Friday, July 31, 2009

Venice Biennale: Day 1, the Giardini

Phew, I just finished my first day at the Venice Biennale. I managed to do an impressive 10am-5pm session at the Giardini, although I would dearly like to go back to see some of the works again. The Giardini is one of the two major venues, along with the Arsenale, of the Biennale, and holds a number of the major national pavilions as well as the showcase curated exhibition.
The thing is, no one warned me about how big the Venice Biennale actually is. There seem to be about 50 other minor exhibitions/venues outside of the Arsenale and Giardini and getting to them all is going to be a task and a half.

The Biennale is a weird experience, kind of like the Disneyland of the artworld. I could even compare it to a Royal Agricultural Show experience. The pavilions in the Giardini are only used for the Biennale every two years; just as the showbag pavilion at the Sydney Royal Easter Show, for instance, is used for only a couple of weeks every year. To be honest, we all came away from the Biennale clutching showbags of sorts too. I’ve lugged back to my hotel room a Collectors ‘showbag’ from the Nordic Pavilion, complete with artist goodies, such as a print, calendar, cigarette lighter and a bronze pea. I also have my new laptop stand (generally, the catalogue de jour) – the Biennale catalogues (yes, the plural is correct). While staring at my ambiguous map in the searing midday heat today, I overheard a couple discussing their next move: “I don’t think I can be bothered with the Australian pavilion” (“Mummy, I don’t want to see the cows, they smell”). As with the RES, the portaloos were creating their own brand of smell in the sweltering Venetian heat, and the food, while not as good as a Country Woman’s Association Devonshire tea, was of similar rip-off value. But just like the show, I came away sweaty but happy, tired as a dog, yet with the knowledge that I’d learned a lot (albeit information more relevant to my field of work than knowing the names of innovative designer breeds of geese).

So, what works can I remember? (always a good test)

Well, the pick of the Pavilions, for me, are:
  • The rather sinister Russian group show, with an immersive and interactive environment created by Gosha Ostretsov called Art Life or The Torments of Creative; a couple of sculptures constantly pumped with human blood by Andrei Molodkin; and Pavel Pepperstein’s Perspectives of Development, a series of humourous drawings and paintings predicting weird and wonderful monuments for the future.
  • The German representative, Liam Gillick, has kitted out the German Pavillion with a maze of kitchen benches which fill the multiple rooms. The sparse wooden benches seem at odds with the rather forboding building, designed and built during Hitler’s reign. I should probably mention that each of the pavilions have been designed and built at certain times and are a mish-mash of styles from different architectural periods, some of them (such as the German pavilion) reflecting the countrys’ political and social climate of the time.
  • The Hungarian Péter Forgács’ With Time – The W-Project, where the viewer is presented with dozens of portraits in various forms, from video to photographs, yet with all the faces anonymous.
  • The Polish artist Krzysztof Wodiczko’s work, where projected silhouettes of window washers behind ‘frosted glass arch windows and skylight’ present the illusion that the work is on the outside of the gallery while the viewers stare out from within.
  • The French pavilion, whilst popularist, has created a false dramaticism that strangely amuses me.

In the main curated exhibition, the outstanding works include Nathalie Djurberg’s Experiment, a seductive oversized sculptural garden filled with colourful weird and wonderful plants, which is accompanied by three projected erotic and rather etch claymations; Tomas Saraceno’s giant ‘spiderweb’; the once interactive series of artworks that date from the 60s by the Japanese avant-garde Gutai group; and André Cadere’s Six Barres de Bois Rond – a 1975 work where he would take these coloured sticks and install them anonymously in public spaces. Cadere is now dead, however, his sticks have been positioned (strangely with labels) throughout the main pavilion. The work in the cafeteria by Tobias Rehberger also deserves a mention. Far more exciting than the CWA show café, the cafeteria has been transformed into a psychadelic maze of wonky tables and chairs, with colourful stripes that transverse the room around rubbish bins, furniture and walls.

The Danish and Nordic Pavilions house my favourite work for the day. The modernist buildings have been fitted out to look like homes, ‘lived in’ places, which suggest a rather sinister narrative. Outside the Danish Pavilion, beyond the ‘For Sale’ sign, is a postbox telling us that ‘A. Family’ owns this house. As you wander around the house you start to make assumptions about who the people are: (fake) works by Frank Stella on the walls, flashy leather bound books, designer furniture…. then you notice that the television has been left on, the stairs in the library violently destroyed, the bedroom a black spray painted devastation. Something is clearly not right.

Moving next door to the Nordic pavilion, where a pool has been built outside the
predominantly glass building, the story takes an even more alarming turn – a dead body floats on the surface of the pool. Brain working overtime, you notice the watch and cigarettes that have sunk to the bottom, and shoes and socks on the side of the pool, while the body is otherwise fully clothed. Inside the house, everything from the dirty coffee cup on the kitchen bench and pet hair on the carpet, to the used condom beside the bed is meticulously orchestrated by the collaborative artist, resulting in an engrossing and strangely humorous work.

The problem with major art exhibitions, such as the Biennale, is that you become hyper-observant, and every single object around you is interrogated as a possible work of art. The coloured bike frames chained to stationary objects around the gardens, the esky outside the Nordic Pavilion, the small box next to the toilets…
At one stage, I find myself engrossed, watching a pointy-beaked bird attack a small spring possibly from a ballpoint pen, something that I’d probably not have noticed any other time. However, my attention drew others, and soon a substantial group of people were standing behind me looking at the fire hydrant just adjacent to the bird. Although to give them credit, perhaps it was an artwork.