There are few things that I love more in Italy than the Venice Biennale.
I feel an immense sense of privilege that I have been able to visit it four times since I've been here.
Each year I do my best to write up my thoughts in the hopes that my impressions can help other visitors make choices about what to focus on- or give people who have no plans on visiting a down to earth curator's view on things. There are 29 national pavilions in addition to the group show at the Venice Pavilion here at Giardini and this post is dedicated to my favourites. A separate post about Arsenale- the other main complex of pavilions will follow.
About a third of the national pavilions at Giardini were offering up what I thought were brilliant or thought provoking work. The ten that I've selected here are more or less in line with the selections of my Biennale crew- this is the fourth Biennale we've visited together and although we usually bicker like sad old toffs on the train ride home this year we pretty much had consensus with our choices.
There were a lot of disappointing exhibits on offer at Giardini- especially from Great Britain (too art school), Spain and Holland (too much video and not engaging at that) which are usually my favourites- leaving me with the idea that this year it's Arsenale that is really worth the extra time and effort.
But a visit to Giardini will still blow you away if you spend more of your time at the following national pavilions (in no particular order):
3. South Korea
10. Czech Republic
More detailed comments about these pavilions and the artists after the jump.
Anne Imhauf Faust
Guard dogs, cyclone fencing, fence scalers. A stately building that has been transformed and reduced into something else- something that your heart tells you is sinister.
Without the performative aspects of the opening night, Faust leaves you feeling like you've stumbled across a state's dirty secret. There are hints and human debris and so much Perspex around that the lack of transparency and clarity disturbs you.
If Anne Imhof is being critical of current immigration policy, then Australia's Tracey Moffatt is taking immigration and history to task. Moffatt's large scale photographs for my horizon are technically sound and almost wistful at times but it's the two very brief video installations that are most riveting- the first features a range of old Hollywood stars seeing the arrival and treatment of boat people and having appropriately Hollywood style reactions; the second is documentary footage in which the first Australians - the Aboriginals- note the arrival of the original boat people - the Europeans.
Giardini is a hub of political activity- no where more so than in Russia- where in Theatrum Orbis the modern day dystopia is realised. Here the hallmarks of modern life - surveillance, nationalism, political rhetoric and persecution are all manifest - along side a little dig at Russia's rival- the U.S.
It's propaganda writ large through sculpture and video and it's hard not to feel like we're immersed in the worst of times.
On the flip side, Gyula Várnai (Peace on Earth, Hungary) dares to imagine a utopia- a vision of how what already exists in the world could be reshaped, cobbled together from our political pasts. Along with Jana Źelibská's Swan Song Now (Czech republic) it's the balm to the pain on offer elsewhere- and also one of the few smile inducing exhibits on offer at Giardini, so relish the moment.
Giardini might be short on the sweetness and light but it's got concepts in spades this year- as well as an obsession with mould spores.
Gal Weinstein attempts to stop time in the Israeli pavilion. Its such an atmospheric success that you almost get the feeling that Siva is going to pop out from the sculptural gaseous cloud Gal has conjured up and destroy everything. Sun Stand Still is a pretty daring offering at the Biennale this year - challenging and inviting at the same time.
Elsewhere the scientific aspect is wound up to eleven in the Greek pavilion where a historical medical experiment becomes an allegory for Greece's treatment at the hands of the EU and the world bank. George Drivas' Laboratory of Dilemmas is sophisticated, intense and demanding of at least half an hour of your time- during which you'll swear you saw Christine whatshername from the World Bank in one of the vids.
Over at the Brazilian pavilion, Cinthia Marcelle has created an ambiguous installation that suggests rebellion and escape. The tilting metal floors, the debris of human rebellion and a video (made in collaboration with film maker Tiago Mata Machado) suggesting an impending escape are open to interpretation but very much politically minded. Your best bet is to have the attendant help guide you through the exhibit- there's no supporting literature on offer here to help you interpret it without anything but your gut instinct.
Which leads me to the final two highlights from Giardini which will easily convince you to stay and ponder. Japan and South Korea, neighbouring nations and pavilions, rarely disappoint me and this year they are again among the highlights.
I lived in Japan for some years and so I always make a beeline for the pavilion when I'm in Venice. This year Takahiro Iwasaki takes on the Japanese relationship between nature and technology with some of the most painstaking works on offer at the Biennale.
If you've ever visited Miyagima you're in for treat. If not you'll still be transfixed by how the Hiroshima artist has recreated the Itsukishima Shrine in all of its reflective, wooden glory.
There is joy in the minutiae here as well as a potent reminder of how the world we have created for ourselves has an unquenchable thirst for energy. Who better than a Hiroshima born artist to remind us that Japan has not always successfully managed the quenching of that thirst: that it has sucked on a nuclear teet with devastating consequences.
Our relationship with technology is something I usually think of when I visit the Korean pavilion. Their installations are often tech savvy- flashing, inviting advertisements for how well the South Koreans have mastered electronics.
But beyond the garish Fluro strip mall exterior- Cody Choi and Lee Wan aren't interested in moving forward. Instead Lee Wan begins looking backwards - inwards and across Asia- unearthing a treasure trove of personal artifacts bought at auction and represented here as a timeline. In doing so Lee Wan has put three generations of Korean life on show. If time and it's changes set the backdrop it's application in Proper Time will hypnotise you: its here that hundreds of clocks slowly or rapidly tick forward, measuring how long each subject (listed along with their profession) must work in order to earn enough for a hot meal. It's the deceptively simple humanism that makes the work so refreshing and a work that almost literally offers food for thought.
Check back soon for a round up of the best on offer at Arsenale and the group pavilions.
Dave Di Vito is a writer, teacher and former curator.He's also the author of the Vinyl Tiger series and Replace The Sky.
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