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Wood and other media

Daniel Palmer

Candice Breitz, Mother, 2005, video stills Candice Breitz, Mother, 2005, video stills
The Venice Biennale vernissage is experienced in a sort of blur, moving between hundreds of artworks, in and out of ‘countries’ (pavilions), making polite conversation with remote acquaintances in a state of caffeine-fuelled exhilaration. It’s an environment conducive to hype and spectacle, best suited to admiring the designer shoes of the international art elite rather than reflecting critically on the art. Indeed, one of my strong, if obscure, impressions of the 2005 Venice Biennale was the prevalence of wood. Quite aside from the woody memento mori carvings of our own representative, Ricky Swallow, this most traditional of media featured in a whole range of artworks filling the Giardini—the gardens where the ‘old’ countries and a few newcomers like Australia and Korea have their national pavilions.

In the Israeli pavilion, Guy Ben Ner’s brilliant Treehouse Kit presented an ‘instructional video’ on how to create various items of furniture, IKEA-style, out of the disassembled parts of a strange looking Hills Hoist-like wooden tree, also on display. In his cartoon style performance, the artist appears in his underwear sporting a huge Jewish beard. Hans Schabus completely reconstructed the Austrian pavilion into a huge artificial mountain with his work, The Last Land. An elaborate web of wooden beams and staircases are covered with stone coloured canvas. You could enter and climb to the peak for a view of Venice. Icelandic artist Gabríela Fridriksdóttir similarly transformed her compact national pavilion, covering its outer walls with tree roots. The inside was a multimedia cave-like lair, with primal performances by actors (including Björk) in furry suits whom you watched while seated on log stools.

If these works were more hybrid and conceptual than Ricky Swallow’s low-tech melancholy austerity, they felt equally original in their imaginative use of ‘old media.’ By contrast, the most prominent ‘new media’ artwork in Venice appeared positively old-fashioned. Fabrizio Plessi’s Vertical Sea is a boat-shaped light-emitting structure on the water in front of the entrance to the Giardini, and is aptly described as a “big technological totem of steel.” Promoted as “a metaphor of the journey towards [the] unknown but also symbol of artistic creation”, it looks more like kitsch corporate art and is, unfortunately, permanent. A more subtle, though easily missed, instance of public new media art was the nearby Games Machine installed by Anika Eriksson. This temporary amusement arcade on the otherwise stately or tourist-mobbed, and eminently bourgeois, waterside was promoted via posters to local youth.

Given it doesn’t present itself as a media art festival, it’s hardly surprising that very little of the art at the Venice Biennale reflected on, say, its electronic or digital status. To be sure, contemporary art exists for the most part in a post-media condition, while strong examples of new media art take some searching out. In addition, digital media are often incorporated into contemporary art practice in invisible ways. This is literally the case in South African artist Candice Breitz’s twin video installations Mother and Father. This work recasts well known Hollywood actors Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Steve Martin and Dustin Hoffman among others, their ‘cut-out’ portraits carefully strung together against a black background, constantly regurgitating carefully selected sentences from their movie appearances to form a narrative investigating the idea of motherhood and fatherhood.

Of course there were screens at every turn, some displaying impressive film-based narratives. These included a room of animated films by South African William Kentridge, a homage to Georges Méliès’ experiments, with the artist often drawing in reverse from within his jerky stop-motion and charcoal landscapes, and a very elaborate new black and white film by Stan Douglas, Inconsolable Memories, about a young black man in Cuba. In the Dutch pavilion, De Rijke/De Rooij presented a half-hour 16mm film, Mandarin Ducks, in the tradition of avant-garde cinema meets contemporary soap opera, laced with biting irony about the lives of the very rich.

There were many good works at the Biennale, needless to say. Of the many video installations—including new ones by Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Mark Wallinger and others—the most sensual was surely Homo Sapiens Sapiens by Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist, projected onto the entire vaulted ceiling of the Baroque Church of San Stae on the Grand Canal. Limited numbers were allowed in, to recline on plump mattresses and be treated to close-up erotic, psychedelic visions of women, flowers and ripe fruit. Kitsch, pornographic and sublime all at once, its edenic imagery was certainly compelling in this context.

I have mentioned only a variety of single artworks that stood out. Some of these were included in the two major curated exhibitions of the Biennale, The Experience of Art, curated by María de Corral, and Always a Little Further, curated by fellow Spaniard Rosa Martinez. The better show, The Experience of Art was a more or less conventional survey of recent practice held in a museum-style space. Always a Little Further—at the Arsenale in a series of old warehouses once used to make rope for the Venetian shipping industry—ostensibly looked to the future, but felt retrograde. A lot was made of the fact that it’s the first time female curators have been at the helm, and also the fact that they chose artists from a broader geographical spectrum than usual (with an inevitable Latin bias). But overall, the show lacked structure and the work felt flat. It opened with a display of large spoof hoardings by the Guerrilla Girls, the anonymous New York cooperative formed in 1985 to condemn the art world for the low numbers of women and artists of colour then exhibiting in galleries and museums. Their statistical reflections on the history of the Venice Biennale felt strained, the method now a little tired, even if it is still shocking to learn that this is the first time in a hundred years that the French pavilion has had a solo show by a female artist.

Unfortunately, much of the art chosen to politicise the Biennale was heavy-handed. Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos presented a work called The Bride made up of a chandelier, 5 meters high and over 2 meters in diameter, composed of thousands of tampons. Regina José Galindo was named best young artist for her gory film of a “hymen replacement” operation, and a film record of her ritually shaving and flagellating herself, dipping her feet in a bowl of blood and leaving footprints in the street to protest the violence against women in her native Guatemala. If these works made you feel queasy, or just sleepy, you could always lie down on a bed in a work called Swansong by The Centre of Attention and request the song you’d like to be played at your funeral—promptly downloaded from a massive online playlist.

Outside the main Arsenale-Giardini axis, the narrow streets of Venice become a treasure trove of ancient spaces temporarily transformed into national pavilions by newer exhibiting countries. After the worthy seriousness of Always a Little Further, the idiotic humour of Kuang-yu Tsui in the Taiwanese pavilion (The Spectre of Freedom) was refreshing. In a series of short video performance works, the artist is seen headbutting vans and cows, and trying to guess the objects being thrown against the back of his head. At the Turkish Pavilion, in a palazzo on the Grand Canal, Hussein Chalayan’s intriguing multiscreen video installation, The Absent Presence, features Tilda Swinton attempting to link genetic identity with clothing. These items are also displayed as the transformed sculptures they become in the narrative (Chalayan is best known as a fashion designer).

Four small, unrelated concluding points. First, many people—attested both by the long lines and the Golden Lion award for best national pavilion—liked the French Casino by Annette Messager, which achieves magical effects with billowing red silk. I was unmoved. Second, there was almost no photography at this year’s Venice Biennale, with the grand exception of Thomas Ruff’s pictorial pixels. Third, the national pavilions easiest to make fun of were the Romanian European Influenza, a literally empty space with the doors open to the ‘outside world’ (artist Daniel Knorr has been making “invisible” artworks since 2001), and the German, where actors dressed as museum guards simultaneously break into song: “This is so contemporary, contemporary, contemporary” (after which you are supposed to want to talk to them about contemporary art!). After all of this, Andrea Blum’s assemblage of outdoor metal furniture, plant holders and drinking fountains in the café garden provided welcome relief.

2005 Venice Biennale, Venice, from June 12

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 54

© Daniel Palmer; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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