In the first of a series of reports from 57th Venice International Art Biennale, artist Thomas Kilby reports on his moving image highlights. 

Rachel Maclean, Spite Your Face, 2017, digital video (still). Courtesy the artist. Commissioned by Scotland + Venice


I was very fortunate to attend the 2017 Venice Biennale with the Engine team from New Art West Midlands and New Art Gallery Walsall earlier in the year. I was interested to see what current practices look like in artists’ moving image. In this article I will highlight some of the more interesting work that I found there.

The Scottish Pavilion was showing the work of Rachel Maclean, ‘Spite your Face’ a new video work projected in portrait format, which dominated the space of Chiesa di Santa Caterina, the Church of St Catherine. Reminiscent of Tacita Dean’s 2011 35mm film ‘Film,’ shown inside Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, here Maclean’s work interacts with the space. Dimly lit to the left of the towering projection is a classical female sculpture, which during the video becomes a goddess type character. Maclean seems to be interested in the very format of filmic space, the works world shifts on its axis, as Pic, the protagonist, falls horizontally and vertically, down and out into a second reality. The world moves around him to unveil a new land where he can become who he desires.

Fairytale myths and futuristic dystopian worlds have been an ongoing thematic trait in Maclean’s work; engaging with popular culture adverts, such as perfume, has been established in her film ‘Germs’ (2013,) but here Maclean develops this concept alongside votive offerings, Venetian masks, and a radical colour palette of blue and gold, to create a work that fits inside its setting, and talks of contemporary issues. Pic enters a Faustian pact to make his wishes come true. He is gifted ‘Truth’ the new perfume that magically heals his credit card induced capitalistic self-harm slashes. After an awkward phallic-nose rape scene, we learn ‘all that glitters in not gold.’ There is no set start or end to the work it is a filmic loop. Pic will continue to fall from grace and be reborn.

Whilst pushing my way through the long drag of the Arsenale, which encounters curated topics such as climate change and tradition within contemporary art, the work of Guan Xiao was a welcome hilarious relief.  ‘David’ (2013) is a music video for Michelangelo’s high art sculpture of the beautiful young man. Its format is a three-part HD video installation, the work lists the ways in which society interacts with David and reproduces him. The hook, or chorus, of the song keeps insisting ‘we just don’t know how to see him.’

Palazzo Gundane (homage to the myth-maker who fell to earth), 2017 installation view
Courtesy: the artist. Photo: Simon Vogel

Samson Young represents Hong Kong this year with his filmic installation ‘Songs for Disaster Relief’’. There are three sections to the work, the most interesting being the second, which you enter through a velvet curtain that hangs a foot or two off of the floor, you enter into Lynchian living room-type environment with two monitors, representing fire places, with sofas and a coffee table in front. One monitor shows a CGI kilted figure on a chroma green backdrop rolling around; the other shows a drummer boy breakdancing over a purple screen. The soundtrack mixes a cover of Band Aid’s ‘Do they know its Christmas,’ with occasional trumpeting sounds, reminiscent of David Bowie and Bing Crosby’s ‘The Little Drummer Boy’. Dislocation is the pervading theme of the work. We hear the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions Choir sing ‘We Are The World’ in a hushed whisper. All of this is familiar but rendered through a foreign frame, as Young says, an ‘out-of-timeness’.

Whilst exploring the Giardini, a secluded garden with house-like museums, I found the unassuming pavilion of Finland. They were showing the collaborative work of Nathaniel Mellors and Erkka Nissinen, titled ‘The Aalto Natives’. It took the form of ‘an installation with video and animatronic sculpture’. The first thing that strikes you is the huge egg-like figure with a projector strapped to its head, opposite this is a smaller cardboard box with eyes, also with a projector attached. They have a dialogue with the video work projected in the far corner. The work is a hilarious mix of drawn stop frame animation, HD video and complex CGI, its story follows a god and his son coming back to the Finland they created centuries ago. The humour in the absurd satire catches your focus to look at larger issues of religion and bureaucracy.

Installation view of Nathaniel Mellors and Erkka Nissinen’s ‘The Aalto Natives, 2017’ at the 57th Venice Biennale. Courtesy Frame Contemporary Art Finland.

Søren Engsted’s video ‘Levitation’ 2017, shown within the Central Pavilion inside the Giardini, takes the form of a performative talk, with Engsted seated on an Indian levitation chair. Floating in midair Engsted tells the audience several facts and anecdotes around the theme of flying. Whilst viewing this video you are seated on a chair made from molded concrete, heightening your own feeling of corporeality.

Overall there can be teased out some common themes to the moving image work at this year’s Biennale. Humour is always a thread that attracts me to a work, and as I found out for most of my other colleagues on the trip too. The work felt light, welcoming and generous. Especially in a context like Venice, where you are bombarded with work, pieces that require time and reflection. These moving image works were a way of engaging with the viewer, to trick you, into looking harder at the layers behind. Lucky that I like to be tricked.

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