To Venice, which is hot, somewhat smelly and horrendously crowded for the Big One: the Art Biennale. Slightly busier indeed than its Scagglethorpe counterpart (2017). As a patriot, I must start my survey with the British pavilion, although I confess it wasn’t top of my list in terms of anticipation. It’s a shame but I have to confess that even my low expectations were utterly unmet. Naturally, as one approaches the grand façade of the Brit Pav one expects to see a queue – the building exudes a self-important attitude, sitting as it does at the top end of pavilion avenue, higher up than Russia, bigger than the little corner house occupied by the adjacent Dominion of Canada, and little more than a Molotov cocktail’s throw from Venezeula. But there was no queue, even though unlike all other national pavilions the front door was half shut and the entrance was marked by crowd control tapes. Welcome to Brexit world. I have now written more about the British pavilion than its content merits.
Our artist this year is Cathy Wilkes, who assembled in forty-five minutes an exhibition of such trite shite one can only assume that this is a parody of what art means in a country which has chosen to blow both its feet off with an unloaded air pistol. As Cathy tells us in the handout, “The smallest particle of suffering is the object and I, the subject who acts upon the object, am every atom unfolding from the womb. An atom here among us and another atom in a far away galaxy are inseparable epitomes of the same.” Couldn’t be clearer, could it?
I nominate Cathy to be Theresa May’s next speech writer! Except it’s too late. The strong and stable midwife of Brexit Means Brexit has hung up her rubber gloves. We’ll have to leave it there. As Cathy says “On both left and on the right there is nothing worth seeing and nothing worth hearing. I return home to wait in place and draw forth what is yet to come.” I have to conclude on a positive note: the Brit Pav has the best air conditioning of the whole biennale. A good place to cool down, in the big, empty white rooms. Without being disturbed by anything that is yet to come, least of all the artist’s best efforts.
Talking of big empty white spaces, the aforementioned Canada Pav (sorry if you find this abbrev. irritating) simply had some medium sized screen projections of Inuit folk talking to a bloke (who looked remarkably like Villanelle’s handler from the first series of Killing Eve) about the latest threat posed to their disappearing land/icescape because of climate change and the fossil fuel opportunities opening up in the vicinity of Baffin Island. Where’s Pierre Trudeau when you need him? Oh sorry – he’s a liberal.
A Russian dungeon?
Not for the first time, The Russian Pav was impressive. It may not have the standard of air conditioning as its near neighbour and mortal enemy at the top of the avenue, but I liked a clattering mechanically controlled ballet of wooden characters, and the examination of themes from the age of Rembrandt (a famous Russian, ask Putin). Here too there were figures from the Enlightenment, who appeared from dark recesses kindly cuddling or gazing upon the decline of western civilisation (this is how I saw it, without reading the captions – which should only be read after you’ve formed a first impression). To what extent does the Culture Ministry of a place like Russia control the shows in their biennale Pav? I found a certain ambiguity here – hints at the presence of a false Tsar were apparent to me at least. And perhaps the dancing figures were dodging bullets in the basement of the Lubyanka? This was a strange combination of images (including some re-interpretations of Flemish art) and I wonder whether the declared theme of the show was a cover for something subversive. (Contrast that possibility with the contentlessness of the British Pav – are we only capable of only a one-second attention span when it comes to subversion these days?)
The great thing about the Biennale is the element of surprise. In this great welter of curated art, there are items that impress because they come from places where you kind of expect (from a Western, condescending perspective) no surprise at all. How is it, for example that Saudi Arabia even allows itself to be exposed to, even less immersed in, this great western art expo? Isn’t there a risk there that Wahabbism might be found fraudulent? But no, their Pav showed a work (illustrated in the title background above) as creative, and hopefully independent of state culture as possible – though not obviously controversial in any possible formulation. Great columns of shapes (which visitors were allowed to feel) stood backlit on luminescent columns against the darkness around. Some hundreds or thousands of these shapes, like discards from a potter’s wheel lay on the floor in mounds. Hang on! Maybe there’s some subversion going on here after all? Could I not read into this the disintegration something quietly questioning? Perhaps there’s nothing here to offend the Crown Prince’s eye, unless he has a paranoid mind. Oh dear. I’m sure he hasn’t. But perhaps this rich cascade of breaking shapes represents the future of the Kingdom?
N.B. My feet are on the right, for illustrative purposes only
The Philippines had an impressive exhibit, which visitors were invited to stand on, if they didn’t mind removing their shoes and climbing some stairs on to what appeared to be glass topped bottomless pits containing all sorts of paraphernalia. But in truth, these images were created using mirrors, and the pits were only two feet deep. Nonetheless, the eyes deceive, and I was reluctant to stand on the larger pieces of glass – how do I know if the Philippines care as much for Health’n’Safety as we do? Let’s not forget Duterte, whose whole being is consumed with an oxymoronic concern for public health. But there I go again, taking a patronising, condescending attitude: why should my opinion of a work of art be so influenced by the malign variety of a country’s regime, as if nothing could emerge from under their mollusc version of progress? (Except in the UK of course, where we are quite capable of responding to current trends with shite Donald Trump himself could enter as one of his best efforts and describe himself as the world’s greatest BIG! living artist).
In general, I wondered where old fashioned figurative pictorial art might fit into this exhibition which, when all is said and done contains an ever increasing itinerary of items which are technically mind blowing and make the most of new technologies (a complaint: you’ll never be able to get a DVD of some of the better of these displays – I suppose that’s because artists/curators would never want you to see them on your comparatively tiny TV screen). There was plenty of figurative art from emerging African painters but I have to say, they struck me in the main as stuck in an expressionist timeframe – and since I never warmed to that genre, I was left cold by it. As regards that basic component of art, drawing, there was little in this exhibition to extol it – but I grant you drawing practice will certainly have underpinned some of the work.
Nevertheless, traditional practice was in evidence. It was a curious experience looking at items which were static, sculptural or flat, in the same spaces as things which were lit, moving, flashing, swiping, escaping, hissing, flashing (again), murmuring, engaging (a bit of the old virtual reality there) or simply showing (like well done videos). But what does the audience want most, wandering around the endless galleries of the Arsenale? Something to take home on their smartphones of course! There’s a mixture of the fairground and the selfie, an experience to be had which is imbibed through one’s own electronic experience of it. Who could resist the temptation to be selfied in front of some strange phantasmagoria, or for that matter Rembrandt’s Nightwatch or the wretched Mona Lisa? Anyway, I’ve wondered off the subject since a) the first is displayed in the Rijksmuseum and b) the latter is allegedly displayed in the Louvre. Today the only way to look at this stuff is through the lense of your smartphone – this is helpful since it keeps the crowds moving, few stop to use their eyes very much. No-one has to look at anything longer than you can say click. Art as clickbait. Venice has to be the Mecca of art clickbait.
The ever shining star Christian Marclay has a powerful piece called “War Stories,” projecting images of war onto a giant screen, but the film clips are rectangular strips within rectangular strips, so no complete image could be seen – the whole thing is driven on by a relentless beat. Doesn’t sound much the way I describe it, but definitely a powerful piece.
Take this lying down
In the nether world outside the Arsenale/Gardinal fence, there were gems too. The Stella Foundation has taken over the church of San Marcuola and produced an experiential form of art, which is to say sound/noise and projections which has something to do with Tintoretto, or so the publicity claims. If you hadn’t got the leaflet to hand you wouldn’t know it. But in the darkened church, this piece called “There is a beginning IN THE END” is probably the nearest you’ll get to seeing the Holy Ghost actually in a church. Also a good stop if you want to get out of the blazing sun and the balmy heat. The setting did make this piece memorable, but as with many projections of an abstract nature, I am reminded of those old 1970s slides with a bit of oil in them, creating pretty colours on someone’s bedroom wall whilst tripping and listening to Tangerine Dream. Still, worth seeing.
In the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Visitazione there is a riposte to the darkness of the aforementioned IN THE END – this being “The Death of James Lee Bryars,” a 20’ tall and 20’ deep open ended box lined with a rough surface of brilliant gold in which lies another box – a coffin shape – also decked out in gold. This brilliant display is accompanied by a soundtrack by Zad Moultaka, a mournful dirge befitting death. The whole synthesises into a simple and effective funereal arrangement, both heavenly but very definitely dead. No angels arise from the box. Perhaps Heaven is stacked full of rotting corpses in boxed, gold encrusted splendour. This work is a reworking of Byars’ (1932-1997) original conception, in which he lay, wearing a hint of a Beuys’ hat, inside his great golden chamber without the coffin, before he actually died. I confess to having never heard of James Lee Byars before, but he went out like a Pharaoh. Good on yer mate!
Next, let’s nip across to the Conservatorio di Musica Benedetto Marcello di Venezia (above), which has an exhibition called “THE SPARK IS YOU: Parasol unit in Venice”. Be warned! This features artists from IRAN (shriek!) - another mortal enemy of western civilisation! Sited inside a music conservatory, exhibitions held in this location have the added dimension of a piano accompaniment floating through the building, making the displays all the more likeable (but you never see the pianists). Eschewing western figurative genres or expressionisms, the mostly geometric forms on show here nevertheless capture the imagination. There’s still a place for geometric simplicity in art. Damn. What have I said? From Iran? ‘Ow’s ziz possiblé?? Since that country is at the centre of Trump’s current sabre rattling, I wonder how anything of value could emerge from the demonised theological desert (of Iran that is). Perhaps, just perhaps we could start talking about art as an international language of peace just as sport is so often eulogised. Just don’t mention the Berlin Olympics.
Marching on with an aesthetic sense of international solidarity, in a seemingly out of the way place I stumbled across the Bangladeshi pav which had a familiar theme of water coursing through it. Anyone who has had the pleasure of visiting Bangladesh will know that the country appears to be more water than anything else. And what is land is inhabited with upwards of maybe 160 million people. How they achieve this in such a small country is anybody’s guess – but they say that humans are made of 90% water, so perhaps that explains it. The exhibition is called THIRST. Actually, and deeply ironically, there’s probably as much water in and around Venice as there is in Dhaka, but what Dhaka lacks is cruise ships adding spending power to the crowds. The mainly white and Chinese hordes that ply up and down between the Rialto Bridge and San Marco are unwittingly, sweatingly replicating the streets of Dhaka, the only difference being you can’t pop into a Hugo Boss shop in Dhaka to pretend to be looking at clothes made in (possibly) Dhaka, whilst availing yourself of the air conditioning.
Co-incidentally, there’s an artwork in Florence’s Nove Cento gallery which considers the same theme of water and what climate change threatens to do to our staff of life. In an exhibition also bothered about sustainability, there's a work by Lucy and Jorge Orta, this too featuring a small boat. Interesting to contrast the two representations of a human impacted environment. Since I’ve digressed briefly into Florence, there’s also an exhibition there called “Sustainable Thinking” at the Museo Salvatore Ferragamo – located in the basement of the fashion chain shop of the same name. The exhibition concerns itself with the sustainability of what we wear, and since after food and shelter clothing comes fairly high up the hierarchy of needs, it is apposite to consider what our clothes are made of. Having said which in Florence a predominant whiff of leather reminds one that trendy handbags have yet to fall prey to the lately trending vegan fascism. I wonder too how Bangladesh’s unemployment rate might be affected by the adoption of new, technological materials. Are they geared up for it?
And here's another boat (below) - which sank with its cargo of refugees on board - and has proven somewhat controversial, since people love taking their selfies with it.
Not far away from Bangladesh is Armenia. Not as the crow flies, but in the remoter passages of Venice. The Armenian room (for it was basically just one room) showed projections of some protest taking place, perhaps of the ‘colour’ revolution kind. Did Armenia have a colour revolution? Does anybody know? Has the BBC got a correspondent there? Due to its hard to find location, I suggest the Aremenian pav like the place itself will not blip on many people’s radar. Given the subversive content of the films, I’m not even sure if this was an officially sanctioned show. If it wasn’t, it’s a brave rebellion. If it was, it’s still a rebellion, but one which turns itself into art, and therefore can become a sanctioned rebellion – since art never has toppled a regime and never will. It’s not art’s job. Ask Banksy. Or maybe even another alternative explanation is that it was a display by state authorities about how to successfully put down a street rebellion. A training video on how to use tear gas. When such ambiguities exist, the presentation of facts becomes impossible. Oh how we need a BBC correspondent everywhere, to digest and explain on our behalf what’s going on in the world during our sleeping hours.
One of the great regrets of this year’s show had to be the absence of a Yorkshire Pavilion. If smaller territories like Wales and Scotland can get their act together to distance themselves from the crap in the British Pav then why not Yorkshire? Perhaps there’ll have to be an extraordinary meeting of the Scagglethorpe International Art Biennale Committee (SIABC)?