It has been a long-held ambition of mine to visit the Venice Biennale and finally this year, I made the visit. The entire event takes place at the Giardini, the Arsenale and in various locations across the beautiful city from May through to November. We visited at the end of October on a gloriously warm and sunny weekend as part of a stay in Venice to celebrate a special birthday.
Curated by Okwui Enwezor, this year’s event has had mixed reviews and 2015 is not regarded as a milestone year in the Biennale’s one hundred and twenty year history. One critic said that lacked visual power, originality, wit or bravado. Another wrote that it was the most depressing biennale he has ever visited and that it was a grim feast of international politics, self-obsession and complaint. The overall critical consensus appeared to be that the curator’s attempt to present the state of global contemporary art today and giving a platform and voice to countries not previously represented, delivered an assault course of videos about global starvation, industrial pollution and the atrocious conditions of workers in developing countries. For many critics, Enwezor’s ‘dense, restless and exploratory project’ had taken the soul out of the event, making the experience of visiting a ‘glum trudge than the usual exhilarating adventure’.
Despite these portents of an impending doomed visit, my excitement and enthusiasm mounted as the water taxi journeyed down the Grand Canal and both remained intact as we wandered leisurely around the gardens. The sunshine and surprising lack of queues (around 300,000 visitors were expected over the six month run) contributed to what was still a very special and enjoyable visit.
As we didn’t have enough time to visit all the Biennale locations, we concentrated on the central and national pavilions in the Giardini and perhaps this protected us from any feelings of disappointment and a predicted doomed visit. I fast tracked first to see new work from Wangechi Muti in the central pavilion. I have been a fan for many years and she was even gracious enough to participate in my email interview to form part of my BA dissertation way back in 2006.
Mutu puts together magazine imagery with painted surfaces and found materials. Her collages explore the split nature of cultural identity and reference colonial history, fashion and contemporary African politics. Most recently, her work has extended into sculpture and video. I find her work incredibly engaging and moving. Her video piece The End of Carrying All is a piece made this year and is premiered at the Biennale. It was haunting, dreamlike and very powerful. Mutu’s sculptural piece, She’s Got The World in Her also shows the artist’s themes of constant and futile striving and the toll it takes on body and soul.
It was my patriotic duty to visit the British Pavilion next, to see the wonderful Sarah Lucas in all her rude, crude and irreverent glory. For “I Scream Daddio”, the building was completed painted custard yellow and filled with biomorphic sculptures and plaster casts of the bottom halves of women draped over household (made from her friends and herself), each with a cigarette sticking out of an orifice. Her direct and uncompromising attacks on masculine attitudes to femininity and issues around gender and continue to provoke and confound.
The French Pavilion offered the perfect antidote to Lucas’s full on visual assault. Celéste Boursier-Mougenot’s “Revolutions”, gently moving trees, both inside and outside the Pavilion, were haunting and quite beautiful. Although obviously mechanically enhanced, these were real, fully grown trees with root balls exposed, which made their movement even more surreal. Inside the Pavilion, what looked like concrete steps turned out to be expanding foam on which to sit and watch another tree move around the atrium to faintly heard music. Exquisitely executed and wonderfully relaxing, a totally immersive artistic encounter.
Like Sarah Lucas (but with no hint of humour or irony), Australian Fiona Hall wore her politics loud and proud in her installation “Wrong Way Time”, for her country’s pavilion. In near darkness, her collections of objects and ephemera (some made by indigenous women), took on the air of a museum of antiquities and seemed a little naïve and sometimes obvious use for addressing her concerns on global politics, world finances and the environment. I was still positively drawn to some of her work, particularly a collection of small bread sculptures placed across maps which corresponded to a particular world problem – a slaughtered elephant laid across a map of Africa, tiny cut out figures of swimmers put on the Mediterranean Sea between Libya and Italy, demolished buildings placed on maps of war torn cities In a politically drenched installation, these did manage to resonate.
We only scraped the surface of what this Biennale had to offer and even if it was not critically well-received and generally thought to be one of its weakest incarnations, I was very glad to have visited and witnessed an important art historical event. I am also completely in love with Venice, so a return visit is definitely needed - let’s see what 2017 has to offer.