Exhibitions: 57th Venice Biennale

By Gayford, Martin | The Spectator, May 20, 2017 | Go to article overview

Exhibitions: 57th Venice Biennale


Gayford, Martin, The Spectator


'Are you enjoying the Biennale?' is a question one is often asked while patrolling the winding paths of the Giardini and the endless rooms of the Arsenale. It is not easy to answer. The whole affair is so huge, so diverse and yet -- in many ways -- so monotonous. Like the EU, an organisation with which it has something in common, La Biennale di Venezia believes in the principle of subsidiarity. Therefore individual nations are allowed to do what they like within their own pavilions. However, there are also strong homogenising forces at work -- so much of what is on view in the national pavilions and elsewhere tends to fall into certain approved categories: notably video art, photography (often rather dull) and messy installation.

Phyllida Barlow, batting for Britain on this occasion, has opted for the last of those. Her exhibition, entitled Folly, has some stereotypical British characteristics. It looks (deliberately) provisional, amateurish and bodged: as if a giant toddler had been presented with a pile of art materials and told to make a full-scale model of a building site.

Outside there are huge, vaguely spherical objects on sticks, spattered with red, looking like balloons fashioned from heavily preused Play-Doh. Inside, the roof seems to be supported by mighty pillars made from cement and sacking. All around are big ungainly objects: an enormous cone of untidy red wire, a pair of rough-hewn wheels on an axle, a megaphone.

Altogether it has a ramshackle charm, especially in comparison with the German contribution next door, which is downright fearsome. The artist, Anne Imhof, has placed wire cages in front of the building, patrolled by Doberman pinschers and a squad of soberly-clad attendants. Within, you encounter more performers writhing under a transparent floor and trapped in sealed compartments.

I preferred the neighbouring Canadian Pavilion -- which has been semi-dismantled and turned into a fountain -- and, even more, the Austrian one. Outside this Erwin Wurm has upended a lorry, so that its radiator grill is pressed to the ground, and turned it into a tower up which you can climb -- a contemporary addition to the Venetian sky-line of chimneys and campaniles.

The Scottish Pavilion, in a disused medieval church near the Fondamente Nove, also sticks in the mind. It consists of a bizarre filmed fantasia -- half-Disney, half nightmare -- projected where the altar would once have been. The characters -- all played by the artist, Rachel Maclean, herself -- include a Pinocchio lookalike and a Madonna substitute.

However, I would have given the top prize for a national pavilion to New Zealand (in fact, the jury awarded it to Germany). This also features moving pictures in a highly original way. The artist, Lisa Reihana, took as her starting point early 19th-century French wallpaper depicting Captain Cook's voyages to the South Seas, reshot each episode -- the exploits of the botanist Joseph Banks, the death of Cook -- with actors, and edited the whole into a vast, moving panorama past which the viewer walks.

Just as Caesar described ancient Gaul, the Biennale is divided into three parts: the national pavilions, collateral events and its own, colossal exhibition that has been organised by the director of this 57th edition, Christine Macel. …

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