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Rachel Campbell-Johnston in the Times (9 June and 15 June 2005)

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June 09, 2005

....... ... ......... ... ......... .... ...... ....... ..... .... ...(that's art)
Arts notebook by Rachel Campbell-Johnston

THE VENICE BIENNALE opens this week and the whole event feels a lot like some anachronistic joke. The city that sits dripping in Renaissance decadence like some crumbling old dowager in ancestral jewels plays host to the world’s most flamboyant contemporary arts fair.
It is like giving Miss Havisham a Damien Hirst. But if you work in the arts world you have to go with it. The biennale is the arbiter of cultural taste. And, even as you read this I will probably be queueing at the gates of the Giardini or popping in and out of a hotchpotch of national pavilions.

I have already run the quarter-mile gamut of the nearby Arsenale. So far I have typed a letter using only full stops, rehearsed my own funeral to the strains of Killing Me Softly (the Shirley Bassey version, of course); I was surgically swabbed and electronically linked to a Texan and an Italian; and I climbed inside the belly of a Utopian whale to admire the patterns of my brain waves (they looked disconcertingly liked a plate of spaghetti and baked beans).

But, if that isn’t enough already, today promises much more: anything from the launch of a spaceship made by Chinese peasants through a trip to a Portaloo that, apparently, is all about fundamentalism, to a promised opportunity to hold the wind in my hands.

It would be rather more useful if I could hold an idea in my head. The opening week of the biennale passes in a tumult of press and private views, of parties and receptions, of professional-level gatecrashing and industrial-strength hangovers. And where amid all this turmoil is the space for quiet contemplation? Where is the space to appreciate the precious, the illuminating, the profound?

This festival is a fairground. Emotions all melt into a merry-go-round blur. You feel a bit like a spoilt baby plonked down in its playpen.

Given too many bright baubles, you get tired and frustrated. If everything means something, then soon nothing means anything. You end up by chucking the whole lot of them out.

Only too aware of this, the curators this year — which marks both the first co-curatorship and the first time that women have filled the position — have cut down the number of candidates by about two thirds.

It is infinitely better, because when anything goes, then my advice is that you shouldn’t. The biennale may be a must for professional art critics, but it is not the place for those who want truly to appreciate art.


June 15, 2005

Venice discovers the 'f' word
Rachel Campbell-Johnston

Feminism is in the air, but it’s mostly rather tranquil

A STRONG whiff of feminism rises from the lagoon this summer. For the first time in its more than a hundred year history the Venice Biennale is directed by women. Two Spanish art historians, María de Corral and Rosa Martínez, have been the curators, respectively, of the shows The Experience of Art, which is staged in the Italian pavilion, and Always a Little Further, which rambles through the long corridors of the Arsenale.
Enter the latter show and the agenda is blatant. A huge chandelier made of tampons hangs suspended in the atrium. And if that isn’t enough, surrounding posters emblazon the feminist message. “Where are the women artists of Venice?” demand the Guerrilla Girls. “Under the men” is the answer, it seems. The majority of works by the great female artists who came from this city remain in the basements of its museums.

Fortunately the entire exhibition is not so belligerent — in fact rather the opposite. Where the last biennale was aggressively competitive, this year’s womanly touch spreads a calmer mood. For a start there are barely a third as many works on display. There is time for contemplation and a more measured appraisal.
Combative political arguments seem to give way to more meditative inclinations. As visitors are invited to lie on a bier and contemplate their mortality to the accompaniment of a computerised song they have selected, to observe the “Tears of St Lawrence” falling through the night sky, to visit the island of poetry or “Find the Garden of Eden”, an atmosphere of retreat is created. Culture seems to yearn for some transcendent realm that lies beyond bleak reality, to look through the postmodern patterns that swirl on surfaces into the depths of some Romantic realm that lies beyond.