54th Venice Biennale

June 17, 2011
Photo: Ruth Fremson/The New York Times
Photo: Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

Never has a more glamorous bag accompanied such a tawdry exhibition. A dazzling gold carry-all, advertising Hany Armanious’s installation in the Australian pavilion, was to be seen all over Venice during the vernissage of the 54th Biennale. The only more prominent bag may have been the bright red one with ‘Free Ai Weiwei’ emblazoned in white. By this stage it would have been cleverer to write: ‘Don’t talk to me about Ai Weiwei’.

 

For those lured to the Australian pavilion by the promise of ineffable glamour it must have been a shock to find that Armanious’s show, The Golden Thread, consisted of various pieces of old junk impersonating works of modern art. This deliberate tackiness is Armanious’s stock-in-trade. Sometimes it is witty and visually striking, but too often it devolves into a kind of snickering tee-hee: like a naughty boy who has just put a whoopee cushion on teacher’s chair.

Armanious must roam the streets on Council clean-up days, picking up all the broken and useless objects ignored by more discerning scavengers. It is a supreme irony to see these objects, sometimes in cast form, as works of art representing Australia at the world’s oldest and most prestigious international exhibition. And that’s where the problem lies. In the visual arts, irony often translates into a very thin, self-defeating form of humour. For instance, look at the way Armanious restages Giacometti’s haunting sculpture, Le Nez (‘Nose’)(1947), as a dangling leaf-blower apparently carved from polystyrene, but actually cast in resin.

Giacometti made this piece after keeping a vigil alongside the body of the caretaker of his studio, who had died in the night. Staring at the corpse he imagined the nose growing longer and longer, as if the end of life led to some new form of vegetal growth. This deathly association is unmistakable in Giacometti’s suspended head, but Armanious’s Le Nez is just a gag. The leaf-blower suggests someone blowing their nose. Tee-hee!

Le Nez is almost classical alongside a piece such as Happiness – another Giacometti piss-take – which balances a battered hunk of chipboard on a cast pewter frame. There is some sand scattered on the board, and a polyurethane ball lying on the floor beneath. Then there’s Birth of Venus – a cast of an ordinary plinth with a patch of silver duct tape. Only a curator could find something magical in such works, and this is exactly the case with Anne Ellegood, the senior curator at the Hammer Museum of Los Angeles, who has put this exhibition together. She finds Armanious’s empty plinth to be “forlorn but somehow beautiful”. ‘Somehow’ is the operative word. Rummaging around in her bag of art critical clichés, Ellegood also finds the word “alchemical”, which refers to the artist’s “mysterious” creations.

I’m afraid the greatest mystery here is why an exhibition in the Australian pavilion has an American curator. Four out of five writers in the catalogue are also American. Even the PR is handled by Blue Media, a New York-based group that has made a valiant effort to present this show as a silk purse. I have nothing against Americans, but as this is one of the few world shows in which an artist is purported to represent a nation, the Australia Council has displayed a peculiar contempt for homegrown talent.

It might sound as if we goofed again in Venice, but Armanious’s efforts were not out-of-step with much of the art in the Giardini. Despite the brassy sound of this year’s theme: ILLUMInazioni – there was very little light being shed by the work in the national pavilions. The 54th Biennale, directed by Swiss curator, Bice Curiger, (pronounced “Bitchy” in Italian?), was a messy, scrappy affair, with many pavilions looking like the aftermath of an explosion.

One of the most talked-about pieces of faux-dilapidation came from Mike Nelson, who transformed the British pavilion into a decayed oriental interior. I won’t be adding to the talk because I declined to stand for more than two hours in a queue, waiting to get through the door. I also turned down the chance to wait two hours to see the works of Allora & Calzadilla, in the American pavilion, although the entire Giardini was treated to the sound and spectacle of a tank lying upside down, its tracks operated by an athlete running on a treadmill.

For a so-called press preview the dysfunctional queues are an absurdity. With hundreds of things to see in only three days, it is impossible to justify loitering for hours in front of a single pavilion.

When it came to grot and grunge, Armanious’s show seemed almost precious alongside the inspired lunacy of the films and installations of the late Christoph Schlingensief in the German pavilion, which took a satirical B-movie approach to German history. Even further over-the-top was Thomas Hirschhorn’s Crystal of Resistance in the Swiss pavilion: a lurid disaster area, crammed with crystals, silver foil, broken glass, pictures clipped from magazines, assorted furniture, etc. etc. It was impressively horrible, a mind-bending experience for those poor gallery slaves required to inhabit this space for weeks on end.

Continuing the mayhem, the Danes devoted their pavilion to the theme of ‘freedom of speech’, inviting artists from many countries to participate, including Greek muralist, Stelios Faitakis; Czech filmmaker, Jan Svankmajer, and the inimitable Robert Crumb. The result was chaotic, with too much information for anyone to absorb, but it was anything but boring.

Christian Boltanski took a more orderly approach in the French pavilion, with a maze of scaffolding through which the photos of anonymous children were fed on a kind of zig-zagging conveyor belt. It was familiar territory for this artist, forever obsessed with mortality and identity. The apparatus served as a metaphor for life as a vast, impersonal, industrial process, in which we are all widgets.

About the only significant painting this year came from the impressive, quasi-abstract landscapes of Swedish artist, Andreas Eriksson, supplemented by odd little bronzes of birds and piles of dirt. Meanwhile, in the moody figure paintings of Stephen Shearer, Canada has found its answer to Edvard Munch.

After wading through so much formless, cluttered, bewildering material it was a shock to arrive at the Greek pavilion, which had been given a new skin of bare boards by the artist, Diohandi, and contained nothing except a walkway over a water feature.

As late as the last Biennale I would have defended the value of these big international surveys over any art fair, but it has to be admitted that the standard of work at the recent Hong Kong Art Fair was much higher than what was on view in Venice. It seems that commercial imperatives now provide a better guarantee of quality than curatorial ones.

The experience of the Giardini was dismal enough, but the other major part of the show, in the Arsenale, was the dullest in living memory. Only the Arabs made an impact, celebrating their inexorable rise through the ranks of international contemporary art. The Black Arch by Raja and Shadia Alem of Saudi Arabia, was one of the few pieces in the Arsenale that had a memorable presence – a large black disc balanced at an oblique angle, carving up the exhibition space like beached UFO.

The best work this year was to be found in the satellite group exhibitions, from the wildly diverse, Personal Structures at the Palazzo Bembo; to Tra – the latest in a series of encyclopaedic mixtures of contemporary, modern and ancient art at the Palazzo Fortuny; to The World Belongs to You – another installment of the Francois Pinault collection at the Palazzo Grassi. The latter represented a huge improvement on the works from the Pinault collection shown during the 2009 Biennale. It seems that the French billionaire has bought himself some better consultants in the interval.

Also noteworthy were the disturbing photos of Taiwanese artist, Hsieh Chun-te – dark, cruel erotic – equally hard to like or forget; and Lech Majewski’s elaborate filmic tribute to Pieter Breugel.

One of the quirky aspects of Bice Curiger’s Biennale was her insistence on showing three paintings by Tintoretto in the main Italian pavilion. Although these works were 450 years older than anything else, they were the most innovative things in the building. Whatever Ms. Curiger’s intentions, the Tintorettos served as a melancholy reminder that the great days of art in Venice will never come again.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, June 11, 2011

The 54th Venice Biennale: ILLUMInazioni
Until 27 November.