Magazine article Art Monthly

53rd Venice Biennale: Giardini 7 June to 22 November

Magazine article Art Monthly

53rd Venice Biennale: Giardini 7 June to 22 November

Article excerpt

A visit to the cemetery island of San Michele, laid out in the 19th century at Napoleon's command, proved to be an unexpectedly appropriate preamble to the official opening of the 53rd Venice Biennale. Skirting the graves of Ezra Pound, Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Diaghilev located in, respectively, the Evangelical and Greek Orthodox sections, past the military section flanked, oddly, by that set aside for priests and nuns, and out beyond the neat rows of commoners' graves and stacked marble columbaria festooned with plastic flowers, you eventually reach the necropolis of the great and good. Encompassing every style from Byzantine to Gothick, neo-classical to fascist modernism, the mausolea are eerily reminiscent of the national pavilions in the Giardini, but scaled down even further. The dead enjoy the best views, too, like the former Great Powers whose pavilions, also built in the 19th century, are situated at the top of the Giardini's hill: Great Britain flanked by Germany on the left and France on the right.

Arriving at the British pavilion at the alotted viewing time for Steve McQueen's new film, expectations were high. That the work failed to deliver was in part due to the extraordinarily high standards he himself has set in previous works, not least in Gravesend, 2007, the film he showed in the Italian pavilion at the previous Biennale. Giardini is a 30-minute long, colour, double-screen projection with ambient sound, filmed in the Giardini during the 'dead' months between biennales when the lichen-covered pavilions are boarded up and the rubbish-strewn grounds overgrown. The film promised much but soon descended into cliche: misty morning vistas, birdsong, the world inverted in a raindrop hanging from the tip of a leaf, feral dogs--actually, elegant imported greyhounds loping across the site, occasionally pausing to lift their legs and piss against the walls of a pavilion--lamplight reflected in puddles, clouds scudding across the moon, a cigarette smoulders in the night, illicit gay lovers meet, dawn rises, vaporetti ply back and forth, cheers from a football crowd drift over from the nearby stadium, monstrous cruise ships slide by and so on. Even in the hands of a consummate filmmaker like McQueen, cliches are still cliches.

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The artist's ambivalence toward the biennale in general, and to the dubious honour of representing Britain in particular, seemed somehow misplaced. And while I did not object to the strict viewing conditions--time slots booked in advance and no late admissions--presumably imposed in an attempt to disrupt the grazing mode that most of us adopt in the face of visual overload, it contrasted badly with the openness not only of fellow British artist Liam Gillick's contribution to the neighbouring German pavilion, but also with that nation's gesture in selecting a non-German artist to represent them. In the past I have sometimes struggled to marry the rhetoric surrounding Gillick's work, thrown up like so much chaff to confuse the viewer, with the actual experience of it. But in this instance, it all seemed to come together.

Representing Germany in Venice is one of the most daunting of challenges, both politically and aesthetically since, for many, Hans Haacke's 1993 intervention, Germania, can never be bettered. Wisely, Gillick didn't try: the jauntily coloured plastic fly-screen over the entrance immediately signalled a different and irreverent approach. Inside, all was light, air and space, while the domestic scale of the endless interlocking fitted pine kitchen cabinets (descendants of Margarete Scuhtte-Lihotzky's original Frankfurt model) gently corral the viewer into negotiating the semi-familiar objects--their forms a hybrid of IKEA furniture and minimal objects--in a way that knowingly invokes Michael Fried's notorious stigmatisation of minimal art as 'theatrical'. Simultaneously a celebration and a critique of the legacy of utopian modernism, the work, entitled How Are You Going to Behave? …

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