In the heat of the summer, Venice’s main public garden, known as the Giardini, is usually a quiet and sleepy place. Away from St Mark’s Square, beyond the Arsenale, on the spit of land that faces towards the Lido, it is too far off the beaten track to attract many tourists. But once every two years, in early June, the place becomes a hive of activity. The pavilions of multifarious design that line the park’s avenues are suddenly filled with works of art, the focus of attention for a multitude of visitors. Artists and their dealers, critics and curators, middlemen and hangers-on, descend on the Giardini in their thousands.
The occasion is the Venice Biennale, the world’s oldest and largest festival of contemporary art. This year’s event, which opened last week, proved to be the biggest and possibly the most bewildering ever. The line between the official Biennale and its fringe events has become increasingly blurred, with a truly mind-boggling quantity of ancillary exhibitions taking place in the city itself, in various palazzi, buildings and warehouses on and off the Grand Canal. There is a striking exhibition of work by Richard Hamilton, the father of British Pop Art, at the Fondazione Bevilacqua; a new show of work by the grand old man of Russian contemporary art, Ilya Kabakov, at the Fondazione Querini Stampalia; while the Peggy Guggenheim Collection is playing host to an exhibition setting the works of the late Joseph Beuys next to those of Matthew Barney, inventor of a genre of performance and video art that might best be described as Baroque American Dada. In addition, a multitude of dealers have staged all kinds of unofficial exhibitions of work by their leading artists. At a conservative estimate, it would take a single individual at least a month just to see – let alone responsibly assess – everything that is on show at this year’s Biennale.
Seeking some kind of anchor in the instability of this floating world, visitors are well advised to begin in the Giardini, the traditional and official heart of the Biennale. Here at least there is a semblance of order, even though it is manifestly something of an anachronism. The origins of the Biennale lie in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when many of the national pavilions that are dotted around the gardens were first built. The event was conceived as a kind of Olympic Games of art, with each of the major nations nominating a single artist to represent them as potential champion. The main avenue bisecting the park is lined by buildings arranged in a configuration that quaintly preserves a map of global power relations as it might have been drawn in the years immediately preceding the First World War. Ascending the gentle slope of this toytown Parnassus, the visitor passes the national pavilions of such countries as Denmark, Sweden and Japan. The American pavilion, a building somewhat resembling a miniaturised White House, is away and to the side. At the end of this processional avenue, the German and French pavilions come face to face, while at the very top of the hill, in the splendid isolation befitting the world’s greatest imperial power, stands the pavilion of Great Britain.
Queen of the Hill last Wednesday, traditional opening day of the Biennale, was Britain’s representative Tracey Emin, smiling in her usual decollete for an army of paparazzi. The bad girl of British art has responded to her elevation to the British pavilion in Venice by mounting an exhibition of such pastel-coloured tastefulness that it borders on the outright anodyne. Her work is in an awkward, transitional phase, remaining grounded in an apparent rhetoric of existential anxiety and sexual trauma that seems increasingly contradicted by the slick and derivative style in which it is couched. The main gallery is lined with a display of the artist’s monoprints, which are probably the best things in the show. Drawn with a nervy off-the-cuff elegance, these images of the artist’s graphic alter-ego pirouetting and posing in the forms of her own self-doubt are like pages torn from a diary, although they are so light as to be almost insubstantial. Emin has also included a number of her word pieces, maudlin extracts of less than compelling pseudo-verse recounting failed love affairs, which are scarcely improved by their translation into cursive scripts of pastel-coloured neon tubing. There are also a number of derivative pictures, painted as if to a confectioner’s recipe – a little bit of Cy Twombly, a pinch of Klimt, a dash of Egon Schiele and a generous tablespoon of Munch. This looks like Emin’s attempt to create what is very much a museum show, to stake a claim to art historical seriousness. What has gone missing is any great sense of personal compulsion.
Elsewhere in the official pavilions, the prevailing mood is dourly political. The Japanese contribution is characteristic. Here, Masao Okabe has created an installation entitled Is There a Future for Our Past? The Dark Face of the Light. A number of granite slabs, saved from the wreckage of Hiroshima’s central train station after the dropping of the atom bomb in 1945, have been placed on trestle tables in the middle of the pavilion. Visitors are furnished with pieces of paper and stubs of charcoal and encouraged to create their own “frottages” from the weathered surfaces of these stone relics. Whether collective memory of a terrible event can actually be deepened by what amounts to a kind of conceptualised brass-rubbing seems, however, doubtful. Down the hill, the Nordic Pavilion plays host to a whole series of political interventions, of varying opacity. Danish artist Lars Ramberg’s contribution is an installation of three non-functioning public pay-toilets, stationed by the main avenue, decked out in the colours of the French tricolor. Around the corner, two of the long plate-glass windows of the pavilion have been embellished with images of a dark-haired and a blonde woman wondering to one another, in speech bubbles, whether they should be doing “something political”. Every fifteen minutes, a black window-cleaner meticulously washes the windows, presumably to symbolise the lot of Scandinavia’s immigrant workforce. Inside the pavilion, Adel Abidin’s installation cracks a dark joke about the state of modern Baghdad. The artist has turned the space into a travel agency specialising in holidays to “Iraq’s most bewitching tourist destination”. Television monitors mounted on the walls broadcast advice to those about to embark on “a holiday of a lifetime” – pointing out for example that it is a bad idea to gather in groups, speak English or go outside. This falls into the category of works of art which, like jokes themselves, have little to offer after the punchline.
Advance rumour suggested that this might be the Biennale of Eastern Europe, but that is emphatically not the case. The Romanian pavilion boasts an abject meditation on the legacy of the Ceaucescu years by an artist named Dan Perjovschi, in the form, mostly, of dripping sacks of concrete and a video of a stretch of urban wasteland. Nearby, Monila Sosnowska has filled the Polish pavilion with what appears to be several intricately entangled battered fire escapes – symbol, apparently, of the bleak post-industrial landscape of modern Poland. The Russian pavilion, by contrast, marks an emphatic break with the recent past. Until a few years ago, Russian artists were known for their resolute poverty of materials and make-and-mend approach. Now high-tech gimmickry is the order of the day. A collective known as AES + F have created a triple-screen cyber-animated film entitled The Last Riot, in which a group of fey Playstation-character-lookalikes stab each other with samurai swords while trains and planes crash, missiles fly through the air and the world comes elegantly to an end to the soundtrack of Wagner’s Gotterdammerung. Andrey Bartenev’s contribution is a tunnel of flashing lights called Connection Lost, metaphor for the seductive but alienating world of internet dating sites. Upstairs, Alexander Pomorov and Arseny Mescheryakov have created Shower – a multifaceted cubicle lined from floor to ceiling with television monitors showing endlessly looped pornography and news footage, making for a rather literal image of the image-saturated nature of modern experience.
The most affecting political works of art in this year’s Biennale turn out to have been created, respectively, by a dead artist and a collective of young men who do not really consider themselves to be artists at all. Felix Gonzales-Torres is only the second American artist to have been selected for the Biennale after his death (the first was Robert Smithson, in 1982). His work, beautifully installed in the American pavilion, is occasionally prone to slightness, but at its best shows a seriousness and lightness of touch found nowhere else in this Biennale. Untitled (Public Opinion) is the pick of the works on display. It consists of nothing more than a large rectangular field of liquorice sticks, which the audience is free to take from, thus randomly altering its shape. A sourly astringent commentary on the nature of modern democracy can be inferred. The liquorice sticks also happen to look like wrapped bullets.
In front of the American pavilion sprawls a fantasy city made of painted bricks and toys perched on hills of mud and sand. This vivid, unexpected creation was originally made by a group of impoverished teenagers in one of the poorest suburbs of Rio de Janeiro, who made it for the simple reason that they had nowhere to play and next to nothing to play with. The forms of the city irregularly reflect the forms of their lives. Toy drug-dealers and policemen stalk its streets and there are more brothels than shops. The work of Morrinho, as the collective call themselves, after their home suburb, was discovered by one of Brazil’s leading photographers, and subsequently exhibited, first at the Sao Paolo Biennale and now at Venice. It stands out from so much else in the Biennale perhaps because it is not a work of art attempting to “engage” with political reality, but a raw piece of reality itself.
Away from the official pavilions, the Biennale is an astonishing sprawl, epitomised by its so-called “open” section. Curated by Robert Storr, this occupies several acres within what is normally a military zone in the Arsenale. Here, in the Cordiere – which are, some might say aptly enough, the old-rope shops of the Venetian shipbuilding industry – more than a thousand works of art and installations fill a seemingly never-ending enfilade of warehouses. The works are good, bad and indifferent and characterised above all by a thoroughly bewildering heterogeneity. A forty-minute Chinese film about Zen Buddhism – not many takers – is being shown close to a video of a young boy playing kick-ups with a football in the shape of a human head on the streets of Kosovo, which in turn precedes an installation resembling a street market in Bombay. An impromptu Italian pavilion has also been carved out of the Corderie, and it contains one of the crassest installations – a lame mock-up of an American presidential campaign by Francesco Vezzoli, starring Sharon Stone – as well as one of the best, a grand and solemn work by Giuseppe Penone inspired by the bark and sap of the larch tree.
All in all, this year’s Biennale is exhilaratingly, shamelessly energetic and eclectic – a vivid microcosm of the yowling multicultural chaos that the world of contemporary art has become.