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June 3, 2011 5:13 pm

Breadth in Venice

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The dazzling and the dull, the global and the parochial: the FT’s art critic reports on a Biennale of extremes and picks the five best shows to go see
Christof Schlingensief’s ‘Church of Fear vs the Alien Within’

Christof Schlingensief’s ‘Church of Fear vs the Alien Within’

About suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters. I will forever love Bice Curiger, director of the 54th Venice Biennale, for her nerve in installing three monumental paintings by Tintoretto, the most stagey and daring of all Venetian painters, as the opening to her main exhibition pavilion.

En route to cocktails on the yachts moored alongside the Giardini, the Biennale set is arrested in its tracks at “The Last Supper”: apostles squashed to one side of a dynamic asymmetrical picture, angels morphing out of a lantern into a mystical glow. The subject is transcendence: matter turns to spirit as we look. To one side, in “The Creation of the Animals”, the beginning of the world unravels in febrile, ecstatic light; to the other, the stormy, silver-streaked “Removal of the Body of Saint Mark” tells the story of Venice’s patron saint in giddying, rapid brushstrokes.

To raise the bar in the world’s flashiest art fair with life and death seen through the prism of the Italian Renaissance is to play a risky game. Tintoretto’s visionary energy courses through this Biennale, enhancing the gravitas, passion and sense of recklessness in the best works, and making much else look irredeemably trite.

I have never encountered a Venice of such extremes: between good and bad art, lofty globalism and strident nationalism, and, across the city, the dash and sparkle of some inspired private exhibitions versus the heavy conceptual convention that now suffocates the corporate Biennale behemoth.

Curiger’s international show on the double theme ILLUMInations embodies many such contradictions. It contains the single most stunning new piece anywhere in Venice – Urs Fischer’s memento mori of three gigantic flaming candles moulded into life-size, eerily life-like shapes: one representing Fischer’s friend artist Rudolf Stingel, casual, hands in his pockets, glasses perched above forehead; the second meticulously remodelling Giovanni Bologna’s baroque marble sculpture “The Rape of the Sabine Women”; the third Fischer’s own studio chair.

Nicholas Hlobo’s installation

Nicholas Hlobo’s installation

Resonating with Tintoretto’s motifs of illumination and transience, all glimmer, burn, melt and will disintegrate during the course of the Biennale – indeed, hours in, the figure of Stingel already had trails of wax dripping down his lapel.

Suspended from an Arsenale ceiling, Nicholas Hlobo’s pink-black giant vampire in ribbon, lace and organza, “Limpundulu Zonke Ziyandilandela”, also has the courage and wit to answer Tintoretto – referencing the animals in his “Creation” as well as a South African myth. But Hlobo’s fanciful, sensuous piece flutters around a roster of yawning art fair bores: Klara Lidén’s collection of rubbish bins from the world’s capitals, Nathaniel Mellor’s video soap opera “Ourhouse” and Gabriel Kuri’s installation of plastic bags and insulating rolls are typical examples.

Other lightweights are this year’s Lion d’Or winners, Elaine Sturtevant, for replicas of celebrated works that question art market pieties, and Franz West, anarchic sculptor of brightly coloured doodles and mock-furniture. Meanwhile Curiger’s innovation of para-pavilions – temporary architectural structures built by one artist to house the work of another – is an obscurantist gimmick. For example, the impact of David Goldblatt’s wry, thoughtful photographs of Johannesburg across six decades is diminished, not enhanced, by Monika Sosnowska’s silly star-shaped,wallpapered corridors.

Curiger’s point, I assume, is that in a global multi-million dollar market, all art aspires, or mock-aspires, to the condition of architecture – an overwhelming trend in the national pavilions. “I, Imposter”, Mike Nelson’s installation of a crumbling labyrinth of cement, timber and plywood, leading into cavernous interiors with workbenches or photographs fluttering from washing lines, is a catastrophic instance: the most vapid show the British pavilion has ever sponsored. Intended to simulate an old Ottoman workshop similar to the one Nelson reconstructed for the Istanbul Biennale in 2003, its tedious metaphors of barred gates, musty passageways and dead ends symbolise one thing – the cul-de-sac of Nelson’s fatuous, self-regarding art.

The fascist-designed German pavilion always demands an architectural riposte; this year it is transformed into a candle-lit chapel screening Christoph Schlingensief’s Fluxus oratorio “A Church of Fear vs the Alien Within” – a piano-smashing parody of religious expression, charged with Germany’s history of the enemy within, as well as the trauma of Schlingensief’s own cancer. The anarchic film and theatre director died last August, shortly after his selection to represent his country caused a national outcry – Gerard Richter called it “a scandal”. I found this memorial show moving – though over-emotional in a uniquely Teutonic manner – and the most successful German pavilion in years.

Nationalism – even parochialism – is the intoxicating paradox of every 21st-century Biennale. In the Japanese pavilion, the floating world of ukiyo-e comes to life in a luminous walk-in projection, “Teleco-soup”, based on 18th-century woodblocks crossed with manga cartoons. Artist Tabaimo says the theme is “trans-Galapagos syndrome”, by which a country recedes into isolation in the face of globalisation. The New Zealand pavilion, featuring Michael Parekowhai’s carved piano playing “He Korero Purakau mo Te Awanui o Te Motu Story of a New Zealand River”, could not open before receiving a Maori blessing. For China, Yuan Gong’s “Empty Incense” smothers a quintessentially western bougainvillea-clad part of the Giardini in an eastern incense fog.

The Egyptian pavilion, tragically, is another memorial – to performance artist Ahmed Basiony, killed in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in January. “30 Days of Running in The Space” records his performance jogging in a plastic suit fitted with digital sensors transmitting information on his physical state. Alongside, raw footage of the Cairo protests, filmed by Basiony up to the minute before he was shot, is projected randomly. There is no narrative, everything is unexpected – like Basiony’s death.

One way or another, the US pavilion always turns on patriotism, even when, as in Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla’s “Gloria”, it seeks to do the opposite. An Olympic athlete runs on a treadmill atop an overturned military tank (a British army model, in fact). Gymnasts dance over replicas of business-class airline seats (“The Body in Flight”), a bronze replica of the “Statue of Freedom” lounges in a sunbed, a pipe organ is activated by an ATM. Charmless and clumsy, “Gloria” nonetheless crystallises the screeching message of this art world Olympics: culture, like sport, has become our tame version of international contest, the measure by which nations – and increasingly regions and even powerful individuals – seek to define themselves.

Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla’s ‘Body in Flight (Delta)’

Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla’s ‘Body in Flight (Delta)’

Why else would an impoverished country such as Haiti bring artists here, or President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner travel to inaugurate Argentina’s terrific pavilion? It is, too, why François Pinault seeks to make his collection a Venetian icon; why Anselm Kiefer has hung a series of massive, chemically altered landscape photographs, The Salt of the Earth, as a sort of alternative German painterly pavilion in the Fondazione Vedova; and why Venice in Venice, an exhibition of 1970s pop minimalism from California – surfer-biker-painter Billy Al Bengston’s psychedelic red circular “Godzilla’s Saddle”, Joe Goode’s sky canvases – hilariously, incongruously, invades the magnificently formal Palazzo Contarini degli Scrigni as an unofficial Los Angeles pavilion.

A few sudden ghostly appearances, from behind closets or locked doors, of the Contarini’s grey-haired, stooping, dignified owner as he surprises groups of supine hippy artists from Venice, California, with tales of how he is descended from seven doges, is the best, entirely unintended, performance piece in town. Old and new, art and money, snobbery and geography, converge: a dizzying spectacle of the hybrid way we live now – for which Venice is the great timeless, non-judgmental backcloth.

‘ILLUMInations’, at the 54th Venice Biennale,


Five must-sees

‘The World Belongs To You’

Palazzo Grassi

Joanna Vasconcelos’s ‘Contamination’

Joana Vasconcelos’s ‘Contamination’, at Palazzo Grassi

François Pinault arrived here in 2006 and, remarkably given the initial reluctance with which he was welcomed, has turned his two museums, the spectacular Palazzo Grassi and the more sombre Punta della Dogana, into Italy’s most visited contemporary art landmarks. Some pieces, such as Jeff Koons’s magenta “Balloon Dog”, are now permanently identified with Venice, while the Palazzo Grassi terrace giving on to the Grand Canal, passed by thousands of visitors daily, is always enlivened by a charismatic installation. In this new show, it is Thomas Houseago’s asymmetric, leaning, vulnerable “L’Homme pressé”, which seems to teeter over the water as you glide by, while at the entrance Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s giant glass fibre and feather vulture “Waiting” points to power and flight as key themes of globalisation, and Joana Vasconcelos’s tentacled, fabric creature “Contamination”, suggesting cells out of control, mutating animals, converging cultures, flops languidly over the central staircase.

I have, in the past, had reservations about Pinault’s chilly conceptual taste and the absence here of the human voice. On the other hand, Pinault moves fast – Houseago, for example, was barely known internationally a year ago – and this show presents his global outlook for the first time. No antiquated anxieties about national identity here: instead, a trophy international haul where mixed media inventiveness shrinks the difference between continents and the reflected light from the water makes everything look brighter, smoother, smarter.

Christian Boltanski, ‘Chance’

French pavilion, Giardini

Est-ce la dernière fois?” murmurs the chair as you sit down outside the French pavilion. Inside, Christian Boltanski’s noir wonderland is a scaffolding and wire installation, close enough to a concentration camp structure to be unsettling, through which courses a noisy print reel churning out hundreds of photographs of babies. On each side a screen records minute by minute the daily number of births and deaths worldwide, while at the back a darkened gambling den invites you to play art world jackpot – press a button and a rolling screen of broken features of young and old, sad and happy eyes, mouths, cheek-by-jowls, will click still, occasionally forming a coherent face, mostly remaining fragmented. And then the bell tolls, the print reel stops, all falls silent. Which heartbeat will be the last time? By this artist’s standards, “Chance” is an optimistic piece – births outnumber deaths, at least – but the black hand of fate is always looming.

Christian Marclay, ‘The Clock’

International exhibition, Arsenale

The undisputed masterpiece and most popular work in every group show in which it appears, Marclay’s “The Clock” is a 24-hour video collage that is also a working timepiece, compiled from moments in thousands of films when time is expressed or when characters interact with a clock or watch. I first saw it when it was launched at the British Art Show last autumn and have now been mesmerised by it on three occasions: a generous, abundant, democratic meditation on time and loss that should win every prize going.

Adrián Villar Rojas, ‘The Murderer of Your Heritage’

Argentinian pavilion, Arsenale

“We are a third-world economy, we don’t have access to cranes and technology, this exhibition was built by force of will,” Villar Rojas told me when I admired his strangely beautiful, silent forest of two-tonne clay trees, each created on site to rise to the Arsenale ceilings over the past two months. There are weird, soaring tropical plants that recall the over-heated imaginings of Latin American magical realism, dead-straight geometric towers that nod to constructivism, mushroom clouds, spiky or serpentine animal forms, monuments, ruins, sci-fi fantasies, all in a powdery monochrome aesthetic: stark yet richly inventive, referencing past oppressions and future change. Unmovable, all will be destroyed when the Biennale ends.

‘Death and Fertility’

Haitian pavilion

Of all Venice’s surreal juxtapositions, none beats the fragile Haitian pavilion, housed in shipping containers installed on the quayside directly underneath Roman Abramovich’s monster-yacht. Three artists from Port-au-Prince’s Atis-Rezistans collective, Jean Hérard Celeur, André Eugène and Jean Claude Saintilus, show raucous sculptural collages of the human form shaped from junk – engine manifolds, computer entrails, TV sets – dashed with lavishly coloured textile fragments and recalling fetish effigies. Ready-mades here are used from economic necessity, not Duchampian choice, to speak eloquently of transformation – wreckage into art, the everyday into the immortal – with a vigorous expressiveness standing out from the Biennale’s slick, well-rehearsed ironies.

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