Venice Biennale 2013

Unusually for this time of the year it rained in Venice. A lot.

So the thousands of media luvvies and art insiders that attended the preview week at the 2013 Venice  Biennale (VB) had to trudge from venue to venue armed with colourful brollies and with facial expressions that seemed to say: “When is this going to STOP? This is Venice for God’s sake.”

But as we all know, you have to suffer for your art, and by Saturday the sun at least made an appearance. Pity most people were heading off to San Marco airport by then.

What really goes on in Venice?

It’s worth knowning that VB is above all a supreme exercise in not missing out. There is work (often new) by hundreds of artists spread across the two main sprawling venues (The Giardini and The Arsenale) as well as in pop-up spaces dotted around Venice – usually in beautiful palazzos commandeered by countries without spots in the Giardini or by arts organisations wanting to attend. So the great and the good make it their business to try to see all the best stuff and then to try and discover some gems in hidden nooks and crannies.

So what were the must-see works?

Ai Weiwei’s installations in three locations (yes, three) probably got the most attention, most notably ‘S.A.C.R.E.D.’ shown in the videos above and below. After that it was Marc Quinn over at the little island across from St Mark’s Square (San Giorgio Maggiore) where he superbly advertised his presence with a mauve, 60ft inflatable copy of the famous Alison Lapper sculpture that appeared on the fourth plinth at Trafalgar Square. Apparently the Catholic Church was not amused.

The surprise must-see was perhaps the dazzling light art by Kimsooja at the Korean pavilion. Meanwhile some huge video art about the creative processes of making music at the French pavilion (actually confusingly in the German pavilion due to them doing a building swap) created big queues.

The stand out work by Ai Weiwei was S.A.C.R.E.D., a sculptural work in six parts depicting scenes from his 81 day incarceration by the Chinese authorities in 2011. More of which in a later article.

There was also brisk trade at the British pavilion where Jeremy Deller was doing the honours this year, and not without controversy due to the fact that banners he created for the frontage proved to be too controversial and were pulled either two months ago or a few days before opening, depending on whom you believe. (The Guardian first reported that the offending posters had wording saying ‘Prince Harry Kills me’, but 24 hours later amended the story as a result of British Council intervention, with them asking for it to be corrected. Details to follow).

This year’s most high profile curiosity was the arrival of The Vatican (it is a country remember) in the Giardini with a group show of its own. The message: The catholic church gets contemporary art and wants to join the party. Make of that what you will.

The VB is also always an exhibition within an exhibition in that the largest pavilion in the Giardini is always taken over by a nominated curator who creates a theme and selects twenty or so artists to fulfil his vision.
This year’s show was titled The Encyclopedic Palace (Il Palazzo Enciclopedico) curated by Massimiliano Gioni and asked the question ‘what is the artist’s world?’ No prizes for guessing that artists replied with a bit of everything.

The real challenge of the VB is after the main exhibition just how many collateral shows did you see.  I only managed a pathetic five. Way down on two years ago when I trudged around and hit on at least  twelve.

Hiding from rain makes you ever aware of the elemental forces of nature, but that was never far away in many of the works too. Latvia has an impressive upturned tree hanging from a ceiling being mechanically swung to and fro. It looked menacing in a ‘ mind you don’t get hit’ kind of way, but also enchanting in the way that giant upside down things are, especially when there’s an amazing contraption responsible for swinging it endlessly. What an idea! What an enterprise!

In other works i saw imaginary animals of all kinds, a mysterious cave you could walk through if you dared, and a lifelike 12 foot blond woman in the section curated by Cindy Sherman which looked at how different artists represent identity.

Then how about a pavilion deconstructed? Spain’s Lara Almarcegui looked at every element that made up the Spanish pavillion, sourced it and piled it within the pavillion. The result: a big pile of rubble, and smaller piles of glass, iron, wood, and sand. What a superb work.

At the British Pavilion in the Giardini the first thing you noticed is there were no long queues to get in. But this was mainly due to the nature of the art inside a pavilion. If it’s video or a bulky installation it usually slows down traffic a lot. So compared to two years ago, when the queue to see the curious installation by Mike Nelson was legendary, getting in this year was a breeze.

Jeremy Deller is representing the UK this year, although somewhat controversially his work bangs on to a large extent about the English culture only. Hey ho. The official press bags had the show title ‘English Magic’ written on the sides. The work is huge in scope. It is about Englishness, creativity, the crassness of billionaires, the fine principles of William Morris, the juxtaposition of Bowie’s UK tour of 1973 and the troubles in Northern Ireland, the lingering doubts over David Kelly’s death. Oh and there is Deller’s hatred of Range Rover owners. You are left in no doubt what he thinks of them.

But Deller’s work is also wonderfully bond up with natural forces. There’s a mural of a giant hen harrier – think cross between an eagle and any huge bird of prey. But this bird has a model Range Rover car in its clutches. As if it has just swooped and caught its prey.

Deller likes the idea of imaginary revenge. But this revenge is based on a true event. For the Hen Harrier is one if the rarest birds of prey in the UK. And controversially two were shot on the Sandringham estate in 2007. Prince Harry and a friend were the suspected (but not proven) perpertrators.

So here is Deller having a pop at Royalty, The rich in general, and Range Rovers, while he entertains the whimsy that birds can strike back.

In another room the hatred for Range Rovers goes further with a video which combines scenes of the South London-based Melodians Steel Orchestra making a recording at the famous Abbey Road Studios with shots of a Range Rover being crushed. In the centre of viewing room a seat has been created with a similarly crushed car – or maybe the very car you are seeing being crushed; you can’t be sure.

Watch the video courtesy of The Guardian here.

The video ends with the most beautiful wildlife slow motion shots you are ever likely to see of a hen harrier landing on a perch and an owl in flight.

In a final work as you leave the pavillion Deller displays what he calls ‘small faces’,a selection of Neolithic hand axes dating back to 4,000 BC. An assistant lets you handle two of them. What a thrill! To be able to handle two of the world’s earliest creative objects. One can only wonder. Who made them? What did they do with them?

To complete the experience Deller allows you to create your own art using an etching of the hen harrier that you can ink and stamp onto white paper. Mine looks good. Just a pity Deller didn’t pre-sign the paper. Now that would be quite a gift.

So Deller, we find is a political cat. He even uses his love of William Morris to hit at the ridiculously rich with a huge painting of Morris hurling the billionaire Abramovitch’s yatch out to sea, like a King Kong character.

But Deller’s plans to have provocative posters targeting Prince Harry hit the buffers with seemingly the British Council losing its balls at the last minute, or just being very sensible. You decide.

This is what The Guardian’s Charlotte Higgins said:

A banner and posters emblazoned with the words “Prince Harry Kills Me”, planned as part of artist Jeremy Deller’s British pavilion at the Venice Biennale, have been removed from the exhibition shortly before it was unveiled, at the behest of the British Council.

The council, which is partly funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and which oversees the UK’s involvement in the Venice Biennale, was anxious about the possibility of the banner being read as a provocation for attacks on British troops serving in Afghanistan or on British Council offices abroad. In 2011, gunmen stormed the council’s headquarters in Kabul, killing a dozen people.”

However I checked that story about 12 hours after it was published and The Guardian, amazingly, had changed it, now saying that the agreement not to include the banner/posters had been made two months ago and therefore they had never been bought to Venice. Quite a difference. The Guardian says it changed the headline and added a paragraph to clarify. Oh my God. One wonders if any other media will pick up the story as thanks to Internet caching there are now two versions out there, the first of which the Guardian is now saying is wrong. Ho hum.

Well. What are we to make of this? Did Charlotte Higgins get it wrong in the first story? You would think on such a sensitive issue she would have checked and double checked. Or has she become the fall guy in what is looking like a case of British Council spin control?

Perhaps only Jeremy Deller can settle it once and for all. The Guardian article is noticeably absent of quotes from anyone on the matter.  Clearly this is an off the record moment in British Council – The Guardian relations.

And so to other things.

Once again the collateral pop up shows produced some charming gems. Over at Zattere, where there is little else to compete with, I found Croatian artist Kata Mijatovic entrancing us with videos of a gondola making its way on the canal and a huge cage in which visitors were invited to enter to write down their dreams on a computer which projected their entry as they wrote it on a screen for all to see.
It was a joy to see those brave enough to do so flowing forth with real or imaginary dreams. Who knows. Brave if they are real. Creative if not.

At the exit some of the dreams could be taken away on postcards. One is of being a pilot of a plane crashing in a field. Another was of lying in bed waiting to die for three days. Another of lying on bed on the edge of a very high cliff with a blanket that keeps on slipping off.

And so it goes. Dreams are infinitely interesting. Is it art? Who cares, art and dreams are natural bedfellows and a work that puts this at its heart is loveable for its openness and simplicity.

Footnote: Every VB there are always a few artists who end up making art about what they find when they get there, notably Steven McQueen’s moody video about the Giardini in 2009 at the British pavilion. Just as well not too many do that or it would be an endless procession of gondalas, masks, and all things Venetion. That said, it is hard to resist the urge to record your experience in some way. My photo above was taken looking east across the lagoon to Venice a mile’s distance from Fusina on the mainland.

OK. That’s my first review of the Biennale focussing mainly on the Brtitish Pavilion. More to follow when I have dried out my umbrella.

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