Sunday, 7 June 2009

Venice Biennale 2009 - The Independent, London

Film. Film. Film. It seems to have spread like a stain through the Venice Biennale this year. The Brits have chosen film-maker Steve McQueen as their official representative. The Welsh have John Cale, co-founder of Velvet Underground and newly into film, and Northern Ireland has opted for Susan MacWilliam, who makes films about the paranormal. Only Scottish artist Martin Boyce has demurred, choosing instead to fill seven rooms of the Palazzo Pisani with giant stepping stones, steel chandeliers and over 20,000 fake leaves. Elsewhere, Fiona Tan is showing films in the Dutch pavilion, film-maker Mark Lewis is representing the Canadians, and then there are the Poles and the Rumanians…
   The British Pavilion feels quite different from how it did when Tracey Emin was representing Britain in 2007. Then the whole, multi-roomed villa had painting and drawings on the walls, and it was opened up to the light. Now it's been transformed into a narrow, boxlike cinema space with fairly austere, tiered seating. Appropriate enough, you might think, for a man who takes film-making quite as seriously as McQueen does.
   The title of McQueen's triple-screen projection is Giardini, and it’s a moody, 30-minute rumination upon the nature of the very gardens in which the national pavilions are sited. What happens when the art world disappears?Everything gets dismantled. The gardens fall back into a kind of gentle dilapidation. Lean dogs scavenge amidst the debris. Birds and insects re-populate the space. McQueen shows this stripping away of identity. He also shows, primarily through sound, how the world of human kind is crowding around just beyond the trees. A cruise ship passes in the night, reminding us that the gardens are at the very edge of the lagoon. The roar of a crowd is heard, stage off.  Venetian church bells bend in the air. Then, three quarters through the film, two men embrace in the darkness. This homoerotic strand - reminding us that the Giaridini, off-season, is a site of a rather different kind of transaction:sexual  assignation - is left hanging in the air.
   Over on the Giudecca, in a former brewery, John Cale mistreats us to 46 minutes of fairly bemusing agitprop about his own tortured sense of Welsh identity. It is an oblique portrait of his mother country, spread across five screens which are positioned at irritatingly odd angles to each other. It is an even more oblique portrait of Cale himself, the Welshman who has spent so much of his life outside Wales. The film proceeds at snail's pace. It has fine visual moments. A phantom pianist slowly appears at the keyboard of an old upright piano.  A stuttery, hand-held camera crawls across the floor of a disused slate quarry. At the end, Cale suffers waterboarding. Why such pain? The English. The English. But between these fleeting moments of dramatic interest, there are many long minutes of tortured and unforgiveably unfocused self indulgence, which include even longer minutes when the screens are entirely blank and we nod and pray for early release.
   Frenzied film-making aside, the outstanding work in the Giardini this year is to be found in the pavilions of the United States of America, Egypt and Spain. That mad man Bruce Nauman brings his own particular brand of wackily serious gusto to the usually rather staid looking American pavilion. The frieze of neon signs on the outside of the building heralds the serious playfulness to be found within. JUSTICE reads one. That sign is immediately overlaid by another in a different colour which reads AVARICE. The show is an anthology of works from the 1980s onwards. Water pours down onto suspended, upside down heads. A neon Double Poke in the Eye is exactly what it says it is. A clay hand slowly modulates into a mouth. A man in a black skull t-shirt circles me as I circle the room. That seems rather uncomfortably appropriate.
   Fifty metres away, the Spanish Pavilion is showing off the large-scale paintings of Miquel Barcelo. These robustly textured works feel like a mixture of desertscape and moonscape. The tenderest and most haunting work in the Giardini is way at the top of the gardens, in the little visited Egyptian Pavilion. Two artists, one a painter of monumental figurative works called Adel el Siwi, and the other, Ahmad Askalany, a maker of figures in straw, paint a picture of a society in transition, haunted by the ghosts of its past.  
   Some of the very best work is to be found in Making Worlds, the enormous themed show curated by Daniel Birnbaum, the Biennale's director. I say that it is themed, but the only real theme is the fact that artists invent new worlds for themselves which are somewhat at a tangent to our own, and you could scarcely be more thematically banal than that. The show itself is spread across the various interminably long gallery spaces in the Arsenale, and somewhat hidden away at the back of what is now called the Palazzo delle Esposizioni within the Giardini itself. There are some wonderful works here. Tomas Saraceno has engulfed an entire room with the gossamer-like filaments of the Black Widow Spider on a disturbingly giant scale. A suite of watercolours by Allesandro Pessoli plays quixotically with Christian themes. And Nathalie Djurberg has made a room full of gloriously repulsive flower- and plant-like forms, larded if not drenched with colour, that menace just as much as they delight.
   This year the single most spectacular addition to the Venetian cultural landscape is the transformed Customs House, known as the Punto della Dogana, at the very tip of the Grand Canal. This prow-like sliver of a building, re-modelled by Tadao Ando, now houses the pick of Francois Pinault's collection of contemporary art. No visitor to the Biennale should leave without seeing the likes of Rachel Whiteread, Jeff Koons and Sigmar Polke penned so elegantly between the Grand Canal and the Zattere.

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