The 56th Venice Biennale

Like most other art reviewers, I visited the Venice Biennale during the professional preview, aka ‘vernissage’, a three-day sweaty walkathon reserved for artists, curators, critics and miscellaneous hangers-on of all shapes and sizes. While the venues, restaurants and toilets are immeasurably more crowded than after the show opens to the general public, the preview is also the occasion on which the true essence of the biennale is shamelessly laid bare. It can be described as a convergence of two types of cognitive collapse: the first affects the exhibition, which, with the exception of the show curated by the artistic director du jour, is an event without rhyme or reason. Every two years participating nations spew forth their champion artists, who are chosen not only for legitimate professional reasons but also, at least in some cases, to satisfy political, commercial or even nepotistic interests. The result is a totality that is much less than the sum of its parts; it is what the people who know about these things call a ‘paratactic’ structure—individual components mindlessly added to each other, like ice-cream scoops on a cone, without ever forming a meaningful, unified system. How very Italian. 

The second intellectual downfall affects the hapless visitors, be they ‘professional’ or simply stowaways—the latter provide the majority of bodies that pack the countless queues and obstruct the many narrow doorways and corridors. It is hard to underestimate the level of synaptic detumescence experienced by professional previewers and reviewers affected by jetlag, dehydration, inappropriate footwear, overexposure to visual stimuli—the Stendhal syndrome is a serious professional hazard in these circumstances—and over-eagerness to impress one’s peers. 

As is to be expected, such uninhibited displays of institutional and individual inanity can be a source of a great deal of (almost) clean fun, which explains why the gravelly paths of the Giardini and the awe-inspiring chambers of the Arsenale are never wanting for picturesquely attired human flesh (a side note: the bearded hipster contagion has yet to make its full force felt here). Considered as a whole, the Venice Biennale is a scatter-gun event; it shoots a huge number of pellets hoping that a few will hit a target. Quantity always trumps quality here, but especially so this year, as the exhibition is notably overstuffed. 

Overcrowding also affected the Australian pavilion. It started outside, where a large antipodean throng assembled to listen to the speeches introducing Fiona Hall’s show and to wonder at the enigmatic, Giaconda-like smile that graced the visage of our then arts minister (only now do we understand the sweet secret behind that smile and the maidenly blush that surrounded it). Claustrophobia continued inside the venue, where Hall’s beautifully crafted objet d’art cover the black-painted walls and the shelves of a freestanding display structure. Her ability to poetically transform any material she works with is nothing short of astounding. Given the dark subject matter—the work deals with issues of environmental degradation, war and capitalist greed—the display solution is more reminiscent of a little shop of horrors than of the wunderkammer mentioned in the curator’s statement (one is reminded of Venice’s countless small shops packed with tourist-luring bibelots.) While Hall’s highly serious work is anything but touristic, it nevertheless references a wide range of traditional craft traditions and techniques, from Swiss cuckoo clocks, to Mexican decorations for the Day of the Dead, to the weaving of the Tjanpi women with whom Hall collaborated. Her openness to cultural diversity and deeply felt ethical commitment are well aligned with the tone of many other works in this Biennale, especially those included in the group show curated by Okwui Enwezor, the Biennale’s artistic director.

A brief comment on Australia’s new pavilion: it is an elegant black monolith, the bleak, cubic mass partly enlivened by a zigzagging access ramp that unwinds like a cartoon lightning bolt. Its design concept is probably wrong-headed, but I do not envy the architects, who are undoubtedly highly talented. The job they were given was a poisonous chalice, as it is close to impossible to design a permanent pavilion at a time when these types of architectural contraptions have long ceased to make sense. Still, one would have hoped for a design approach that acknowledged the irredeemably epigonic nature of these types of architectural follies. And a lighter touch, a more customisable structure and a note of ironic self-deprecation, or at least self-awareness, would not have gone astray. 

Speaking of pavilions, it is interesting to note how the Austrians keep mistreating theirs, despite it being the most beautiful in the Giardini. This year Austria’s approach is the exact opposite of Australia’s—which is useful, as this difference helped mitigate the confusions, especially widespread among US visitors, generated by the unfortunate homophonic relationship between the two countries’ names. Heimo Zobernig, Austria’s selected artist, created a work that aims to disrupt Josef Hoffmann’s original pavilion design. Zobernig’s installation is one in which there is literally nothing to see, as he limited himself to inserting false floors and ceilings to hide parts of the existing building. The most interesting component of his project is Sara Sagui’s extraordinarily beautiful photographic documentation. Her work, which is not included in the exhibition but only in the press kit, is a paradigmatic example of how photographic documentation is often given the surreptitious role of reintroducing an aesthetic dimension into a conceptual work utterly devoid of visual interest. Still, a modicum of Austrian nothingness was greatly soothing after squeezing through so many overstuffed rooms. 

The Austrians are certainly not the only ones prone to molesting their pavilions. The Germans do it all the time, which is understandable considering it is an ugly neo-classical structure built by the Nazis and which many have called to be demolished. This year the curators present the work of several artists by reconfiguring the pavilion, using temporary partitions to completely transform the building. The unintended consequence of the labyrinthine layout is that many hapless visitors—myself included—go in, out, up and down the various spaces without noticing the entrance to Hito Steyerl’s video installation, which is, according to some, the highlight of the German exhibition. 

Like the Germans, the Belgians have a lot to apologise for, especially their colonial history in Central Africa. And collective historical guilt is perhaps behind their decision to undermine the chauvinistic ethos behind the concept of national pavilions by organising a group exhibition that features many non-Belgian artists of African background. In this way they take a leaf from the Germans’ book, who, in 2009, selected British artist Liam Gillick to represent them at the Biennale. These partial and still-tentative moves to acknowledge the Biennale’s regressive nationalism are very positive, and hopefully will show a way forward for these outdated art events.

Given the confusing architectural re-routing, it is a relief to come across friendly artworks that come out of their pavilion to find you. I am alluding to the wandering trees created by French artist Céleste Boursier-Mougenot. These are real trees, rooted on lumps of real soil and resting on some kind of locomotive apparatus—small caster wheels are at work under the protruding roots—which allows them to move autonomously in and out of the pavilion, following the sunlight as it changes during day.

Boursier-Mougenot’s poetic and gently humorous work offers the bonus of comfort to those coming out of Sarah Lucas’s depressing exhibition in the neighbouring British pavilion. Lucas’s works consist of a self-absorbed meditation on the ravages inflicted by looming old age on the overexerted pudenda of the generation of artists formerly known as YBA (Young British Artists). The ‘humour’ mentioned in the curator’s press release seems in short supply, unless one finds cigarettes stuck in women’s bottoms funny. It is an unfortunate fact that British commissioners are often besotted with the sagging leftovers of ‘Cool Britannia’, perhaps in the assumption they would resonate with Venice’s somewhat thanatic ambience.

A much more life-affirming experience—despite the fact that it also deals with death and memory—is offered by Chiharu Shiota, who represented Japan. Her beautiful installation of keys, red yarn and old boats complemented by a small multi-channel video half hidden behind a pillar was one of my favourite works at the Biennale. The video work in particular is very moving; it shows a series of interviews with toddlers who are asked to talk about what happened at the time of their birth. The rhythm and energy generated by the simultaneous display of the children’s highly imaginative narratives is irresistible, a life force that blows you away.

The centrepiece of the Biennale is always the large group show curated by the artistic director. Okwui Enwezor’s exhibition, titled ‘All the World’s Futures’, is a disappointment. Considering his previous curatorial work, it was expected that his exhibition would showcase, as it does, many artists from outside the dominant artistic centres as well as works with a social and political focus. This was certainly a commendable aspect of his approach, which was reinforced by the jury’s decision to award the main prize, the Golden Lion, to Adrian Piper, an African-American artist whose work has always addressed issues of social justice with great intelligence and passion. 

More surprising is Enwezor’s decision to also present works by several modern masters, including a series of gigantic paintings by Georg Baselitz. I am really not too sure what the guy who declared that women are genetically incapable of painting was doing there, surrounded by so many ‘failed’ female painters. Although it must be conceded that his creamy works looked pleasingly lickable, reminiscent, as they are, of what a child would paint if she decided to use her Neapolitan-flavoured ice-cream as a makeshift brush to depict daddy getting out of the shower. In other instances Enwezor’s choice of senior artists is inspired, such as his decision to include several of Fabio Mauri’s strongly political works, the presence of which partially redeemed the Italian participation that, as has often been the case in recent years, was a disgrace. The main problem with Enwezor’s show was that there were too many works crammed in too little space and linked by too weak a rationale. 

It is always the case with these large exhibitions that there are many pearls to be discovered, but the problem is finding them. I was already on my way out during my last visit to the Arsenale when I came across Sonia Leber, who kindly helped me find the work she created with David Chesworth and which I had failed to locate. I was lucky, because their Zaum Tractor, a two-channel video piece created during a residency in Russia, was a most satisfying viewing experience, one of the best works I saw in my three days in Venice. Suffice to say it is one of the few longish contemporary video works—26 minutes—I have managed to get through without catching myself daydreaming about glasses of wine or other types of creature comfort.

In Zaum Tractor the utopian hopes of early 20th century Soviet modernism are juxtaposed with the less exhilarating but still captivating reality of modern Russia. The video combines excerpts from Sergei Eisenstein’s 1929 film The General Line, readings of Futurist ‘Zaum’ poetry, images of important Constructivist buildings seen in their current dilapidated state, and everyday fragments of contemporary Russian life. The work’s superb editing, cinematography and soundtrack give form to a poetically impressionistic quasi-documentary that eschews linear narrative but abounds in analogies and resonances. 

That’s the thing about the Venice Biennale: after all is said and done, one is always left with a handful of great works that give pause to even the most jaded and sceptical of reviewers, making them contemplate the possibility, unlikely as it may sometimes seem, that maybe everything is not yet lost. 

Chiharu Shiota, The Key in the Hand, 2015. Installation view, Japan Pavilion. The 56th International Art Exhibition, la Biennale di Venezia.

Fiona Hall, Wrong Way Time. Installation view, Australian Pavilion. Photograph Alessandra Chemollo. Courtesy la Biennale di Venezia.

Céleste Boursier-Mougenot, rêvolutions. Photograph Sara Sagui. Courtesy la Biennale di Venezia.

Fabio Mauri, Il Muro Occidentale o del Pianto, 1993. Suitcases, bags, trunks, leather casings, canvas, wood, 400 x 400 x 60cm. La Cartaia, Vaiano, 1998. Photograph Claudio Abate. Courtesy la Biennale di Venezia.

Marco Marcon is Artistic Director and Co-founder International Art Space, Western Australia.