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Sink or swim: The Venice Biennale – Scottish Review of Books
by Joseph Farrell

Sink or swim: The Venice Biennale

May 30, 2015 | by Joseph Farrell

THERE are 89 nations represented in the official pavilions of the Venice Biennale, clustered partly in an area known as the Gardens and partly in the old Arsenal, and 44 semi-official fringe, or ‘collateral’ events as they termed,  distributed in deconsecrated churches, palaces, and courtyards all over the city. Every nation, irrespective of population or politics, has to be there, so newcomers this year included the Seychelles, Mauritius and Mongolia and they occupy stands alongside San Marino, China and Vatican City.

For all the grand language used, the initial draw to individual events is likely to be the lavish hospitality offered at the opening ceremonies which are now de rigueur. I dropped into the Philippine venue, hosting a show entitled Tie a String Around the World. The garden fronting the Palazzo Mora was a crush of the art-lovers downing strawberries, chunks of Parmesan, slices of salame and glasses of prosecco, while ignoring a valiant trio of musicians playing ragtime numbers. The party was open to all-comers, as used to happen at the great balls in the eighteenth-century Venetian carnivals when the mask made it impossible to distinguish between prince and prole. Near the gate, stood the anxious husband of an Austrian artist, Beatriz Gerenstein, who was showing off her sculpture, a work mounted on a red board, consisting of two stainless steel tubes which come together in a knot to form a triangle, leaving one tube to slant upwards, ‘towards heaven’, as she explained. She was delighted when it was suggested that spectators could see their reflection in the material of her sculpture, but I had the impression that she would have been equally delighted with any form of reaction as proof that her work was speaking to someone, whatever it said.

There is no point in asking if it is art, for art now is anything claimed to be such by someone who declares him/herself to be an artist. What is new is that they want it to carry a meaning, whether that meaning be political, personal, metaphysical or scientific. The artworks on display all over Venice make completely new demands of viewers. There was a time in the heyday of post-surrealism when artists and critics scoffed at the very idea of interpretation. Art existed in its own dimension. Perception was all. I was once told by a curator of an exhibition on followers of Matisse that there was no more justification for searching for signs of a coherent vision in a modernist work than for demanding the meaning of wallpaper patterns. Jackson Pollock, whose work was on display at the Guggenheim museum at the same time as the Biennale, made great play of the accidental element in his creations, even writing that while painting he ‘was not aware of what (I) am doing’. Similarly, Alexander Calder created his mobiles or kinetic sculptures, and left people to make of them what they would – and they did. Some art historians even saw them as representing the end of a tradition stretching back to Renaissance Humanism and its notion of ‘man as the measure of all things’. Calder, they said, established a link between his creation and the wind, skipping humankind. When told of this, Calder is reported to have grinned.

Wandering around Venice, I could not help being struck by the contrast between contemporary art language and that of the twentieth century, as well as with the outlook of the great painters of the Venetian tradition. That remark will seem beyond banality, but bear with me. One of the incidental advantages of the Biennale is that it allows access to many noble palaces which are normally shut but which the ‘impoverished’ (inverted commas obligatory) owners are glad to let out to raise some cash. The eye can wander from the bronze plates over which water flows meaningfully into a bucket, from the canvases of flower (dis)arrangements, or from corpses in the Guatemalan Sweet Death exhibition, up to the frescos on the ceilings depicting mythological gods and goddesses or of arcadian nymphs and shepherds at play.

The curious thing is that unlike what could be termed the Jackson or Calder generation, these new artists are as keen to be understood as the great Renaissance masters. They have a vision, or a passion and want to be understood, but they do not communicate by clarity of visual language. They communicate through curators or by the manifestos available in every venue. These curators are a new migratory breed, who travel the world from festival to festival, curating and fostering birth, like brooding hens. However, small countries can rarely afford the cost of a whole venue for the Biennale which lasts from May to November, and so the curators invite other contributors. The curator of the Costa Rica show was sacked when the government found that he was charging large sums to guest artists but had not given space to even one artist from the home country.

My moment of epiphany came in a visit to the Grenada venue. The Caribbean artists on show had created canvases or images which demonstrated the growth and development of chocolate on their island, as well as the injustices suffered by those who worked on the estates. The curator, Susan Mains, herself an artist, used the cloisters of the religious institution where the exhibition was housed to scatter on the ground articles of clothing, an act of protest, she explained, against the slaughter of innocent people in Nigeria. Not being a wealthy country, Grenada gave space to other artists. A giant, plastic statue of Mickey Mouse by the Italian, Giuseppe Linardi, caught my eye. A large, imposing, upright, perfectly forged piece of work, it has the cheery grin and features which any visitor to Disneyland will have seen. It looked like something created by Andy Warhol, or by some proponent of pop art, but it transpired that it was not conceived as a fond or admiring homage, a word to which the French pronunciation gives a touch of class. 

An explanation was forthcoming. This Mickey Mouse was not intended to be seen as an affectionate, cuddly creature but as a protest against the emotional aridity of the age, of the failure of parents to engage with their children and to offer them toys or mechanical devices instead, a trend which was growing in strength, we were told, in the internet age. There was no element of caricature in the sculpture, no defacing of the original such as a smirk or frown in place of the well known smile. I asked the lady giving the explanation how the average viewer could be expected to make the expected interpretation merely by looking at the work. I invited her to ask a random section of visitors for their spontaneous response, and doubted if even one in a hundred would see it as a debunking work. She conceded that I was free to view the work as I wished but what she had outlined was what Linardi intended.

There is, in other words, one canonical interpretation, and the artist and his PR employee wished it to be disseminated. Where is the art, in the work itself or in the accompanying hand-out? Elite visitors to these shows fall into two main categories, the initiated and the phoneys, with professional critics floating between the two. The majority of visitors are merely mystified. It was not ever thus. The habitués of the palaces in Venice’s golden days could admire the Tiepolos on the ceiling, with varying levels of appreciation depending on their aesthetic sophistication. The difference is not a question of style, but of expected response. Art of the sort produced by signor Linardi, to use him as an exemplar, paradoxically requests recognition of its aims and meaning, yet conceals them in a closed code which only initiates speak. Phoneys give themselves the airs and graces of connoisseurs, because that is what phoneys do. And phoneys, especially the moneyed, international yacht-set type, abound in Venice at this time of the year.

Politics this year are all around, with questions of identity and concerns about the decaying environment uppermost. There is a strange literalness to many exhibits. The line between science and art frequently evaporates. The direct statement overrides the quest for metaphor. Videos and documentaries are prominent. One artist showed herself flying in a small plane to the heights of Mount Agassiz in the Alps, bearing a plaque to change the name of mountain from that of a racist Swiss ethnologist, Agassiz, to that of the black man he had demeaningly photographed in a plantation in South Carolina. Not all installations have any artistic aims, even if created by an artist. The most controversial, and cosmopolitan, site was the Icelandic. The group rented the deconsecrated church of Santa Maria della Misercordia, entrusted it to the Swiss artist, Christoph Buchel, who transformed it into a mosque which he handed over to the Muslim community, whose attempts to acquire a mosque of their own had always been turned down by the Venetian authorities. Cardinal Moraglio complained he had not been consulted. Since it is officially an installation, religious ceremonies cannot be held there, but will it be closed down when the Biennale stops?

And then there is Scotland. Peter Doig, now resident in Trinidad, has a one-man show of his recent work, with enigmatic lions and a range of the fantasy characters which people his wayward imagination. He exhibited on his own, but the sponsored show, official from a Scottish viewpoint but collateral in Venetian eyes, featured the work of Graham Fagen. Breathes there a man with soul so dead whose heart did not within him quicken on seeing the large hoarding on the Strada Nuova proclaiming Venice + Scotland with an arrow pointing to the late Renaissance-style Palazzo Fontana on the Grand Canal?

There is plenty to be pleased with in the exhibition itself. The works were all specially created for this space, so the first room houses a grand bronze coir tree whose roots stretch over the floor and whose branches neatly fit in between two Murano glass chandeliers. I struggled more with the series of drawings in the second room which were grotesques based on the artist’s teeth, but was touched by the puppet-like death masks hanging on another tree. Many viewers settled delightedly in the final room where there were four screens, three with string instruments and the fourth with a Jamaican singing Burns’ Slave’s Lament in a new arrangement by Sally Beamish. There is no complete theme linking all this work, but indignation at slavery is powerfully felt.

And outside, there is Venice itself, light doing its best to sparkle on the greenish water, a city inhabited by ghosts, built where no city should ever have stood, made more beautiful age after age until now when it provokes indignation at the neglect, human stupidity, pollution, mass tourism and monstrous cruise ships which threaten its survival. All the World’s Futures is the slogan for this year’s Biennale. The message of hope was lost in all the muddled protesting, but it was there.

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