Artist and curator Alex Billingham offers up his personal reflections on the Venice Biennale.

 

New Art West Midlands / Engine visit to Venice Biennale. Sculpture by Lorenzo Quinn. Image by Alex Billingham

 

Egg gods/
David Oooooo yerh/
Hunters/
Water sports/
Finland! /
Spite/
Nose masturbation/
Bum caravans/
Archives /
Thread /
Animatronic Penguins … STOP My head hurts!

This September New Art West Midlands very kindly let me come to the Venice Biennale with them. It was my first time out of the country in ten years and what a way to start. Monarch kindly deferred financial collapse by a week to get us out and back.

It was wonderful to be with such brilliantly friendly people full of ideas and mixed interpretations of the work. It was refreshing to see how others approached viewing work.

The most influential lesson I ever got was when my elderly teacher took away my rubber. She said I had to learn from my mistakes. This has guided my approach to how I make and view art.

You only ever get one first impression of a piece, make the most of it. I never take information about art until after I’ve experienced it in the raw. Great work doesn’t rely on writing to be readable.

On to the damn ART already.

Where to start? SCOTLAND!

Possibly because of its isolation from the main bulk of work but I suspect because of the commitment both of scale and effort involved in it the Scottish Pavilion stands out as one of the most interesting pieces. A 20-foot vertical screen dominates a blacked-out church. Mirroring the themes in the piece the beauty and scale of the setting only becomes apparent once your eyes have adjusted. It’s a gloriously textured piece looping back in on itself elegantly melding Facebook symbols, myths and modern morality.

Battle of the titans: Arsenale vs. Giardini

These two monstrous beasts are of very different flavours.

Welcome to Giardini land, how may I help you today?

Initially it has the feel of being a Disney Land for people who like to say they’re in the arts but beneath the theme park layout and selfie advertising there’s a wonderland of work replete with jabberwockies and trolls.

Russia was disturbing and disappointing, played as a send up of the country’s military heritage. But neither vicious or damming enough to be real it felt much more like a display of Soviet might and total control.

Canada’s Geoffrey Farmer, however, was brave, daring and playful and by far and away my favourite piece (I returned 3 times). I was lucky enough to come upon it from the back entrance via England as you walk through the door to a shattered and gutted pavilion open to the skies. Strewn with playful wreckage using water to react to the presence of visitors, culminating in a ravaged fountain at its heart.

Guan Xiao, David, 2013, three-channel HD video installation, color, sound, 4 minutes 43 seconds. In “Viva Arte Viva” in the Arsenale.

How Bloody Big is the Arsenale?

This was no tourist playpen but a fully formed gauntlet of art gladiators stretching on into a parallel dimension where a giant kitten was terrorising art critics to get to the biggest balls of twine in the multiverse – just me there? Sorry.

A complete clusterf**k cacophony of cultural Kunst. Ok so I had a beast of a cold starting as I went through the belly of this beast so I kinda experienced it in a somewhat dreamlike state. While there were pieces which succeeded and others that failed, for me it was the experience which stuck with me, a million myriad ideas jostling for dominance of my attention constantly trying out do one another.

D. A. V. I. D. by Guan Xiao was probably the piece we most bonded over as a group, a prince charming nestled half behind warehoused vulvas.

Spain must take the prize for most fully realised idea – a dystopian nightmare laboratory – and China for worst pavilion, reading like a garbled mess presented by half-arsed 2nd year student. At least the Venetian pavilion had the grace to honestly be an advert for the Tourist Board.

Geoffrey Farmer, A way out of the mirror, 2017. Installation view at the Canada Pavilion for the 57th International Art Exhibition – la Biennale di Venezia, 2017. © Geoffrey Farmer, Courtesy of the artist. (Francesco Barasciutti)

Beyond The Thunderdom … Erm Venicdome?

A thousand thoughts fled through my mind as I raced up to Manchester for a performance the next day. Egg gods of Finland, upended trucks next to caravans with bumholes.

Curators struggling with performance. There’s still no resolved answer for me but it’s finally permeating into the landscape of these beasts. The bizarre way many of the pavilions used English as the primary language frankly shocked me. A hangover from colonialism is one of the running themes in the Arsenale. Research was presented as work sometimes so lazily that it made me question why it was in an art setting at all, at other times it was beautifully handled and worked over. This was the year of the archivist at the Giardini.

Mainly it was the more delicate and subtle works that stuck with me. Israel’s mouldy empty room hiding a great nebulous cloud, the music box desperately screeching away in a corner, the assistant endlessly nattering away while repairing clothing.

But mostly it was the bravery of Canada. Childishly totalling their pavilion to make a joyous piece of work.

Thank you, New Art West Midlands and the people, on the trip it was fantastic!
alexbillingham.co.uk