Friday, 6 September 2013

Venice Biennale: National Pavilions in the Giardini

After enjoying Portugal so much, the various national pavilions in the Giardini held some interesting works. The Biennale is a lot like visiting Chelsea in New York or any other gallery-rich city district: each gallery has a single or small group of artists on view. Some are familiar, some are new, but it's always a learning experience and always one where you respond to some works and are left cold by others.

Geographically in the Giardini, the first pavilion is Spain and I was charmed by the installation there by Lara Almarcegui, curated by Antonio Zaya. Perhaps because its starkness is in complete contrast to the lush extravagance of Vasconcelos's ferry boat, I took the time to read the explanation of why there was a huge pile of rocks dominating the main space. (Of course, in order to give each artist and each installation its due, one needs to read quite a bit as well as look.)

Almarcegui, engaged in assessing recycling, waste, and building materials and deconstruction themselves, assessed the Spanish pavilion building and installed the equivalent materials inside it: bricks and mortar broken up make the largest pile. The others are glass shards, pulverized  steel, and wood chips.

I was fascinated by the concept of deconstructing the building and putting it inside itself. Tom not so much, muttering something about Theaster Gates at Documenta.
In addition to the installation, Almarcequi produced a booklet assessing the history, condition, and possible future plans for a large island, Sacca San Mattia, that is part of Murano and was formed by deposits of rubble from the glass industry, dredging from the lagoon, other building construction, and industrial waste. I had no previous awareness of this large part of Murano and the booklet called attention to more of the infrastructure and bureaucratic issues that make Venice much more complicated than the magical place we see in travel brochures. 

Spanish Pavilion, Giardini, Venice

Next door, at the Belgium Pavilion, Berlinde De Bruyckere had installed Kreupelhout, or Cripplewood, a huge gathering of tree trunks and branches attached together as if with bandages and crutches. This single structure took up the entire main room of the pavilion. I believed it referred to a particular genus of tree, but it's a made-up species.

Tom was very taken by this installation, especially, I believe, because of the beautifully poetic label that accompanies the sculpture (reproduced above - click on it to read it). When I noticed that the label was written by J. M. Coetzee, the 2003 Nobel-Prize winning writer from South Africa, I needed to see what that was about. I found the book documenting the process. The artist wanted to collaborate with Coetzee, but they did not meet, but rather exchanged emails. I was interested that she decided to change the project to this single powerful image after realizing that the audience for the Biennale does not spend a lot of time in each pavilion, so the impact has to be strong and quick. I was also interested that she chose to use a huge tree as her damaged or at least not who subject when for the most part her sculpture depicts partial human or animal forms.

At the Dutch Pavilion, Mark Manders had covered the entrance door and windows with faux newspapers on which  the headlines and text consist of all the words in the English dictionary, not in any sensible order. Inside his various sculptures, like the one above, were quite lovely heads, divided by boards. While to some this would suggest anger or violence, to me it seemed he was assessing them geometrically in some way. His idea of reproducing one of his sculptures and displaying other versions in other locations, including a Venice supermarket, was lost to me.

Several of the national pavilions seem much more interesting in the descriptions than in person. I was eager to see the French Pavilion (in the German Pavilion, with "Germania" rubbed out) with the videos of two pianists playing Ravel's Concerto for the left Hand and two of a famous woman disc jockey trying to synchronize the two recordings, and the artist Anri Sala's  descriptions were most intriguing. But the actual work was easy to ignore. The German Pavilion (in the French Pavilion, with "Deutschland Pavillion" backwards to the side) included Ai Wei Wei and three other non-German artists, whose work addresses political issues in their countries in photographs and video. Korea's Kimsooja alternated an iridescent transparent main space with a totally dark room where only one or two people were admitted at a time. I'm kind of tired of black spaces. Apparently, sound was an element of the installation, but I didn't notice it. While the online images of the pavilion look striking, my photographs are pale reflections of the effect, which is also my recollection of the space itself. Japan had remains from the 2012 architectural biennale that seemed to relate to the Fukushima earthquake disaster, but it was difficult to discern what they were doing. We couldn't find the entrance for the Danish pavilion, a reminder of the year the Spanish pavilion was closed to anyone not Spanish.

At the Russian Pavilion I was happy to take my umbrella and stand with other women (men not admitted) under Vadim Zakharov's shower of gold coins, referring to the classical myth of Danae and the Shower of Gold, and I even enjoyed being able to take one coin for myself. But again, the idea of doing it is much more intriguing than actually doing it. And upstairs, where everyone was admitted, the mechanics of moving the coins up and down and the inscriptions "Gentlemen, time has come to confess our Rudeness, Lust, Narcissism, Demagoguery, Falsehood, Banality, and Greed, Cynicism, Robbery, Speculation, Wastefulness, Gluttony, Seduction, Envy and Stupidity" all seemed pointless. Also upstairs was a guy sitting in a saddle on the rafter, eating peanuts.

Jeremy Deller's English Magic at the British Pavilion incorporated a large number of installations, all politically charged, but so diverse as to defy brief description. We loved the huge hen harrier carrying off the SUV, as a revenge for Prince Harry reportedly shooting two of these protected birds on his estate, Sandringham, in Norfolk.
What Deller calls "The Small Faces" are a group of Neolithic hand axes from about 4,000 BC that were on view around this opening gallery., each with a soft colored background.

More ancient axes and flints arrowheads were installed throughout the pavilion. Another huge wall project has William Morris, raised from the dead, tossing Roman Abramovich's 377-foot yacht, Luna, into the lagoon after it blocked the view while moored beside the Giardini at the 2011 Biennale. There is a touching series of drawings of British army life in the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and of David Kelly, the UN weapons inspector who killed himself after being revealed as the person who questioned the accuracy of reports on Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. While I don't have images of them, I was moved by the juxtapositions of photographs from David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust tour with the protests after British soldiers shot and killed 26 civilian protestors in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, all at the end of January, 1972. There was lots to see and think about, and the best part was that they served tea on the back deck.

The American Pavilion was given over to Sarah Sze, whose gatherings of all types of fragmented, recycled, found, and created objects made a bewildering installation. I'm surprised that there haven't been many exhibitions of artists who use recycled materials, and I would love to know if they have had any impact on the landfills. At an exhibition in London a couple of years ago it seemed as if the goal is to move everything from the landfill to museum storage vaults.

In this light, the pavilion reminded me of an anonymous installation I documented several years ago. The use of color here is perhaps somewhat more subtle, but the relationship between forms is instinctual:

This year I paid more attention to the architecture of the pavilions than I have before, perhaps because there was so much press suggesting that the concept of national pavilions is outmoded in this world of fluid globalism. Although I have always had difficulty with the entries in the Australian Pavilion, above, I was sorry to learn that they plan to demolish and rebuild it. With its balcony over a lower space and open sky, it must be a difficult place to show art.

I'd never really thought about the fact that Brazil, top, and Austria, below, are quite similar in style.

My favorite pavilion has always been Hungary, because of the iridescent tiles and early 20th-century style of its portal and facade. The exhibition there, one of the last we visited, is "Fired but Unexploded," and as the title indicates, it consists of videos, some of which look like still photographs, by the artist Zsolt Asztalos, documenting unexploded projectiles found in Hungary. The objects are identified by type or weapon and date, giving a surprising history of wars and conflicts in 20th century Europe. The link above takes you to an exhaustive web site addressing a full range of issues involving this unexploded ordinance. We found this installation both moving and enlightening. Tom wondered if it's art, but I didn't think it mattered.

There are several more pavilions I might like to tell about, but I want to get this posted. It's taken a huge amount of time because of difficulties with Blogger and pictures, and then with the entire text disappearing after I thought I had saved it. Then I went to Santa Fe and New York and apple season started. So this is the best I can do to reconstruct what was lost. And it's giving me trouble again....