The Venice Biennale Part 1: The pavilions of the Giardini
by Sue Williamson
This year marks the 100th year and the 50th edition of the Venice Biennale. To the general public, it is certainly the best known art exhibition in the world. Inevitably flawed, reviled overall by the art press who temper their critical reviews with praise heaped on chosen exhibits, Venice still provides an enormously exhilarating and stimulating experience for those who take the trouble to make the pilgrimage to this luminous island in the name of art. The right way to do it would be to spend at least 10 days here, sampling at will, and spending time with those exhibits and artistic conceptions one finds most intriguing, until one has reached exhaustion for the day with art, then succumbing to the other myriad charms of Venice.
Biennale director Francesco Bonami has chosen as his overall theme 'Dreams and Conflicts: the Dictatorship of the Viewer'. The second half of this title seems to me to be a peculiarly Italian turn of phrase and conceit. The dictatorship of the viewer? By the time viewers begin to file past a newly installed exhibition, the curator is generally already on the plane headed for the next assignment, and the only opinions which will have any sway will be those of his/her fellow curators and a small band of highly regarded art professionals and critics. Nonetheless, perhaps the title is intended to encourage and empower the 200 000-odd visitors expected to visit this biennale before the doors close in November.
Together with Bonami, Daniel Birnbaum has curated the show in the main pavilion, the Italian pavilion. As the host country, this pavilion is by far the largest, and the show, entitled 'Delays and Revolutions', is internationally representative. It is this show which is likely to be compared most closely to last year's Documenta, curated by Okwui Enwezor. The underlying theme could be said to be the same: the position of the artist and the role of art in a world straining for utopia while mired down in seemingly insoluble problems of the environmental, economic and ethnically divided kind. There is certainly some very handsome work to be seen. Damien Hirst shows a flawlessly manufactured pill cabinet in glass and stainless steel, an update on his Pharmacy at the Tate Britain. Almost nine metres long, the narrow shelves hold handmade replicas of pills of every kind, and each time I went past, someone was busy identifying their own particular drug cocktail, rather as one might try to pick known faces out of a group photograph. Liked the title, too. Standing alone on the precipice overlooking the Arctic wastelands of pure terror.
Expensive manufacturing is also evident in a roomful of translucent green display tables, each holding delicate pencil drawings of the body on notebook sized sheets of paper overlaid with pale lemon crystalline growths. This was from Matthew Barney, who one heard was the artist the Guggenheim Foundation would have liked to have seen occupying the American Pavilion. Perhaps the theme of the exhibition was best summed up in a room which at first glance looked like a gym with a piece of red apparatus in the front, brightly coloured balls in the back, and the phrases Mmmm! Ahh! and Ohh! on the back walls. Closer inspection shows the red structure is the floor and framework of a bus by Israeli artist Carmit Gil, and refers to the bombing of buses in his country. Ah, there's the hook. But much of the work in other parts of the pavilion seems to have little connection to the theme - what is Charles Ray's Female Figure (in progress) doing here, a sculpture of a standing female figure in painted aluminium, or Richard Prince's photographs of the ads of Marlboro cowboys, or the sculpted polyurethane foam reproductions of Japanese prints by Giuseppe Gabellone? The focussed vision of an Enwezor seems to be missing.
On then, to the other pavilions. In the British pavilion, Chris Ofili has reconfigured the red white and blue of the Union Jack into the Pan African flag colours of red green and black, and these three colours have been used throughout the pavilion. Each of the three front rooms has been painted one of these colours, and Ofili has restricted himself also to using these three colours in his paintings, adding only gold leaf as a highlight, which seems particularly appropriate in Venice. His pointillist technique of raised dots of brilliant colour, heightened by a layer of clear resin to add shine gives depth to his flattened images of African lovers in an exotic world of palm fronds. His signature clods of elephant dung are also resined and decorated, used as 'feet' for his large scale paintings as they lean against the wall, and in the heat, the faint smell of resin is like incense. He succeeds in creating an unforgettable world.
In the American pavilion, Fred Wilson has taken a more academic and eclectic approach in examining the image of the black person in Venetian history through his own eyes, those of a contemporary African American artist. In the entrance foyer, painted a deep golden yellow - again, that Venetian gold - hangs a Murano glass chandelier, not transparent, but a glittering black, commissioned by Wilson. Traditional black face pageboys holding candlesticks are grouped round a central figure holding a Molotov cocktail. Authentic paintings borrowed from collections with Africans depicted amongst the figures are on display with their original somewhat racist labels. Audiotapes, unfortunately almost inaudible, tell the 'story' as reconstructed by Wilson as to how the person came to be in the picture. The mixture of appropriated and especially commissioned objects does present the problem that one is not always sure whether one is addressing a found or a specially made artwork, but nonetheless, the exhibition is provocative and powerful.
Those attempting to enter the Spanish pavilion found their passage blocked by a crudely constructed wall of concrete blocks just inside the entrance. Would-be viewers were told to go around the back of the pavilion, but warned they would be given admittance only if they carried a Spanish passport. Security guards blocked the back door, making some visitors quite angry. Actually there was nothing to be seen inside except the remains of last year's display anyway, but this was an intervention by Santiago Sierra calling attention to the rules which admit some and exclude others.
To mention all the other pavilions is not possible, so to finish with a favourite - the Iclandic. Artist Ruri constructed a brushed steel cabinet with pull out screens, like a print storage cabinet. On each glass screen was a photograph of a waterfall, and as the screen was pulled out, so the rushing sound of that waterfall was heard. One could surround oneself with these liquid sounds by pulling out more than one screen at a time, but once pushed back, the sound ceased abruptly. The piece was entitled Archive - endangered waters.
Next update: Venice - the Arsenale