What if the Egyptian pharaohs lived today? What might archaeologists find in their tombs several thousand years from now? Would the sphynx be enigmatically holding an ipad? Would the Pharaoh be buried with his most valuable property – his mobile phones and computers that have all his life’s history on them? This is one of the questions visitors are asked in response to the theme of this year’s Venice Biennale with its theme of ‘May You Live in Interesting Times’ with the guest curator being Ralph Rugoff from London’s South Bank Centre.
This Giardini in Venice was originally created as a park from marshland by Napoleon Bonaparte at the beginning of the 19th century and has, since 1895, also been the home of the Biennale, with permanent national pavilions and a central exhibition pavilion. The pavilions are fascinating pieces of architectural history; some like Hungary, USA and Russia having strong nationalistic identities, others being part of an art deco suite, like a remnant from an old world trade fair, and others more modern, brutalist and sculptural.
The modernist Central Pavilion, occasionally hidden behind a cloud of artistic mist, as usual contained contributions from a wide selection of individual international artists including the Turkish artist Halil Altindere with his exhibit on Syrian space travel, which complimented the current exhibition at London’s Design Museum on moving to Mars, technology and art being combined in Sun Yuan & Peng Yu’s robotic installation ‘Can’t Help Myself’, and a host of other work where sometimes it is difficult to see the connection with the theme. Inevitably there is an overlap with the Arsenale with artists such as Anthea Hamilton, Carol Bove, George Condo and Zanele Muholi in both places, which provides a link and connectivity between the two venues.
The National Pavilions provide an opportunity to stretch the boundaries of art and there seems to be a trend to board up the front door and do something more interesting and mysterious from a side or rear entrance.
Too many countries however relied on videos, which were fine when juxtaposed alongside something else with a story to tell, but one large screen in a pavilion seems too easy, and curators have to remember that visitors only have a day to see everything here. Other countries sought to tell a story, one of the most fascinating being Jos de Gruyter & Harald Thys who filled the Belgian pavilion with their automated puppets in ‘Mondo Cane’ with those in the centre appearing to be happy villagers going about their daily routines, but around them – kept back behind bars – are dysfunctional and sinister characters, all of whom have a story behind them including comedians who no-one finds funny, a former Stazi officer who spied on hundreds of people as he pretended to wait for taxis, and a fool with a mental age of 8 years old, stuck there since being hypnotised by an owl which he tried to stare out at the zoo.
It was a shame that the Venice Pavilion, out of all the pavilions, was closed when we visited last week, when this should be a showcase for art of the city.
Tamas Waliczky (Hungary) gave us beautiful photographs of picture recording devices, all imaginary, but making the point about us understanding what we see and what is real and what is imaginary while Renate Bertlmann (Austria) created spaces for contemplation about modern life, sadly not all of which is positive.
The American pavilion was one of those where the front door was firmly locked and bolted, perhaps also linking with Martin Puryear’s theme of ‘Liberty’, Puryear claiming that his work represents him both as an artist and as a citizen, while the British front door was open for visitors to explore and engage with Cathy Wilkes’ gentle subdued works that cross boundaries in time and space and cause the visitor to stop and think.
The front door of the French pavilion was also well and truly locked and you had to clamber around at the back of the building into an undercroft full of rubble as you climbed up to enter another world, one of shallow water where dead fish float along with the debris thrown into the sea by humans. Laure Prouvost imagined a floating pavilion in a city, Venice, which is itself surrounded by sea, asking us to look into the reflections in the water and around us, reflecting on who we are and who we will be.
It is perhaps surprising that there were not more pavilions and artists focused on the environment, climate change and our inter-relationship with it, given that this is Venice and, as we saw this week, it can be seriously affected by changes in the weather. In addition to France, it was the Nordic Countries who lifted the baton with ‘Weather Report: Forecasting Future’ looking at the relationships between human and non-human life and at how humans find it difficult to understand life which is not their own, especially if many thousands or more miles away.
Among all the different pavilions, the most beautiful installation was without doubt the Spider/Web Pavilion by Tomas Saraceno was one of the smallest and darkest pavilions. Fascinated by natural phenomena, Tomas invites us to remember the beauty that spiders and create. Is his delicate work nature or is it art?