30 June 2005

Venice Biennale: It's the thought that counts


The invisible, the maudlin, the magic at the 51st Esposizione Internazionale d'Arte - AKA the Venice Biennale.

“Ohhh! This is so contempory [sic], contempory, contempory.” So mocked the fake gallery attendants in a singsong that greeted art lovers who wandered into the German Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, the world’s oldest and most prestigious contemporary art festival.

Employed by 29-year-old Berliner Tino Sehgal, the attendants were the artwork. Their catchy refrain would prove difficult to shake, as some 15,000 critics, curators and collectors – and more than a few stray movie and pop stars – hummed their way across the sinking city, devouring the latest the art world has to offer.

 In the 51st Biennale to inhabit the elegant Giardini di Castello and some 40 other splendid Venetian venues, that offering boiled down to reams of video art, stacks of installation, oodles of photography, a painting or two, and a sizeable dose of the proudly unclassifiable – works such as Sehgal’s, or works such as could be found (or rather not found) at the Romanian pavilion. Here Daniel Knorr decided that the exhibition space, left unkempt since the 2003 Biennale, looked fine just as he found it. It was the latest in a series of works he calls “invisible” art. It’s the thought that counts. And in the cerebral world of contemporary art, that’s often all there is.

In the elder statesperson category, the transatlantic alliance posed by professional iconoclasts Gilbert & George in the British pavilion and the magnificently maudlin works of American painter Ed Ruscha was more than matched for Old Europe by veteran French installation artist Annette Messager, whose gorgeous, if incomprehensible, telling of the tale of Pinocchio won her the Golden Lion for Best National Pavilion.

No such ethereal mind games at the Australian Pavilion, where art ain’t art unless you can see it, smell it, pick it up and either buy it, or damage it and have to pay for it. New traditionalist woodworker Ricky Swallow presented his new selection of hand-made sculptures carved from jetulong to augment his 2003 masterpiece Killing Time, which took pride of place in the dimly lit pre-fab pavilion that could double as a demountable schoolroom or a stylish beach shack, circa 1988.

London resident Swallow scooped the pool on the opening day of the press preview, thanks to the hallowed presence of Cate Blanchett, who was convinced by Sydney art dealer Martin Browne to lend some Hollywood glamour for “Team Australia”. Blanchett quickly took it away with her again after a chaotic photo opportunity and a rousing, generous speech – “This is visceral stuff: blood and guts, death, the theatre of display, the pivot point between bloom and decay ...” – leaving only Swallow’s menacing works to fly the flag at these art olympics. Sadly the publicity coup generated by Our Cate only deflected attention from Swallow’s gruesome 1:1 dioramas of “freshly” killed animals, skeletons, skulls and vipers: “Blanchett supports artist in Venice” read a typical headline.

Elsewhere, reviews have been favourable. London’s Daily Telegraph listed Swallow as one of the Biennale’s “Ten Hot Artists”, lauding his “certain boyish cool”. More important for the artist’s career was the steady stream of art world heavyweights who popped in to ogle: Tate Modern director Vincente Todoli, Peggy Guggenheim director Philip Rylands, Biennale president Davide Croff, and curators from Britain’s National Gallery and New York’s MoMA. And über-curator Robert Storr, already appointed director of the 2007 Biennale, spent an hour with Swallow and his curator Charlotte Day, dissecting the work the day before the exhibition opened to the press.

Swallow, stoic son of a fisherman, remained above the hubbub even as he bathed in the limelight: “Having been cooped up in abstract isolation for the better part of a year producing these works, it’s been very rewarding to see them suddenly unleashed to this sort of reception,” he told The Bulletin. “But I really don’t think we’ll be able to assess what it means to show here until all this dies down a little.”

The Australia Council spent $1.4m on this year’s Venice adventure, more than half of it coming from private funds marshalled by Sydney arts patron John Kaldor, who was appointed official commissioner. The funding structure set up by Kaldor looked more like an Olympic bid, with its hierarchy of corporate and private donors. To be included in Kaldor’s inner sanctum cost $25,000. For $5000, you got listed in the official catalogue as a “Champion Donor”, plus a private tour of the Guggenheim and tickets to an ultra-exclusive Australian party at the Hotel Cipriani, an event that put plenty of noses out of joint among the large Australian contingent in Venice. While the event may have (briefly) “boasted” a celebrity in the form of Rolling Stone guitarist Ron Wood, the tenor was more that of the launch of a new managed fund than a celebration of a gifted Australian artist – or of Australian art for that matter.

The real tale of Australia at Venice was a repeat of 2003, when the only living Australian artist on show was the one we got to choose for our own pavilion. The Australia Council says they invited Biennale co-curator Rosa Martinez to visit Australia to assess artists for the curated shows outside the Giardini, “but she couldn’t find the time to come”. Beyond the national pavilions, Martinez and co-curator Maria de Corral have put together two spare but exhilarating shows of just 90 artists with stellar works by the great, such as Francis Bacon, Philip Guston and Marlene Dumas, and the very, very good, such as video artists, South African Candice Breitz and Korean Kimsooja. This is in stark contrast to 2003 director Francesco Bonami’s sprawling effort, when he enlisted 12 curators to mount a show of 350 artists.

It wouldn’t be a Biennale without controversy and this year another German, 2001 Golden Lion winner Gregor Schneider, obliged when his proposal for a huge black metal cube for Piazza San Marco was deemed too provocative. The work, a replica of the sacred Ka’ba in Mecca, caused consternation among organisers who were “concerned that it could hurt the religious emotions of the Muslim community”. Fears that the work would render the city a target for terrorist attack shows just how far freedom of expression has been wound back in the post-September 11 era.

The Venice Biennale runs until November.

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First published in The Bulletin, Volume 123; Number 12

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