Venice is what the world would look like if art was the universal number one export. It’s oddly unnerving to see a city so accommodating to artists and so willing to be used as an extension of the canvas – in the everyday wall-side shrines, the extraordinary architecture and also in the playful interventions such as Lorenzo Quinn’s Support, rising from the canal and echoing the similar masonic bodge-jobs that keep the city’s buildings standing.
It should then be no surprise that the scattering of Pavillions across the city seemed to succeed or fail dependant on how they used their relationship with Venice and the buildings who were hosting them. In some, the works were completely overshadowed by the sumptuous environment they were presented in. However, the Diaspora Pavilion had no such trouble. The exhibition worked with the surroundings to the benefit of both. Hew Locke’s On The Tethis Sea, a flotilla of ostentatious model boats suspended in mid air, contrasted wonderfully against the stark walls of the buildings ground floor. The more domestic spaces were elegantly utilised including an excellent presentation of Yinka Shonibare’s British Library.
The most perfect example of the symbiosis between project and place had to be the Scottish Pavillion and Rachel Maclean’s Spite Your Face. A large-scale projection in the proportions of a smartphone video, this was a modern version of the Pinocchio fable complete with the juxtaposition of obscene luxury and abject poverty. Characters were literally gilded and jewelled while others fashioned Venetian carnival masks from battered baseball caps. The single screen in an otherwise sparse and dark church was an extraordinary experience, with the film endlessly looping and Pic’s rise and fall assiduously assured.
This was my first time at the Biennale and my first time in Venice, and the reviews and photographs in no way prepared me for the experience. Pictures don’t show the tiny fish and tendrils of plan-tlife that swarm around the wrists of Quinn’s work. A write up cannot prepare you for the sudden submersion in the contemporary art playground that is the Giardini. An absolute art theme park, the national Pavilions were a feast of often exceptional works but it was South Korea which particularly stood out.
At once poignant, tender and crass we are drawn into the South Korea Pavilion with neon signage promising peep shows, orgasms and pole dances. There’s a joyfulness in the work (including a version of Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’ executed in lavatory paper and pepto bismol) but it’s the handling of a found archive detailing the life of ‘Mr K.’ which was most entrancing. Following one man who lived through Japanese annexation, the Korean War and the subsequent north/south division it highlights the effect global events have had on individual lives and futures. The acquisition of the archive itself, bought in a probate sale following the death of the protagonist’s wife, makes it particularly bittersweet. That which we dedicate our lives to preserving is not necessarily considered important enough to retain by the next generation.
The Arsenale was another exhausting cultural submersion – possibly as a reaction to this, one of my favourite works was simple and immensely touching, together with having a deeply human connection. Following the 9/11 tragedy Lee Mingwei coped with the immediate horror of the impact of losing many friends and colleagues by mechanically mending the pile of clothes which he’d been ‘planning to get around to’. The Mending Project invites the audience to bring in their broken textiles to be mended in gaudy silk thread while sharing a conversation with the artist or his assistant, and seeks to find positive connections from the ashes of a terrible experience while serving as a memorial to those the artist lost on the day.
My final word has to go to John Waters and his series of signs encouraging us to ‘Study Art’. Executed in classic 1950s style in the shape of brushes and palettes we are invited to study for a variety of reasons including ‘Fun or Fame’, ‘Pride or Power’, ‘Breeding or Bounty’ and (my personal favourite) ‘Prestige or Spite’. Dotted around for the audience to encounter, it relates back to a similar sign Waters saw inviting students to study art ‘for profit or hobby’. The subversion of this into reasons which can be all too painfully accurate for many attendees is peculiarly satisfying.
Awesome in the most literal sense of the word, completely overwhelming and utterly inspiring, Venice and the Biennale have already had a noticeable effect on my own practice. It may have been my first time there, but I’ll be damned disappointed with myself if it’s the last.