This edition of the Venice Biennale got off to a hot and sweaty start. Not only were the crowds overwhelming and the weather blazing, the political content and performance-based presentations heat up the scene.
The Danish pavilion stood out for its support of freedom of speech, literally providing a platform for a group of protesters involved in the current Italian referendum on nuclear energy. A large platform/tree house was built aside the pavilion and festooned with banners and an outsize megaphone. Inside, the most personally striking work was by Robert Crumb and Taryn Simon, two artists working at opposite ends of the spectrum to help us gain perspective on our lives in the US.
Just across the gravel, the US pavilion had a political message of its own. Represented by the pair of Allora and Calzadilla, the US featured an oddly self-critical set of works including a US athlete running on a treadmill on top of an upturned tank, a giant pipe organ that played loudly as cash was taken from an ATM and US gymnasts exerting themselves on wooden replicas of first class seats. The last of these aptly brought to mind the exertions of staying on top of the corporate pile such that your seat upfront remained assured. There was something almost creepy about a State Department sponsored exhibit that was so in your face critical about US culture. Only one video work showed this pair working at a more subtle level of insight that is more familiarly theirs.
The lines outside the UK pavilion are legend. After an attempt to jump the line went awry, I waited my turn (almost) and took the opportunity met some great folks from the host country, John Plowman and Nicola Streeten. They operate a non-profit promoting art installations in non-traditional spaces under the banner Beacon Art. Once inside, I enjoyed the maze of spaces by Mike Nelson recreating rooms in an Istanbul quarter. Although I felt that the transportation of the piece from Istanbul to Venice, compromised the quality of just having missed the inhabitants of the rooms, I was struck by experience of doubting memory and following instinct.
France and Germany flank the UK in a wonderful late 19th century display of political design. France featured Christian Boltanski's whirring display on the vagaries of chance. Germany convincingly recreated a cathedral of art featuring a funereal take on Beuys, Fluxus and the artist himself, Christoph Schlingensief, who had died at an early age. RIP the lot of you.
Down the road, the Swiss pavilion provided a wonderful contrast to its 2009 incarnation - from the quiet certitude of Silvia Bächli to the all encompassing denouement of Thomas Hirschhorn. The space had been completely transformed into a paper and tape simulacrum of hell complete with dangerous edges and stifling heat.
From the dangers of contemporary society's quest for dominance to the Polish Pavilion's fascinating take on the "the Jewish problem". Three films. Part 1 - a cry for the Jews to return to Poland and restore prewar glory. Part 2 - a twist whereby Polish youth build a kibbutz for returning Jews only to finish the structure with oddly familiar barbed wire festooned camp walls. Part 3 - the context, in which the youth leader is slain while viewing art and a series of speeches made at his funeral open questions regarding Polish culpability, Jewish identity, the State of Israel and "the Palestinian problem". Put on your thinking caps for this one.
The Biennale pavilion was festooned with Cattelan pigeons - so many that one writer pondered the lack of pigeons in San Marco. Personal highlights were the David Goldblatt images asserting their quiet power within the walls of a riotously wallpapered para-pavilion. The electro machinations of the Haroon Mirza installation in the same area provided another wonderful contrast against which to view. Pipolitti Rist provided three small works that blended her signature video candy with painted portraits of the Venice urbanscape. Not as transporting as her immersive works, I still marveled at their technical prowess. Llyn Foulkes provided another group of comments on the American dream with slyly altered icons such as George Washington and Superman and Ryan Gander's coin took a while to find - stuck on the floor in the middle of a gallery. As with any dense art experience, I eventually end up in the cafe and I was glad to see that the Tobias Rehberger design from 2009 had survived to fragment another caffeine experience.
There were lines too for Israel's pavilion presenting Sigalit Landau. The space had been reconstituted into a large installation featuring various takes on water, salt and territoriality. A mass of pipes snaked their way across the bottom level and climbed the walls to turn meters above. Videos depicted salted boots eating through ice and the game of territorial marking on a beach pointed to the larger stakes played out in Gaza and the West Bank. While the individual works were of interest, the collective didn't quite gel into a cohesive experience for me.
That said, the cocktail reception for the installation, held at the Scuola Rocca, was that special combination of social event and great art viewing. The upstairs hall was a treasure trove of Tintoretto. While admittedly not well schooled in classic painting, I was moved by the experience of being enveloped in dark tones of oils. I spent several hours talking with friends and enjoying a classic Venetian venue far from the madding crowds...
And friendship was an important part of my Biennale. Admittedly, it was fun to don the dark suit and cross the water to Pinault's already feted party on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. Better though was returning to join friends form South Africa at a dinner for David Goldblatt. Other group dinners, and lunches, provided warmth, respite and insight amidst the Biennale behemoth.
Before leaving the Giardini, I enjoyed some time at the Austrian pavilion which features Markus Schinwald. The pavilion had been transformed into a poetic maze in which walls reach down from the ceiling yet do not meet the floor. Interspersed throughout are sinuous sculptures wrapping around corner and into the heights. Repurposed paintings show old portraits modified by the artist to append prosthetic devices - to the chins, noses and other parts of the sitters. Finally, a duo of films depicting various forms of suspension in time and space are projected in two large rooms at the ends of the pavilion. While sitting on the floor to view these, the legs of other viewers walking the exhibition can be seen crisscrossing behind. The whole created a lyrical space in which the hand of the artist has intervened in the ordinary.