|the centre of attention|
The Daily Telegraph, Richard Dorment, The star pavilions, 15 June 2005
Although everyone is complaining that this year's Venice Biennale - the world's most important contemporary art event - isn't an exciting one, there is more or less unanimous agreement that the directors, Spanish curators Maria de Corral and Rosa Martinez, have kept the whole thing to a manageable size.
The trick is to figure out which of the national pavilions are worth spending time in and which are safe to miss. So, if you are going to be in Venice before it closes in November, here is my own cut-out-and-keep guide to get you through the whole thing in under four hours - two for the public gardens where the national pavilions are, and two for the Arsenale, which is given over to emerging artists.
Even though I was on the selection committee that chose Gilbert and George to represent Britain at the Biennale, I was knocked sideways by my first sight of their Ginkgo Pictures, shown to effect by curators Richard Riley and Andrea Rose of the British Council.
Once you step across the threshold and into the galleries you are surrounded from floor to ceiling with colour-drenched images of the pair howling with rage or shrinking with fear, and with the parallel imagery of hooded black and Asian street youths, who often seem to function as doubles for the artists, at once threatening and comical, insulated from the world by their clothes and by their attitude.
But all the other national pavilions play it safe. Just compare the themes Gilbert and George deal with in British Pavillion (immigration, race, yobs culture, Islam) to what is going on in the Israeli one, where a film shows the young artist Guy Ben-Nur methodically building a DIY tree house, also on display in the gallery.
Few countries on earth engage with the reality of the modern world more fully than Israel does, and yet whom do they send to represent their country? An artist who wants to climb up a tree. Why not just hand out blindfolds?
The Biennale is often compared to the Olympics, but this lack of engagement made me think of the Eurovision song contest. Far too much of the work on display, particularly in the Giardini, consisted of bland films, slide shows, and installations involving either completely empty pavilions or complicated charts and diagrams of virtually no visual interest.
One artist who did address a dangerous subject imaginatively was the strange German Gregor Schneider, who proposed to erect a replica of the Ka'ba (the black draped rectangle that is the object of pilgrimage for Muslims in Mecca) in the middle of St Mark's Square - stipulating, however, that the structure was to be "free from all mental associations" like a minimalist sculpture.
Now this, to me, is real art, because it looks at the way a simple geometric shape can be either neutral or invested with profound meaning depending on who looks at it and where it is placed.
Unfortunately, the authorities that run the Biennale rejected the proposal for political reasons. Even so, the film outlining the proposal and showing the artist's models (shown in the Arsenale) was one of the best things in the Biennale.
Contrast that with the French Pavilion, where Annette Messager won a Golden Lion for a visually sumptuous installation that used billowing red silk, lights, soft toys, and explosions of compressed air to narrate the story of Pinocchio.
The other exceptional pavilion was that of the United States. Working with the symmetry of the building to create an installation he called Course of Empire, cool California conceptual artist Ed Ruscha exhibited five black and white landscapes that he painted in 1992.
They show lettering on the façades of a trade school, a telephone box and several industrial buildings from the angle at which you might see them flash by from a moving car. For the Biennale, Ruscha painted five landscapes in colour, showing the same buildings 13 years on.
Now the sign for a Tool & Die Company is in Japanese, the Trade School is boarded up behind a barbed wire fence, while a sapling and a concrete post stand where the phone booth used to be.
Instead of showing the "then" and "now" pictures side by side, Ruscha installed them in separate wings of the building, so that when we walked into the "now" section we have to try hard to remember what the landscape used to look like - just as in real life.
The piece is about the accelerated pace of change in America, the erasure of landscape and memory by economic and technological forces that have turned the United States into an old country, a spent force, an empire in decline. Wonderful.
The artist representing Poland, Artur Zmijewski, impressed me with a reality-TV-style film that re-created a famous psychological experiment conducted at Stanford University in 1971 in which student volunteers were arbitrarily divided into guards and prisoners, with terrifying results.
The freshest thing in the international group show in the Italian pavilion was South African artist Candice Breitz's film installations Mother and Father, in which she excerpted clips from mainstream Hollywood films such as Mommie Dearest, Postcards from the Edge, and Kramer vs. Kramer, then spliced them together to form her own script and her own narrative.
Like the conductor of an orchestra, she used actors such as Meryl Streep and Shirley McLaine like musical instruments - or, perhaps, better, as puppets - making them appear to be speaking and reacting to each other's words when, in fact, they were acting in different films.
I loved Francesco Vezzoli's spoof film purporting to be the trailer for a remake of the 1979 pornographic film Caligula. With a cast that includes Helen Mirren, Karen Black, Benicio del Toro and Courtney Love (as Caligula), the trailer has everything - nudity, profanity, and a hilarious voiceover by that gravel-voiced narrator whose name no one knows. When I saw it, the audience roared with laughter.
But what, I kept asking myself, was the point of showing a whole room full of late, third-rate paintings by Francis Bacon, or giving so much space to over-exposed artists like Philip Guston, Marlene Dumas, and Antoni Tapies?
If the art in the public gardens wasn't very adventurous, the younger artists who exhibit in the Arsenale usually cause more of a stir.
This year the curator, Rosa Martinez, installed the show beautifully. It all started well, with some snappy billboards designed by the group of anonymous feminist artists called the Guerrilla Girls that draw attention to un-equal representation of women artists compared to men in museums - and exhibitions such as the Biennale. The girls then needed to drive their point home by showing a really impressive example of their own work. I'm afraid that a giant chandelier made of sanitary towels just wasn't good enough.
After that, in terms of quality the exhibition slowly and steadily coasted downhill. I was impressed by Runa Islam's hypnotic, slow-motion film of a woman compulsively breaking teapots, cups and saucers laid out on a carefully set table. Then there were some young artists sitting contentedly on a life-size hippopotamus made of Venetian mud that made anyone who saw it beatifically happy.
Two artists (one French, the other British) who call themselves "Centre of Attention" invited visitors to choose music for our own funeral, lie down on a bier in the middle of the gallery, and enjoy the experience "pre-need" as they say.
One of the most dramatic things in the whole biennale was French artist Stephen Dean's three-part colour video projection of crowds whipped into mindless frenzy during a religious ritual in India, a football match in Africa, and a carnival in South America.
Guatemalan artist Regina José Galindo won a Golden Lion for a film showing her leaving a trail of bloody footprints in front of a government building in Guatemala City (but also for a film in which some sort of medical operation is being performed on her genitals that I couldn't bear to watch).
Also at the Arsenale, the Chinese were mounting their first official biennale. The artistic team of Sun Yuan and Peng Yu invited a provincial Chinese farmer, Du Wenda, to test launch the homemade flying saucer that he has been designing and building in recent years.
The sweet, battered machine looks forlorn sitting on the lawn of the pavilion. It becomes touching only when you begin to realise that for the poor farmer who went to so much trouble to build it, the machine represented nothing less than his own freedom.
On the outlying island of San Lazzaro, Olafur Eliasson exhibited a haunting light piece called Your Black Horizon in a pavilion designed by David Adjaye. The British Council is staging a surprisingly fresh exhibition of the work of Lucian Freud at the Museo Correr in St Mark's Square, worth seeing even if you think you know the great man's work well.
And there you have it. Not the best Biennale ever, but not the worst, either. Despite the inevitable sea of second- and third-rate art, you are rewarded when you come across a work whose quality is irrepressible, or when your pulse is quickened by the discovery of something new or unexpectedly beautiful or moving. As the middle-aged guards in the German Pavillion, coached by artist Tino Sehgal, sing as they skip and leap around the visitor, its all 'so con-temp-orary, con-temp-orary, con-temp-orary'.
Biennale ends on Nov 6. Information: 00 39 041 271 90 20