Friday, 8 November 2013

Venice - Day 1: La Biennale

Technically this is day two but I arrived yesterday evening and all I had time to do was wander the dark streets - what we would call a mugger's paradise but you soon get used to it like all the locals have. This helped me familiarise myself with the city and visit San Marco Piazza before dinner and to bed to awake fresh for my first proper day.

Day 1 consisted of planning to do both Giardini and Arsenale venues of the Biennale before realising that's not a great idea to cram it all in once I figured out how large each venue is. So I covered off Giardini and then on to a few scattered Biennale venues and some local sights.

Walking alongside the lagoon gave me plenty of photo opportunities and I will load those up when I return home, but suffice to say Venice is a very scenic city with beautiful canals and architecture everywhere.

Giardini Pavilions

Rather than head straight to the Central Pavilion I decided to take in all the surrounding national ones first and then tackle the main building last.

The Good

Spain's was the first pavilion I visited and gave me great hope for the rest of the Biennale as it is an excellent start. The Venetian island of Murano is famed for its beautiful glass but this does create lots of by-products such as bricks, dirt, sand and discarded glass. So much so that it's been used to create another island called San Mattia that is hostile and only the toughest of weed grows there.

Laura Almarcegui has filled the pavilion with these materials and the enormity of it results in broken bricks tumbling through doorways and towering over all visitors. It's such a contrast to the beautiful and delicate glass that is made in Murano and a reminder of our impact on the earth.

Next door is Belgium's cripplewood 'tree'. All gnarled branches with roots disappearing into a dark room. It's a commentary on how disfigured individuals are treated by society as something to be stared at, with the irony being that by visiting we are simply re-inforcing this human instinct.

Hungary is another great pavilion with the bombastic 'Unexploded Ordinance' by Zsolt Asztalas. One of the Hungarian legacies of World War II was the bombs that were dropped but never exploded so Asztalas has gather unexploded ordinance from around the world and created video works where everyday sounds such as laughing and voices accompany each image of a bomb.

It's interesting how the image in front of you changes the perception of the sounds you hear - are the vehicles pulling up militaristic? Are these people praying to prevent any more deaths? And is that chanting an anti-war protest? It's a powerful work and the mixed mediums work very well. 

There are plenty of bizarre pavilions but Russia is definitely up there. Downstairs only women are allowed to enter with umbrellas as gold coins fall down from a giant shower head and the women must gather these coins, while men are relegated to watching from above. It's Vadim Zakharov's modern interpretation of the myth of Danae as she was impregnated by a golden shower - a manifestation of Zeus.

It's both a remark at the bizarre stories of ancient myths and also how ridiculously misogynistic they were. Upstairs a besuited man sits on a saddle at the top of the ladder eating nuts and discarding their shells on a growing mountain of detritus below him. I couldn't attribute any meaning to this but enjoyed it nonetheless.

Korea has created an enthralling sensory experience where visitors take their shoes off and wander around a glass hothouse full of shimmering colour before their number is called and they are guided into a pitch black noiseless chamber. The contrast is alarming and is over so quickly it doesn't full sink in until you've left.

Greece is a country in economic turmoil and has created three linked video works that all revolve around money. First an elderly lady clearly suffering from early dementia yet wealthy creates bouquets of flowers from folded Euro notes and throws them out to be replaced by a 'fresh' set. It's clearly a knock at the wealthy and how too much money isn't good for you.

We then cut to a homeless 'dumpster diver' filling a trolley with anything he finds of value. But once he finds the flowers made from Euros he abandons all these items he strived so hard to acquire. Clearly money changes people.

Finally a man who is well dressed and clearly not struggling for money is photographing the city with his iPad when he comes across the trolley. He sees some sentimental value in the belongings and takes them away - there are some things money can't buy and they forever hold their value.

It's a great triptych and though there is lots of video work at the Biennale, this is the best I've seen so far.

The Notable

This section I've reserved for pavilions where some of the work is good but not all of it, or if the installation as a whole has some good qualities.

Finland's Antti Laitinen has a strong environmental message but the work is of a mixed quality. Two strong photographs are of creating squares in the natural world by either felling a forest or carving chunks of ice from the surface of a frozen lake and building a cube. It does a great job of showing how our impact on nature isn't subtle and how unnatural it looks.

The Danish pavilion by Jesper Just is truly bizarre. You follow a sign down what appears to be an abandoned path before entering trough a back door to see a video work of an abandoned city before shimmying through a crack in the wall to find another video and plants bather in pink and blue LED lighting. It's only on leaving through a makeshift garage that you find out any information on this odd pavilion.

Venezuela has gone for street art as it's theme, it's not a great result but I admire them for being brave and bringing urban art to a fine art festival.

Germany features 886 stools by Ai Weiwei flash frozen as if they've exploded out from the centre of the room. The stool is a sign of days gone past so it refers to the pace of technological change. It's the stand out work in the German pavilion while the others are fairly average.

One of Brazil's artists is Odires Mlaszho who blends books together to create strange sculptures that play with your perception, as it's unclear whether they have been altered or merely nicely arranged.

I only caught a small section of Romania's performance piece but the noiseless scream position adopted by one of the actresses was particularly captivating.

The Venetian pavilion was all about silk and included an impressive image of a woman made from silk threads and a strange silk contained with a golden sun and sounds of the wind within it.

The Bad

Arguably there's no such thing as bad art but there were some pavilions that didn't work for me. I won't waste too much effort on them but will mention that Holland was dire, the Swiss pavilion promised much with a greeting by an iron snake but didn't deliver, the French and Egyptian were unispired and Canada was garish.

Special mention to Great Britain's pavilion featuring the very British Jeremy Deller but whose work is always hit and miss with a focus on his own personal issues, rather than society's, thus making him hard to associate with. He's always been hit and miss for me so wasn't impressed.

Austria also left many visitors flummoxed by creating a 1930s American style cartoon with very little to differentiate it from an older American medium. When the video ended, most people exchanged looks asking whether this was it. 

The Central Pavilion

This is designed to complement the theme of the Biennale of an encyclopaedic palace by including artists trying to capture the world in their work. We start off with some big names but Tino Sehgal's work is not as good as his Tate Modern installation and outside are some of Sarah Lucas' lesser sculptures.

The rest of the exhibition closely resembles a recent Hayward Gallery exhibition as the focus is on outsider art. It's unclear how these slightly unhinged individuals will actually provide an encyclopaedic reference and they don't really chime with the theme.

There were some highlights including Levi Fisher Ames' carved animals in his cabinets of curiosities, Peter Fritz's miniature buildings and Morton Bartlett's young looking but disturbingly sexualised dolls. 

Also of note are Andrea Ursuta's dungeon-like miniature recreation of her unhappy Transylvanian childhood home, as dangerous tools lie scattered and cages for chickens feel as if they could be used for humans.

My top pick is Thierry de Cordiers moody monochrome paintings of the sea and mountains. It's modern day romanticism and is very evocative.Yet overall the central pavilion is disappointing compared to those surrounding it.

Biennale around Venice

There are collateral events, we'd probably call them pop ups, and pavilions scattered around the rest of the Venice and it's a bit like Edinburgh fringe as you need excellent map reading skills to find some of them, even then Ivory Coast eluded me, and they can vary in size from a tiny room to a display over many floors.

The Good

Portugal's pavilion is on a boat just outside the Giardini and going inside is like entering a magical underwater kingdom. The boat itself does set sail at various points during the day as well.

Wales has a bizarre experience including a dark room that feels like an alien storm and a mini observatory looking upon an altarpiece while weeping can be heard from inside. It's odd yet riveting and the best pavilion from the home nations I've seen so far.

Kenya's pavilion is bright and fun with pink flowers, contorted sculptures and plays on perception. Plus Li Wei's humorous superhuman poses as figures appear to be flying in photographs. Political issues aren't ignored either with an Africa made from rusted aluminium - a continent of plentiful resources but still in need of repair.

New Zealand is definitely my top pick as Bill Cuthbert's light art is fantastic and engaging as tube lights pierce wardrobes, chairs and milk bottles.

There are also half filled bottles that reflect the building facades above them, it's an inventive pavilion and one of my favourites so far.

Another great find is one I stumbled across that strictly speaking isn't part of the Biennale but features the quasi-religious works of the two Chinese painters. The highlight is a massive 10x4.7m featuring religious figures from around the world - almost like a modern day school of Athens. It's hidden away but well signed and worth seeing.

The Bad

Maldives concentrates on their rising sea levels and the threat of climate change on these low lying islands. This is to be expected as it's the major issue affecting them right now but it feels like a political agenda masquerading as art rather than art reflecting political issues.

Scotland's pavilion felt unimpressive and Mexico wasted their great space within a 6th century church by trying to confuse visitors with a needlessly complex musical instrument - though the cacti outside is a nice touch.

Local Churches

It wasn't all contemporary art on my first day and I did venture off the beaten track to see some classical art in some local churches, as they were on my list and near Biennale venues. 

San Zaccaria is not too far from the grander Basilica San Marco but it a little gem with an altar painting by Tintoretto and a magnificent golden altarpiece. At only 1 Euro to see these works, it's definitely worth it.

But the pick of the churches this day was Santi Giovanni e Paolo. It's truly massive and the repairs on the outside hide its size but the inside is glorious. Sure it may only have a few works by the greats but the inside is replete with amazing art and architecture, with breathtaking finds at every turn. It doesn't even make my guide books top 10, probably because it's away from the city centre but well worth a visit.

I will be back with more from day 2 ...

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