TWO OF THE most highly respected artists in the world were presented with lifetime achievement awards at the Venice Biennale yesterday. But one of the real stars of this year's event is a young British artist who two weeks ago was unheard of outside the small world of the London gallery scene.
Golden Lions - the artworld equivalent of Oscars - were given to Cy Twombly, 73, a veteran American painter who now lives in Italy, and to Richard Serra, 61, the New York sculptor who is famous for his monumental pieces in patinated steel. Both artists are showing new work at the Biennale: Twombly a set of 12 huge canvases depicting the defeat of the Turks in the 16th- century sea battle of Lepanto (in the Italian pavilion); and Serra a series of 4m-high elliptical steel rings, one inside the other (in the Arsenale dockyard).
The selection of the two artists for awards was a popular decision. "They are at their peak," said Glenn Lowry, the director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. "The Twomblys are beautiful," said Matthew Collings, the presenter of the Channel 4 series This is Modern Art.
But aside from the work of these established figures, the real buzz among the art crowd in Venice was about an installation by the British artist Mike Nelson, 34, who 10 days ago was announced as one of the names on this year's Turner Prize shortlist. However his work is so little known that many critics had to ask who he was.
For two months leading up to the opening of the Biennale, Nelson has been working in an old brewery in Venice where he has built a maze-like structure containing 16 rooms. Visitors entering the installation - titled The Deliverance and The Patience after two 18th-century ships - are offered a choice of doorways through which they can pass. Beyond these doors a number of possible routes open up through the maze and stories are suggested by the props placed in the rooms. In one of the spaces, for example, evidence suggests recent occupation by rag-trade workers; while an adjoining room is laid out as a carpet-lined prayer room for Muslims. In contrast another space is set up like the snug bar of a pub. The whole elaborate fiction is dramatically revealed when visitors finally climb a staircase to a mezzanine and look down on the enclosed construction from above. …