Off for a few days…and now returned…from the Venice Biennale – here’s my thoughts.
Coming to the biennale is like putting on an old pair of shoes. They are really comfortable and fit snugly but you can’t help feeling you’d like to try something new that might put a spring in your step. We started in the Giardini at just after 10:30 & habitually began by trekking up the long avenue towards the very grand British pavilion by way of the Switz, Venezuelan, Russian, Japanese, Korean, German, & Canadian offerings. Thinking back this is the way we always do it & perhaps we should turn about in future – polish off Spain, Belgium & the Netherlands and head straight into the Italian pavilion with the multi national curated section. Where, not constrained by national considerations in the mix, a more eclectic offering results and the options are more intriguing. As it was by16:45 ones critical faculties are pretty stunted making appraisals of – say – McArthur Binnion or reappraisals of – say – John Latham difficult if not impossible.
Finnish art was aided and abetted by someone with Doncaster sensibilities with predictably whacky results. Whackism was generally big this year with Finland coming in ahead of Iceland and Hong Kong in Venice slipping in somewhere behind them. My old pal John Rimmer’s Nutglove would have given them all a run for their money. Of course the Korean pavilion was also whacky but that’s par for the course. Mark Bradford put on a class act for the US whilst the U.K went big and rather overblown and the French cool & classy. The Low Countries & the other Scandinavians just didn’t seem to have their hearts in it. And the Germans lost their way in sub- performance activity that was frankly a bit silly (and was rather surprising given that the ‘action’ takes place in a glass box beneath the feet of the audience). I enjoyed Russia (part 1) and Erwin Wurm was suitably entertaining for Austria with his ongoing series of One Minute Sculptures though I was sorry for t’other rep for them – Brigitte Kowanz – as her quite serious contribution to light art suffered as a result. On the rest of the back lot things were solid but a bit dull. Though I enjoyed Geta Bratescu’s (now 91 years young) survey show of sixty plus years of artistic endeavour (in the Romanian pavilion) – that very controversially – comprised painting and drawing.
Actually age was a theme running through a deal of the contributions in the national pavilions and even more so in Christine Macel’s curated section. I lost count of septuagenarians and octogenarians being given a run out. This started with works by UK artist Rasheed Araeen (82) a piece he originally conceived back in 1968. In the same space Juan Downey (born 1930 and sadly died 1994) showed an excerpt from a video work of the 1970’s. It was good to see Raymond Hains’ work being given enough room to spread out and the curator able to expand my understanding of an artist that certainly to UK audiences is little known. That the work included pieces directly related to the Biennales of the past was a valuable addition to the show. It was lovely to have some genuine quality in drawing from Kiki Smith, though to be honest her room didn’t have (at least to me in this context) quite the intensity of magical charm I’d usually expect. The UK artist John Latham (1921 – 2006) was accorded a ‘mini-retrospective’ too whilst David Medalla (aged 79) showed a piece involving embroidery that he first gave an outing in 1971.
Embroidery was a thread (apologies) running through a great deal of the show, especially in the Arsenale. Though carpets were in shorter supply than a few years back when they swept through a wave of major shows a few hadn’t got the memo that it was now a lighter touch on these materials that was required (to be fair to Petrit Halilaj a Kosovan refugee and one of the youngest exhibitors at 31 his pieces are performative works that inevitably lacked some of their poetry in this context). Someone who had was Lee Mingwei, a Taiwanese artist (though like many of those chosen by Macel, now resident in Paris) where he sat and sewed visitors garments for them. Other pieces in this vein included the Italian artist Maria Lai (1919 – 2013) whose works included fiddly but rather charming bits and pieces and the utterly solid and intelligent and thankfully cool and calm works from his 1980’s series Wallformation by Franz Erhard Walther (78). Rightly awarded the Golden Lion for best artist.
The bizarre whackist performance piece by Mariechen Danz was represented by a video within the space where it had taken place…a throw it all in work with much nonsensical tosh, by and about the artist, to absorb if you wished. At least its absurdist solemnity gave one a laugh, much needed if you had just made your way through the Pavilion of Shamans into the Dionysian Pavilion, the two most awful of the nine that made up the curated section.
Out beyond the long run of the Arsenale one of the very best (if not the best) national pavilion was that of New Zealand. I’ve not previously come across Lisa Reihana’s work, though it has been widely exhibited over recent years. But her In Pursuit Of Venus (Infected) work that forms the centrepiece of her show Emissaries is simply stunning, both conceptually and visually. It is impossible to do it justice in description but suffice to say it combines idea and execution with the very best use of new technologies to make something truly spellbinding.
If Whackism is in full flow then there was across the city an even more prominent display of Thwackism…the kind of absurdist work that is truly overblown and even more hideously vulgar. Leading from the front – naturally – was our very own Damien with his revolting and trashy Wreck of the Unbelievable schtick. Of course Venice loves this kind of thing…just take a peak in the Venice Pavilion in the middle of the back lot. Whether the old ‘epater le bourgeoisie’ routine can work when the whole edifice is an hermetically sealed game between obscenely wealthy artists and their even more disgustingly rich pals who can say. Perhaps we have to accept that poetry plays no part in contemporary practice but what is certain is that the lad Hirst has wrung every last drop out of it in his Disney meets Ray Harryhausen (on an off day) extravaganza. This kind of thing is just made for its two venues – Punta Della Dogana & Palazzo Grassi – owned by Francois Pinault (worth around 13 billion so Mr. Google reckons) making the two sites and their current contents the most vomit inducing sweetie jar in the contemporary art world – quite a feat. And it seemed that Damien had acted as a magnet for Thwackists of every nation…as represented by the odd displays at Palazzo Bembo and on the top floor of Coin, the city’s luxury Department store (admittedly neither of these officially sanctioned Biennale events).
By this point those shoes were well and truly beginning to pinch. But thats what makes a few days at the Biennale fascinating…every aspect of contemporary practice is present, often jostling for attention when it doesn’t merit that much and quite often getting it whether or not deserved. Every so often as you whizz by work that might or might not reward given more attention you suddenly see something that catches your eye and even more occasionally engages your brain. Just to list two more that took my attention – Julian Charrière and Thu Van Tran in the Arsenale. And both still under 40…so maybe the future is brighter after all.