When in Venice…

‘When in Venice…’, review of Venice Biennale, Art Monthly Australia, July, pp24-26

Venice Biennale

‘I will not make any more boring art’ reads the giant banner slung across the front of one of the palaces on the Grand Canal. It’s there to greet the 300,000 visitors who are expected to visit the Venice Biennale this year. The text has been extracted and enlarged from a 1971 work by John Baldessari, who, along with Yoko Ono, won the Biennale’s Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement this year. Originally Baldessari had written it out multiple times for a video work as though he was a school child being punished. He was wittily commenting on the serial nature of art at the time, and pre-dating Bart Simpson’s nightly exercises by eighteen years. Now turned from a conceptual art piece into a single slogan for the Biennale it announces that we are entering the globalised, corporatised world of the international art fair, where scale, impact and the grand gesture define the moment.

The Biennale consists of a large curated exhibition, this year called Making Worlds and curated by Daniel Birnbaum; 77 national contributions, either within purpose-built pavilions or elsewhere; 44 collateral events and exhibitions; and other events which although not officially part of the Biennale are timed to ride its bow waves. (For instance the billionaire art collector and owner of Christie’s, Francois Pinault, timed the opening of his private museum in the newly restored Venice Customs House, the Punta della Dogana, to coincide with the Biennale.) The Biennale proper takes place over two main areas — the Arsenale, originally Venice’s Military precinct, and the Giardini, located in nearby parkland — as well as numerous other venues throughout Venice. All up it includes about 800 artists and runs until November 22 this year.

Daniel Birnbaum’s Making Worlds exhibition was dedicated to the notion that ‘the artist makes worlds, not objects’. In the Arsenale section of Making Worlds the show led the visitor for hundreds and hundreds of metres down a long cavernous space, then outside into the Arsenale’s gardens where more works were tucked away in overgrown nooks and tumbledown buildings. The exhibition continued in a more labyrinthine form in the old Italian Pavilion in the Giardini which has been enlarged and renamed the Palazzo delle Esposizioni. The spirit of Fluxus and the post war avant-gardes reigned over the show. As Birnbaum said: ‘not every artist who is new or who is doing something interesting is 27 years old’.  Of the over 90 artists in the show many were senior, such as Yoko Ono and John Baldessari, and thirteen were, in fact, dead  — such as the Brazillian artist Lygia Pape who died in 2004 (at the ripe age of 77). She opened the Arsenale arm of show with a breathtaking installation of delicate square columns of copper thread stretched between floor and ceiling which she completed just before she died; and she was also in the Palazzo with a work from the late 1950s consisting of elegantly cut and folded cardboard sheets telling a creation story in austere abstract geometry.

The show had plenty of familiar old stagers from the circuit, such as Joan Jonas (who was at last year’s Sydney Biennale) who restaged her Reading Dante project; as well as wonderful lesser known surprises from the older generation, such as Hans-Peter Feldmann, the German collector/artist who presented Shadow Play, a frieze of flickering shadows made by shining lights across his collection of dolls and toys as they rotated on turn-tables. His complete corpus of artist’s books was also on display in the Book Pavilion. Yoko Ono’s ‘instruction pieces’ were a simple pleasure, but so too was a display from Gutai, the Japanese avant-garde group formed in 1954, most of whom have either now died or are well into their eighties. They re-presented coloured water suspended from the ceiling in plastic tubes, wooden boxes you could listen to, constellations of light bulbs embedded in sand, torn paper walls, and other avant-garde delights which were as fresh today as they were fifty years ago.

This spirit was given a contemporary spin by plenty of the younger artists, such as the Chinese artist Chu Yun. His Constellation consisted of a darkened room that, when you first entered, appeared to be an Aladdin’s cave full of flashing jewels, which you soon realized were the LED lights from scores of ordinary household appliances, passively waiting without function.

A lot of the works Birnbaum selected for Making Worlds were shot through with the elemental constituents of the act of fabrication: primary colours; cuts and collages; stackings and scatters; drawn charts and maps. However post-colonial politics, a standard theme for the global art circuit for at least the last ten years, was also strongly present. For instance Pascale Marthine Tayou, born in Cameroon but based in Belgium, constructed an African village crammed with video projectors projecting scenes of everyday labour from around the world onto every available surface; while Haloba Anawana, born in Zambia but based in Norway, built The Greater G8 Advertising Marketing Stand, where tins of third world products could be opened so they played personal stories of pain and displacement from speakers hidden in their lids.

Engineered construction, reconstruction and architecture were other themes. A steel and glass sculpture by Palermo built for the 1976 Venice Biennale was reconstructed in the same room for this Biennale; Simon Starling designed an elaborate steel film-projector where the 35mm film snaked through a spiral of rollers at the end of a twisting column of stainless steel arms, and projected the images and sounds of its own construction in a factory. At the other end of this spectrum of fabrication the Barcelona artists Bestué/Vives constructed a hilariously kooky costume out of paper, cloth and string which allowed them to transform from man, to motorbike to horse and back again whilst running through some wasteland under a flight path.

The after-effects of relational aesthetics were also still present. Att Poomtangon from Thailand, but now based in New York, used Thai engineering to construct a hanging garden which was meant to be watered by visitors treadling on pumps. However the wooden treadles were already broken and the plants were dying. The Golden Lion for Best Artist went to Tobias Rehberger who painted out the cafeteria walls, floors, ceilings and furniture in a World War One vintage ‘razzle dazzle’ camouflage pattern, to subject the weary visitor to yet more shifts in perceptual orientation as they ate their lunch.

The show took great pleasure in deliberately slipping and sliding between mediums. The American artist Tony Conrad called his pleasant drippy-black painted rectangles from the 1970s ‘movies’ because their cheap paper and paint yellowed over time; while the Silver Lion for most promising young artist went to Nathalie Djurberg who made a nightmare dungeon out of large-scale wet-looking ceramic sculptures of cacti and succulent plants which crowded round video projections of her stop-frame animations in clay, where priests and cardinals committed unspeakable acts of perversion, degradation and cannibalism on naked and pinkly-frightened young women.

The national representations in the various pavilions in the Giardini and elsewhere were a far cry from being an ‘art olympics’. The German curator selected for the German pavilion the British artist Liam Gillick (who ended up making a pretty boring work consisting of an installation of kitchen benches and an audio track), while Denmark and the Nordic countries (Finland, Norway and Sweden) collaborated on what was the highlight of the pavilions. Their project, called The Collectors, was a collaboration between 25 artists curated by Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset who installed works by each artist throughout the two pavilions, which are side by side. The various works from the artists — which were wall pieces, installations, sculptures and photographs — combined to construct two huge, comprehensive and integrated domestic scenarios of contemporary excess in wealth, consumption and taste — all the way from the kitchen, to the dining room, to the bedroom. The scenario in one pavilion, ‘A. Family’, told a story of marital break-up, while the scenario in the pavilion next door, ‘Mr B.’, told a story of homosexual murder, or perhaps suicide.

The themes established in Making Worlds seemed to find echoes in the national pavilions. There were more collections, for instance Jussi Kivi’s vast and orderless collection of everything and anything to do with fire for Finland, or Jef Geys’ scientific survey of medicinal plants found in urban situations for Belgium. There were lots of gardens and cultivations. The grain of the human voice was often heard, not only throughout Making Worlds in the work of artists like Joan Jonas for instance, where ordinary people read from Dante, or in Tamara Grcic’s bright-red life rafts floating in the Arsenale dock from which the overlapping voices of ordinary conversations could be heard; but also in Krzysztof Wodiczko’s video installation for Poland where migrant workers told their stories as we appeared to see them outside of the pavilion blurrily washing its windows, or in Katarina Zdjelar’s videos about language and identity, where for instance a Korean woman struggled again and again to pronounce the artist’s name.

The viewer’s ears were also fully engaged in the British Pavilion, which had been darkened into a cinema for scheduled screenings of Steve McQueen’s two-gun video work Giardini. The work, another highlight, was filmed in the Giardini during winter, the off-season between Biennales. Snails crawled over leaves, buds dripped cold water, and confetti leaked its dye into the icy gravel, while dogs nuzzled through rubbish and occasionally the distant roar of a crowd from the soccer stadium which is behind the Giardini, on the tip of Venice itself, penetrated the microcosmic aural world of drips and rustles. Then, slowly, two male figures emerge from the darkness, silently regard each other across the two screens, and disappear together into the bushes.

The other common sounds of the Biennale were loops of music propelling the various video and film animations, and the slowed-down bassy rumbles that accompanied the more stentorian of the videos. This was the sound in the Australian Pavilion as Shaun Gladwell’s helmeted road warrior figure climbed out of a reconstruction of Mad Max’s car in slow-mo and stood atop with arms partially outstretched as it drove down an endless, red, outback track towards an infinite horizon. The car itself had been shipped out to be parked outside the pavilion, giving it a bit of a trade show feeling, while a motorbike was slammed into its side. This was the motorbike on which, in Apology to Roadkill, the same helmeted figure collected dead kangaroos from the side of the road, cradling them Pieta-like, before carrying them off camera. Downstairs, in a more interesting piece, a skull slowly rotated around a mini video camera that had been inserted inside it so it could film the cranial cupola endlessly turning.

The other Australian presence was located in a prime piece of Biennale real estate, a former convent located between the Arsenale and the Giardini. Once Removed (so called because each artist has been displaced in one way or another) didn’t come across as an integrated show so much as three separate installations. Only the installation by Claire Healy & Sean Cordeiro, Life Span, really took command of the space. It was a huge basalty block of plastic that sat directly under the ceiling fresco of the chapel, almost obscuring the altar, and pushing the viewer back against the wall. The work was built from a total of 175,218 VHS video cassettes the collective running time of which is, apparently, 60.1 years, which was also, apparently, the average life span in 1976 when the VHS system, now a redundant technology consigned to the rubbish heap of history, was first released. Vernon Ah Kee’s installation, Cant Chant, perhaps suffered from too many indignant metaphors and references to Australian racism which ended up competing with each other. It centred on a three-gun video projection where cool and confident aboriginal surfers reclaimed a beach by riding, to the pound of a rock sound track, on surfboards decorated with indigenous designs and, on the underside, the faces of their ancestors. Elsewhere in the video other surfboards were lynched and massacred. Their corpses, wrapped in barbed wire, were hung in the convent’s courtyard. Ah Kee’s familiar text paintings also crowded the walls. In the final room Ken Yonetani’s comment on environmental degradation, Sweet Barrier Reef, previously installed at the Adelaide Biennale, was a boxed-in Zen-style garden made with raked sugar which surrounded the ceramic forms of bleached coral. The whole thing was lit with a wavy blue theatre light as though under water, which for me gave it an artificial, stagy feeling at odds with its elemental materiality.

Elsewhere, the Russians had a strong presence with a spectacular series of bravura agitprop sculptural works in their own pavilion called Victory Over the Future, and a collateral event from the Moscow Museum of Modern Art called Unconditional Love which featured a massively operatic nine-gun projection from the Russian group of artists AES+F. Called The Feast of Trimalchio it featured gangs of models performing languid tableaus of leisurely excess against the CGI background of a fantasy resort island.

The Middle-East also had a strong presence, with the long walk of the Arsenale leg of the Making Worlds exhibition finally disgorging into the United Arab Emirates pavilion which, perhaps wisely, had decided to perform a 1980s style deconstruction job on the whole machinery of Biennales, as well the UAI itself with its tightly controlled displays of wealth.

Martyn Jolly

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