As I slithered through the cold and wet, it was hard to resist the temptation to dive inside the various pavilions and stay there, just to avoid the weather. The plan seemed perfect: the people in the pavilions are always keen to detain you, even feed you if you’re lucky, but in the case of Switzerland, Japan, the US and Brazil, not to mention the French pavilion, there was little to detain the avid art lover. There wasn’t a lot in the Australian pavilion, either, despite the vague illusion of better weather the word “Australia” conjures up. The rain seemed preferable to all this boredom.
Things were not much better in the British pavilion this year, though they did at least provide free cups of tea to go with the British-level precipitation. Part of British artist Jeremy Deller’s exhibit, The English Magic, is a worthy and rather dull essay on the subject of the mega-rich that includes a huge painting of Victorian socialist artist William Morris throwing Roman Abramovich’s yacht into the Venice lagoon (an impulse all of us feel when forced to walk past the monstrosities that block the view along the main quay), but he seems too restless for a sustained meditation on anything. The themes also include the Iraq war represented through a series of drawings done by ex-soldiers, Iron Age flint tools, and an awful version of Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World played on steel drums that managed to sound like an easy listening arrangement by James Last. The knowledge that Deller tailors his work for domestic consumption, as he revealed in an interview for Art Quarterly, and is proud of not “pandering to an international audience” explained the parochial feel of it all.
So, as I went back to the cold and the damp, I was beginning to wonder what would detain me long enough to close my umbrella. The real fun only began with Venezuela’s pavilion. They had huge screens showing street art with a soundtrack that made you itch to dance.The German pavilion had something to celebrate, too: a guest appearance by China’s bad boy of art, Ai Weiwei, in the form of a huge construction made up of eight hundred or so three-legged antique stools. The Germans have had the courage not to showcase one of their own artists, but rather an artist whose own country persecutes him. He isn’t allowed out, so he was forced to send his mother as his representative to Venice, and elsewhere (in a church nearby) the artist’s work could be seen in an installation called Sacred, which occupied most of the church. It consists of black boxes with small slits depicting his house arrest. When you peer inside, you can see models of Weiwei and his two grim-faced guards watching as he showers, eats and even sleeps. The way he has been treated does nothing to whet the appetite for the Chinese pavilion. In fact, I gave it a miss.
The Russians had also been thinking about protest, and like the British they were preoccupied with the rich, but they found an ingenious way to illustrate the issue of huge wealth by having gold coins dropping from the ceiling onto a pile of gold below, supposedly evoking the myth of Danae. In keeping with that myth, only women were allowed in to get close to the pile, carrying transparent umbrellas for protection against the rubles falling from above. It is their task to keep the machine of money moving by placing the little gold coins in a bucket, which is then wound up by a gruff male assistant to the upper reaches of the ceiling for recycling. There is also a well-dressed male who sits astride part of the roof on a saddle and discards the shells of the peanuts he eats as he contemplates the mystery of money. If this all sounds a tad pretentious, it is saved by the element of spectacle, something the Greek meditation on the same theme failed to provide—videos of men rummaging in skips do not a social commentary (or a masterpiece) make.
But perhaps the best show in the gardens was one of the simplest. From Hungary came an installation entitled Fired But Unexploded. The artist, Zsolt Asztalos, has used photos of unexploded bombs of various origins that have been dropped on Hungary over the years. The designs of these bombs are weird and quite aesthetically pleasing, which is curious, since they were supposed to explode into smithereens and only survived by an act of grace, failing to go off and thus fulfill their purpose. This gives a curious, wry twist to the idea of the family of nations at the Biennale and their assembled talents. As the artist commented, these dud bombs turned out to be “much more humane than those who dropped them.”
The gardens in Venice are the scene of the oldest national pavilions, but the world has greatly changed since they were built. Now a lot of the interest lies outside, in the Arsenale or hidden in the labyrinth of Venice’s streets. In fact, it was when I got out of the famous Giardini that my imagination finally seemed to light up. And, coincidentally, the rain stopped.
The Azerbaijan pavilion, near the Grand Canal, was full of weird optical tricks, masses of metal that made beautiful patterns on the wall if a light was shone though them in the right way. The Vatican also has a show this year, something it has never before attempted. The highlight was a series of somber black and white panoramas of ruins by Czech photographer Josef Koudelka. But elsewhere in the Arsenale, there were far weirder things on show, including massive boulders hung from threads, the intricate hairdos of Nigerian women, and an uncanny film by Ed Atkins commemorating the now-dispersed heads and figures collected by the great surrealist Andre Breton. You could see a tree swinging by its roots from a ceiling here, or smell exotic spices, or chew gum and stick it on a video screen.But it was left to the Egyptian pavilion to provide beauty, something that seems to be out of fashion these days: a great golden sarcophagus shaped like a foot and with a haunting effigy of a young pharaoh inside. This formed part of an inspiring show by the artists Khaled Zaki and Muhammad Banawi called Treasure of Knowledge. It follows humanity’s journey towards knowledge, starting from the cave dwellers with their cave drawings, illustrated along the corridor leading to the main hall, where we pass a wall of mosaics that fall in shiny drops onto the floor. As the artist Khaled Zaki said, “The quest for knowledge is endless, like the river.” He pointed towards the huge sarcophagus, saying, “In ancient Egyptian language, the ‘sarcophagus’ meant ‘that which contains life.’ I wanted to make this the chest where man stores everything he learns.” The journey ends with a whirling dervish figure, lost in another world, his featureless face bowed. “I intended to use the dervish figure to symbolize man’s efforts to understand the universe and discover its maker.”
In the Palestinian pavilion, Otherwise Occupied, which filled the front yard of an art school, there was a jumble of cardboard boxes that had little windows cut into them, like settlements, and visitors were invited to contribute a box of their own. Some people had chosen to inscribe their names; others had carved peace messages, and on top of one of the piles there was a box cut into the figure of the famous caricature Hanzala, the pictorial signature of Palestinian artist Nagi Al-Ali. The inclusion of this figure, so famous for turning its back as it contemplates injustice, was a stroke of genius.The Iraqis were in another building along the Grand Canal, with an exhibition entitled Welcome to Iraq showing a strange cardboard room complete with brown paper bed. The work is a joint effort by artists Yassin Wami and Hashim Tayeh. The use of cardboard and brown paper has its story, according to Hashim Tayeh. He said: “Cardboard is an important material in any Iraqi’s life. For years after the first Gulf War, people were suffering from the effect of international sanctions, the price of all goods soared, and people used this material to replace broken windows or to sleep on. As an artist, I found that this was the only affordable material I could use. I think cardboard represents a virtual reality and also reflects an impoverished and collapsible reality.”
Saudi Arabia did not have a pavilion this time around, but the contribution of Saudi art could be found on the edge of the Giudecca canal, in an exhibition called Rhizoma (Generation in Waiting), a clever and vivacious mix of videos and installations provided by the Edge of Arabia group. This includes works by known artists like Ahmad Angawi, who chose the theme of modernity versus heritage, through works depicting the old and new faces of Mecca. The exhibition concentrated on what is called “YouTube comedy,” which is flourishing in Saudi Arabia at the moment. It has become a new form of social commentary and art that touches and interacts with mostly younger members of Saudi society. With its photography, calligraphy and installations, all in all the Generation in Waiting was a breath of fresh air from Saudi Arabia.