A terrible beauty in Venice, sort of…

June 11, 2011

This much delayed blog comes from a train, speeding towards Aarhus in Denmark, where the second Danish Sculpture by the Sea is being held. I’ve just finished four exhausting days in Venice for the Biennale. Lest you think this sounds glamorous, I can’t remember when I’ve felt so zonked every evening. Too tired to write anything, my head swimming with impressions of Biennale art shows – not always happy impressions.

First, some housekeeping. The SMH art columns will appear on this site a week after first appearance in the newspaper, so as not to compete with the new SMH app.
The AFR Saturday film reviews will also appear at a week’s delay. Because everything published in the AFR is usually tucked away behind the Great Firewall of Pyrmont, it’s fortunate to be able to run them at all. Gradually we’ll upload the SMH art columns from 2010, then 2009, and so on.

By common consent this year’s Biennale was a big disappointment. This is hard to achieve when one goes to these events with severely diminished expectations, but Bice Curiger’s  ‘ILLUMInazioni’ managed the feat. The national pavilions in the Giardini were terribly haphazard, the queues were longer than ever, the Arsenale was a lifeless affair.

How hard is it to put together an interesting show?

The recent Hong Kong art fair was full of really strong work, so I suspect it takes enormous skill and expertise to choose a show as dull as this. If the Biennale didn’t plumb the depths reached by Roger und Ruth at the last Documenta, it was only because the satellite exhibitions provided some useful variety and stimulation.

I had a few faint hopes for Hany Armanious in the Australian pavilion, but it proved to be a most unlovable experience. Hany can be sharp and funny, but it often feels as though he is merely sneering at his audience. The catalogue essays make the work sound profound, but the immediate experience is depressing. It’s sad to encounter such a level of aesthetic inertia, even if it’s all deliberate – or worse: ‘ironic’.

Against the backdrop of Venice itself, the supposed “beauty” that the curator, Anne Ellegood, found in Hany’s work is just pathetic. There’s Beauty, and there’s um, err, a kind of, mysterious, errr, um, strange, y’know, ‘beauty’. Even if it looks like crud.