Two and a half days in the Giardini - the minimum necessary to take in the dense offerings as well as negotiate the long lines - and then to the Arsenale. The massive darkness of the first long hall is a welcome respite from the sun, heat and frenetic crowds that typify Venice at this time of year.
First up for me was the marvelous para-pavilion by Song Dong. A maze of antique doors, door frames, closet doors and small building facades was a playful invitation to cross thresholds and change perspectives. Entering through a closet door (Narnia-like), I came upon a plinth on which Ryan Gander had depicted himself falling out of his wheelchair. A strange moment for me as I had recently met Ryan and came away with the sense that the wheelchair was the last and least thing one noticed about him.
Onward through the wide long space filled with offerings until I came upon the massive dragon made of inner tubes by Nicholas Hlobo. The giant creature hung from the ceiling seemed like a challenge to one's safety, aesthetic and otherwise, and reminded me of publicity for horror movies. My South African friends similarly decried it's merit - no matter as it has been purchased by Puma for display in corporate quarters back in the homeland. A couple of stitched works flanking the beast redeemed the effort for me.
A sucker for installation, my searching eyes were drawn to the mass of neon, metal tubing and silver tarp by Navid Nuur. The unfinished quality of the work, with the fabric drawn back and the neon brightly revealed in the middle, put in the mindset of planning for Burning Man - one never knows where inspiration for this year's shelter will come from.
Of the video works, I was drawn into Dani Gal's Night and Fog dealing with the scattering of Eichman's ashes. The video is a psychological portrait of the security forces carrying out an "act of honor". While I was taken with the stylized stuttering quality of the work, I was later told that this might have been a technological glitch. I clearly need to see it again.
The apse of the Arsenale was occupied by several large Urs Fisher works. They are giant candles, one a full scale recreation of The Rape of the Sabine Women, slowly melting away. Having not quite recovered from the Urs Fischer extravaganza at The New Museum, I moved on.
Next I came across a happy discovery - the complex yet lyrical work of Corinne Wasmuht. A large, multi-layered painting created a wonderful moment of fictional space. Someone for me to look out for.
Couches came next - First an installation by Rosemarie Trockel featuring the familiar draped couch and some unfamiliar wall works. Then the luxury of alarge screening room featuring Christian Marclay's The Clock. This was my third viewing, one at Paula Cooper in NYC and one two evenings before near the Biennale HQ. I had a restful and meditative half hour from 2.45pm to 3.15pm as the plasticity of time was so wonderfully deconstructed. A couple of afternoons previous, I had joined friends for a lecture by Jaques Ranciere on the interwoven elements of time and power, and the redistribution of time within the capitalist model. Strands of that idea greatly informed my viewing of Marclay's piece.
Now a left turn and down the short end. First up, a couple of people debating whether or not they were looking at art - namely the faithful reconstructions of garbage cans from the around the world. I'm sure a spare tissue or two got discarded into them.
Several national "pavilions" presented themselves next of which India was the most interesting to me. A mix of work ranging from traditional to high-tech, seemed to capture the cultural temperature as I imagine it to be. Most fun was a ride in an elevator - press the button, enter the cab and watch as floors go whizzing by simulated by giant video projection.
Croatia featured people behaving badly and Turkey provided a large set of piping that was another purification plant for local water. Did they text with Israel before coming to Venice?
South Africa was back in town after a 16 year absence and I was keen to be there at the official opening of the pavilion that afternoon. Down to the waterside to catch the shuttle which crosses all of about 100 feet of water (why no bridge?!). The shuttle could only take 12 people at a time (12 Angry Men?) and the line advanced little in my 15 minute wait. Luckily, entrepreneurialism is alive and well in Venice and an enterprising taxi driver was ferrying folks for a mere 5 euro. Cheaper than a vaporetto ride.
I strolled the length of the quayside in the heat until I reached the tower, guarding the inlet entrance, which housed the South Africans. Inside I found a thoroughly modern restored environment and an impressive array of large scale work by Siemon Allen, Mary Sibande and Lyndi Sales. While i did enjoy the works, it struck me that South Africa was putting forward its best foot in the context of "western" contemporary art and shying away from anything that smacked of post-colonial practice. Too bad - the country has been such an agent of change in other arenas, it would be wonderful to see work that challenged conventions in Venice.
Back across the water, I entered the Italian pavilion. This year, the work has been selected by 200 intellectual as a nod to 150 years of unification. Additionally, there is a second level installed which is a maze-like museum of the cosa nostra. Be it the mafia of the intelligentsia or the mafia of the Sopranos, the results were largely unintelligible and a real conversation stopper when brought up with citizens of the host country. I did like the simple poetry of a national flag made up of old t-shirts - it smacked of good, honest community art.
Next door, China was a contrast in simplicity. Clouds of mist rose from vats inside the space while in the garden beyond a large cloud sculpture was enveloped in yet more mist. Meanwhile, someone walked backwards with a clocks strapped to them that was - yes, you got it - going backwards. The mists of time were going backwards.
Moving in a forward direction, I walked through the gardens behind the Arsenale, took in the big pink Franz West protuberance from a distance and then happened on the most surprising display. Entitled Some Like it Hot, the installation/performance/event involved an audience sitting drinking wine. The wine bottles were whisked away when empty and thrown into a barrel in which they were mashed with a large pole. Glass shards were fed into a large furnace in the middle of the clearing and molten glass was removed from time to time and poured onto a growing mound. A live soundtrack was provided by a Brooklyn-based band called Japanther. The furnace was fed fuel from a woodpile stacked to one side. In front of the pile was a bench with some folks seated, including a very thin naked guy. At one point graffiti was written onto his back. He then went behind the pile, and emerged with a large axe. He approached a wood stump on which some older folks were seated and asked to clear it for chopping purposes. One woman, noting his scrawny body, offered him a sandwich which he ate with gusto. He then proceeded with the wood chopping. This was definitely different.
Enlivened by Gelatin's offering, I made my way to a cocktail party for the launch of a brochure by an Italian writer. In the garden of an old nursery near the Arsenale, the evening was a perfect way to segue out of Biennale mode.