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From: Eva Bensasson
Date: 15 June 2005
The Venice Biennale: The Giardini
Going around the national pavilions in the Venice Biennale reinforces the idea that there is neither a singular art world nor a consensus on what makes art ‘contemporary’. Every couple of years these bizarre little follies in the middle of a public garden get mobilised for this art ‘Olympics’. However, by no means do the pavilions offer an even playing field as the size, layout and location of each vary dramatically, as also the money available for installation and promotion. Some pavilions, like the US and Great Britain’s, played it safe this year, showing established older artists, others took risks by going for experimentation or youth. It seems a very peculiar game when you witness the immense amount of cash spent to keep the art party lubricated. Annette Messsager won the golden prize with her work ‘Casino’, a good gamble for France.
There is a huge amount of art to see in the Giardini, in comparatively little time, making it hard to give the pavilions visited at the end of the day the same patience as those visited while still fresh. The title of the substantial exhibition organised by Maria de Corral in the Italian pavilion is ‘The Experience of Art’. My experience of Biennales is that it’s incredibly hard to give durational work, and the work seen last, enough dedicated attention. The experience of art can be affected by prior information and the mood of the audience. Ultimately, I think that good work does stand out and can even refresh. Here are the pavilion reviews, in the order I viewed them:
GERMANY: German’s all singing all dancing pavilion really cheered me up. I walked in to see relatively traditional formalist sculptures by Thomas Scheibitz. As I approached the work three gallery attendant started to dance around me and sing “this is so contemporary, contemporary, contemporary…” with big grins and lots of gusto. They did get a bit touchy when I tried to take their photo. This was a work by Tino Sehgal who recently did a piece at the ICA in London. In the adjacent gallery space attendants offered us the ability to exchange our views on the market economy for a refund on the price of entrance to the Biennale. A rather obvious and ironic conceptual work perhaps, but made enjoyable by the enthusiasm of the attendant we talked to. A distinct part of the character of the biennale opening is the pavilion bags, posters and promotional material that get carted around by the ‘press’. Germany had some of the nicest graphics for their pavilion
CANADA: A videoed action by Rebecca Belmore projected onto a wall of falling water. The action involves the artist ‘flailing’ about by a shore on an overcast day, followed by her throwing a bucket of blood at the camera, covering the lens. Much was made at the press conference of Belmore being a native North American artist. Even without this information the pavilion looked like politically correct performance about ‘the Body’ and ‘Identity’, ultimately trading in clichés, it was not so interesting. The Canadians organised a good party on the Friday night though – thank you for letting us in Canada!
GREAT BRITAIN: There was a heat wave during the last Biennale and the art viewing public melted. Some pavilions were completely missed because they were too hot and people couldn’t face the soaring temperature. This year many seemed to be taking no chances, the British Pavilion has installed chilly air conditioning. I really don’t understand why Gilbert and George were chosen. Their work hasn’t changed in years and it isn’t very interesting. In their cold rooms Gilbert and George have employed a couple of new motifs, namely hoodies with mirrored faces and Ginkgo leaves everywhere. So, slightly different imagery, lots of putrid yellow colours, otherwise same old same old.
CZECH REPUBLIC AND SLOVAK REPUBLIC: Four artists represented these two republics. I couldn’t work out what their work was about. One artist had filled the space with metal ball bearings that the viewer could kick about the room. Interactive and mildly entertaining but neither visceral nor structured enough. Another artist had written something on the wall in messy paint. A work in the middle of the space consisted of Perspex sheets with word on them hanging one in front of the other. Intertextuality? The Perspex had gathered a lot of dust from the Giardini making it far less minimalist looking then the artist intended.
AUSTRALIA: Impressively crafted elaborate still lives out of wood. Not much more to say. A lot of the subject matter was that of traditional paintings with Flemish style still lives and skulls on wooden ‘leather’ beanbags. Clearly Ricky Swallow is very handy with a chisel. The press release says “ his art is one of brilliant contradictions: totally contemporary in concept the work remains in the spirit of the great tradition of sculpture”. Looked like a compromise to me. Nice pavilion space and glossy flyer.
URUGUAY: Mother earth, dolls, patchwork quilts and folk art by Lacy Duarte. “It is not poor art. It is art from poorness.”
NORTHERN EUROPE: The artists from Norway and Sweden’s shared pavilion, Matias Faldbakken, Miriam Bäckström, Carsten Höller, were invited to change its architecture. They decided to do so by removing the glass walls, making it into a kind of walk through space. The title of their contribution is ‘Sharing Space Dividing Time’ and the idea is that they alternate the shows between days. I went to the Giardini twice on odd days so didn’t get to see Miriam Bäckström and Carsten Höller’s very subtle sound contribution. So subtle was it that I didn’t find anyone who’d caught it. The other works also minimal, a video of a black cinema screen viewed from various angles and an artists book for the visitor to take away. All in all a bit too minimal in not rigorous enough a way.
USA: Ed Ruscha’s paintings presented in a traditional exhibition was called ‘Course of Empire’. The work was conceived specifically for the Biennale. Ruscha’s work was good but nonetheless this was a very conservative choice by the American curators.
ISRAEL: There were a lot of wooden structures in the Giardini this year. Guy Ben Ner represented Israel with Ikea type furniture assembled to make a very nice ‘tree’. A contemplative video showed the assembling of the thing. One of the better pavilions.
GREECE: George Hadjimichalis presented work relating to the idea of a fictitious ‘Hospital’. For the opening he had members of the Red Cross collecting blood donations. I would be very interested to know if the glamorous private view crowd actually donated any blood or whether Hadjimichalis just wasted the local hospital’s time. The press release that goes with the show is rather abstract: “The concrete and the fleeting, the existing and the predicted, the sacred and the profane, the obvious and the ineffable, the fatal and the suspended, form in ‘Hospital’ a new whole: the topos par excellence where art is survival.” Hadjimichalis puts some good ideas into the fray but he doesn’t quite bring them together. The painting in the exhibition was an irrelevant aestheticised floor plan. The architect’s model was cute, the photographs of views from Hospital windows looked like they belonged to a 1950s Italian Neo Realist film, and were not of today.
ROMANIA: Another empty room with just an artist’s book to pick up. Not purposeful enough.
More Pavilion reviews to follow soon.
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