artists’ world?” His inspiration was a patent filed in the US in 1955 by an Italian-American called Marino Auriti, for a Palazzo Enciclopedico – a museum to hold all the world’s knowledge. Auriti’s model of this palace forms part of the display, looking something like a cross between the Tower of Babel and the House of Congress. The exhibition seems to be a direct descendant of all those libraries of everything, from Alexandria via Matthias Corvinus, Umberto Eco and the French Mitterand grand projets, but filtered through the visual rather than the written arts. It’s a very appealing concept, especially in these days when the internet’s clouds have replaced all hope of creating a building that could hold all the world’s knowledge.

And even this Biennale itself is too much to grasp in its entirety. We spent one day in the Giardini – from opening time to beyond closing time, and one in the Arsenale. We also saw many of the pavilions around Venice. We didn’t have time to “finish” the Biennale, and – with some very notable exceptions – we rarely watched the whole length of the myriad video installations. I watched people float into the video rooms, watch for a few seconds, then float on by. I estimate (anecdotally and with no concrete evidence) that over 95% of the video material on show went unwatched.

But at any rate, when I read a review by a critic who spent four hours and “saw” the whole biennale, I know he is talking bollocks. Either he just went to the well-hyped ones, or he enjoyed a couple of vernissages, downed a few glasses, chatted to a few like-minded souls and then wrote up his piece. It is simply not possible to “do” the Biennale so quickly.

So here goes with a personal and totally objective view. We were not at the grand opening, and our experience was (sadly) unfiltered by schmooze or hype.

It started off rather poorly. The Swiss pavilion, designed by Giacometti, contained a metal pipe with a snake’s head that …er, snaked around the walls, past a few kitschy squashed trombones and saxophones displayed on the walls, and ended up in a leaf-strewn courtyard with a Piaggio scooter.  

Swiss pavilion – snake in the foreground, Piaggio in the background

It was called “you they they I you”. I leave you to your own conclusions at that title… Apparently it was to do with primal fear, and the metal was taken from an old fire station which is of great significance. Sorry Valentin Carron, but the “elegant discourse on the definition of sculpture”, which “raises questions about adolescent desires, speed limits and even the correct tone of paint to use”[1] washed straight past us.

We enjoyed the Russian pavilion (designed incidentally by the same chap that designed Lenin’s Mausoleum), much more. Vadim Zakharov had a lot of fun with the myth of Danaë, impregnated by Zeus in a shower of golden rain.

A motionless male model sits on a saddle high up on a beam, as though he were advertising Ralph Lauren riding kit, above a pile of gold. The walls are decorated in a stylish font with the confession, “Gentlemen, time has come to confess our Rudeness, Lust, Narcissism, Demagoguery, Falsehood, Banality, and Greed, Cynicism, Robbery, Speculation, Wastefulness, Gluttony, Seduction, Envy and Stupidity.” In the next room, we all knelt round an altar rail with kneeling prayer cushions to look over the edge at another pile of gold coins, dripping from a huge shower head supplied by a motorised conveyor belt. Another Russian mafioso, motionless in dark shades, supervises the machine. Visiting the lower floor, women were permitted to borrow umbrellas and walk beneath the golden shower to help scoop up the spermy coins and return them to the system.  A threatening message warned that the success of the project depended on us keeping the flow of money going. Well, subtle it wasn’t, but good fun, and we (the girls anyhow) got to keep one golden Danaë.

The French and Germans collaborated together on some kind of Alsace landswap, perhaps trying to convince us about the solidity of the Euro, and swapped pavilions. So the French pavilion, labelled  Germania, contained a pretentious film installation by Anri Sala. In the first room we saw just the face of Chloe, a DJ, concentrating on something; in the central room we saw two famous pianists’ left hands playing a concerto by Ravel; and in the final room we saw Chloe trying to unite the two versions on a mixing desk. Sala says he intended “to make a space resound consecutively to the temporal gap between the two performances; to paradoxically create an ‘other’ space in an environment conceived to annihilate the sense of space (by suppressing echoes).” And your point is? Funnily enough, the exhibition was entitled Ravel, Ravel Unravel (geddit!) which is not only tremendously witty but also doesn’t work in French (désentortiller Ravel… ). Which is all the funnier when you realise that this was the only pavilion in the entire Biennale that refused to supply any explanation in English. Aren’t the French just so sweet when they are defending their national patrimoine linguistique…  Although the central room was a pleasant enough space, and gosh those pianists played well, this seemed a great waste of a good exhibition space. La pretension incarnée.

The Germans meanwhile were being multi-cultural with a big M. Their four (French) rooms were given over to Chinese Ai Weiwei, South African Santu Mofokeng, French Romuald Karmakar and Indian Dayanita Singh, none of whom has a German passport. The big star overshadowed the others with a big bang installation, using hundreds of old handmade wooden stools, which have welcomed thousands of family bottoms in their time, and signified something meaningful about ‘how the increasing internationalisation of our life impacts on our  individual realities’ according to curator Susanne Gaensheimer. The only directly German-themed artwork in this pavilion was Karmakar’s film about the far right, which was PC in its own way.

Ai WeiWei’s stools

Britain’s pavilion dates from 1909, though it was only in 1931 that the government agreed to accept responsibility, putting the entries under the Department of Overseas Trade, before shunting it off to the British Council after the war. This year’s British pavilion – Scotland and Wales are exiled to subsidiary venues elsewhere in the city – hosts an exhibition entitled “English Magic” by Jeremy Deller. Well, “by” Jeremy Deller, though most of the artwork seems to be actually created by other artists. It focuses on “British society – its people, icons, myths, folklore and its cultural and political history…. contemporary…psychedelic…” Deller looks very pleasant and anti-capitalist in his grubby beanie and we loved the inflatable Stonehenge, but this exhibit didn’t really get us excited. There were some great photos and films of birds of prey, some of them squeezing little Landrovers in a kind of “the aristocracy hunts wildlife and wildlife bites back” sort of message, and some fun prints where William Morris hurls Roman Abramovich’s yacht into the lagoon, referring to the priority mooring the billionaire enjoyed when he visited Venice. There was a whole room of photos from 1972 which was perhaps an important year in Jeremy’s life, but it all seemed a bit glib, or – to borrow from teenager-speak – meh, which I think means ‘so what?’ It follows in the tradition of Jerusalem by seeming to subvert a new English folklore, but it all seemed very superficial. By far the best bit was the free cup of tea offered in the back loggia, which splendidly confirmed the English cliché that tea is a jolly good drink on a hot afternoon.

Well, enough whining about the poor pavilions, but let’s just say that there was a lot of blather about displacement, alienation, globalization, dislocation etc. All the artists were seeking to express their individuality and many succeeded only in emphasising their absolute heterogeneity.

The pavilions that stood out were the following:

Denmark showed films by Jesper Just. Entitled “Intercourses” (yes, well, OK) they showed three men of African descent working endlessly through a bleak black-and-white urban landscape. There was something of the Escher landscape in the endless loop of searching and hoping, building and ruination. It was filmed in a Chinese replica of Paris and was mesmerising and somehow poignant. The audience had already had to make an effort as the entrance to the pavilion itself was something of an endless loop of search and hoping through the ruined tradesman’s entrance at the back, so probably a good percentage of potential viewers never even found the way in.

Finland showed a very interesting installation by Terike Haapoja about “the limits to the centrality of the human subject within nature, the role of technology in shaping our worldview, and the possibilities for an elemental politics,” whatever that might mean. There was something of the science museum/ research lab about this work, with leaves breathing, cows decomposing and temperatures rising and falling.

Gilad Ratman’s Israel pavilion was one of the most successful overall works, using different artistic media to create one brilliant and involving experience. I suppose we went in expecting to get the usual waffle about displacement and alienation, this time multiplied by the whole Holocaust/Nakba, colonialist/persecution discourse. What we got was a coherent narrative that left us emotionally wrung out. A film showed the group entering a small cave on an Israeli hillside. After scrambling through a challenging tunnel they emerge through a hole in the concrete floor of the pavilion in Venice where they set to work with lumps of clay modelling self portraits of themselves. They insert microphones into their clay heads and as they work they begin to moan, groan, sing and howl as they pour their frustrations and personal griefs into their clay alter egos. From fairly normal human beings the artists seemed to lose their inhibitions until the scene resembled a kind of ear-splitting creative Bedlam. Strong!

Israel’s visceral installation


Sarah Sze’s American pavilion was also fascinating though lacking passion, with its attempts to classify groups of bits and bobs and make some kind of Ordnung. Australia’s Simryn Gill’s flights of bits of paper and collections of O’s, from O-rings to kilner rings in a kind of tidal debris of ring-shaped stuff was very beautiful, and were also moved by Belgium’s Berlinde de Bryckere’s Cripplewood and Mark Manders’ dead fox.

Simryn Gill’s little flying paper insect words, Let Go, Lets Go

A quick late lunch break – nasty and expensive – and thus fortified we entered the central pavilion. The selection of images, visions, experiences was mind-numbing. It began with Jung’s Red Book images, a manuscript that looked rather like Tolkien’s illustrations, dated by its Gothic script and bright colours. There were other explorers of the mind, of the supernatural, self-taught and offbeat. Names that stood out: Ron Nagle with his little blood-drippingly precise ceramics; Weiss and Fischli with their humorous little raw clay pieces (ah, humour, at last!), the bizarre Morton Barlett whose child-size ceramic Lolita-esque dolls were discovered after his death, the strange Shinro Ohtake’s fat scrap books dripping with images and paint. And above all, José Antonio Suárez Londono, whose little notebook pages were crammed with beauty and precision.

Suárez Londono


We had a rest day marvellously kayaking around the canals of Venice at barnacle-level, including terrifying zigzaggings across the Grand Canal, dodging the gondolas, vaporettos and motoscaffi, and then over the choppy water to San Giorgio – where we navigated by targeting our kayak bowsprits through the spray onto the 11-metre high unmissable pink inflatable blimp of Alison Lapper by Mark Quinn.

And so to the fabulous space of the Arsenale, where the military might of the Venetian Empire has declined over the last eight centuries into spectacularly picturesque brickwork and rusting ivy-clad metal.

Arsenale drums from the Georgian pavilion





A large hall full of Pawel Althamer’s beautiful but slightly Hollywood nightmare figures, with their serenely detailed faces and tortured constructed bodies.


We drifted past endless videos, and noticed that very rarely did anyone stay to watch a whole film. The exception was the excellent Camille Henriot, who made one of the few videos that did really grab passersby – and who won a Silver Lion for most promising young artist. Another exception for a strange film about the Vinci remote operating machine that enables doctors to do micro-surgery with robot arms as though playing a video game. I was gripped for 20 minutes as a needle viciously pierced a beautiful glacier-like landscape of throbbing innards, and then carried out some strange cutting operation, removing the waste in a tiny plastic bag. It was balletic and moving.

South Africa had a strong showing, especially Sam Nhlengethwa’s photo-montages. United Arab Emirates had a fun trompe cerveau. The Latin American pavilion was full of interesting stuff, and some less interesting… Alfredo Jaar’s model of the Giardini pavilions rose and fell in a large tank of water every three minutes in some kind of atmospheric climate change warning. There was just too much, and when we came across a Bruce Nauman video, with a man – maybe Bruce himself, who knows? – dangling upside down and being spun around and mumbling madly, we knew how he felt. Not that we wanted to watch…  


Sonia Falcone’s wonderful-smelling Latin American spice hall





Sophie screaming to be let out


By this time we were becoming art zombies. A woman screamed while metal dripped onto an enormous sheet – the more she screamed the faster the drips fell. Was there some meaning here? There certainly was little beauty. Nearby we queued to escape, and were let in two by two up a rubble-strewn passage-way to a dead end. And all the time the woman screamed. At the exit, where we said “pah” to the attendant, she showed us how – if we had had enough imagination – we could have seen the room behind the dead end, which was of course not visible from the installation. Perhaps if we had not been maddened by the screaming woman we might have bothered, but this was one of those installations where you just began to wonder how much it had cost and what was really the point. Apart from the Georgian pavilion – a wooden staircase to nowhere in particular, the Chinese pavilion was the last we saw. It was huge and full of good things. It had … wait for it… real paintings… and installations and videos and all sorts of beautiful interesting works. But by then we were over-cooked.

In terms of installations around town we saw the light installations at Ca’ Rezzonico, which served rather to show how much better the artists of the seventeenth century were than those of today. A neon halo with an ugly wire may have some deep inner significance, but is an artwork that is not only ugly but poorly made and doesn’t work without a lengthy explanatory placard to tell you about the artist’s inner thought processes really valid? The attendants knew nothing, the show looked dusty and past it, though it was only a month in, with another four to go. And as for the music emanating from the ornate chandelier on the second floor – it had given up the ghost.

The Bangladeshi pavilion at the Officina delle Zattere had one very scary installation by Dhali al-Mamoon – a tent of black hairy people, only hair and legs visible, with a collection of severed arms hanging above it. I watched a teenage girl catch sight of it, back away and then absolutely refuse to enter the room. A strong reaction, which is worth much after the shuffling blandness of most art experiences.

The Palestinians were Otherwise Occupied, filling a calm green courtyard with cardboard boxes representing houses. Inside was a video of a trial of an activist. Heyho, more displacement and exile, while trashing the garden….

Iceland’s pavilion had a stone patterned floor by Karin Sigurdóttir that didn’t fit in the building it was put in, spilling out into the surrounding area. Again, it seemed like a lot of effort to make a relatively minor point, though it was attractive enough, and a little bizarre.

We missed Angola’s pavilion in Palazzo Cini, which won one of the Golden Lions, and apparently there were scenes of chaos as they gave away limited edition posters when they won. The other Golden Lion went to Tino Sehgal’s trio of performers who made strange beatbox clickings and rhythmic noises in the central hall. I stopped to watch a baby’s reaction to the performance, and the baby looked away in boredom, then caught my eye and grinned broadly.

There is a lot to grin at here. There is a lot of pretension and emperor’s new clothes. But what a lot to think about, what a lot of beauty, thoughtfulness, stimulation, wonderfulness. We came away feeling full of exhilaration, inspiration, ideas. There is a whole encyclopaedia of art and knowledge out there to explore. 




[1] Interview in Designboom.com

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