At the heart of a new art world


THE ARTS:ALTHOUGH IT IS now but one of 100 or so art biennials, the Venice Biennale is the oldest and still, if just about, the most prestigious, writes AIDAN DUNNE

It’s up to the exhibition director to come up with a theme, and Birnbaum has titled his show Making Worlds. We could interpret this as referring to a moment of global transition, to the need for a new beginning after the general economic collapse and perhaps the end of the Bush era in the US. Birnbaum likes the ambiguity of the term. The phrase has different resonances when translated into different languages, he points out, varying from the metaphoric to the bluntly practical. A work of art, he says, is more than a product, it is “a vision of the world” and hence, figuratively speaking, a means of making a world. But he backs away from any claim to be mapping out an imaginative blueprint for the future. Equally, he doesn’t claim to be summarising what is going on in art at the moment. What he’s offering is a personal perspective.

It seems fair to say that it is personal. He drafted in Jochen Volz, a fellow curator who ran Portikus for several years, to work with him, and many of the artists in Making Worldshave strong Frankfurt connections. Wolfgang Tillmans and Tobias Rehberger (who won a Golden Lion for his cafeteria-as-work-of-art) both teach at the Städelschule, and many other artists are based in Frankfurt or have taken part in projects with Birnbaum and Volz. Not that there’s anything at all wrong with that – all the artists included have as much right to be included as anyone else – but it’s worth remembering that most of the time, even on a global scale, the art world can seem very like a global village, with the same curators and the same artists popping up over and over again on the circuit.

Making Worlds, distributed between the Palazzo delle Esposizioni in the Giardini (from now on the Biennale’s permanent headquarters) and the vast Arsenale, the former naval workshops of the Venetian republic, is an enormous exhibition by any standard. There is so much space to fill that any curator must be tempted to seek safety in numbers and, previously, they have tended to cram in the artists. To his credit, Birnbaum doesn’t follow suit, and the result is the most manageable Biennale in ages, though getting to see anything like all of it is still an endurance test, particularly given summer temperatures and the preponderance of lengthy film and video works.

This show is distinctly patchy. The Palazzo has more than its fair share of duds. Prime locations are thrown away, filled with numerous, repetitive, doodle-like drawings by Susan Hefuna (an artist capable of much more), several installations of exasperatingly miscellaneous magazine cuttings and hundreds of other bits and pieces by Georges Adeagbo (one including a photograph of our own Anne Enright, for no discernable reason), unconscionable quantities of random photographic pieces by Tillmans and numerous “interventions” by the late André Cadere. These latter consist of coloured sticks. They are everywhere, so they quickly lose the enigmatic quality that is their raison d’etre, not least because each and every one is accompanied by an explanatory label.

Labels abound, but what should be a useful guide becomes a means of imposing a tyranny of meaning. The hit of the Palazzo is Nathalie Djurberg’s dark, sickly jungle in the basement, the Garden of Eden gone disastrously wrong, a fitting setting for her series of startling, subversive claymation films in which bodies are rent asunder. The Biennale is only a few weeks into its five-month run, but already the technology attrition rate is high. A significant number of exhibits are out of action because of “technical problems”, but not Simon Starling’s amazing kinetic sculpture, a kind of Heath Robinson film projector of fiendish complexity.

Things pick up somewhat at the Arsenale. The most beautiful single room in the whole show features Spencer Finch’s stained glass and electric light installation, together with Huang Yong Ping’s fibreglass sculptures of the vastly enlarged, octopus-like fruits of the fingered citron, colloquially known as the “Hands of Buddha”.

Clido Meireles brings us through a sequence of intensely coloured rooms, providing a memorable chromatic experience. Pascale Marthine Tayou’s African village is a enveloping, dazzling simulation of a hectic, noisy, industrious community.

Chu Yun has stocked a blacked-out space with myriad electrical appliances, so that their standby lights become a constellation in a simple but amazingly effective installation. A night-time panorama of a sprawling city becomes an ominous sci-fi spectacle in Grazia Toderi’s two-screen projection. Moshekwa Langa’s labyrinthine arrangement of coloured yarn, toy cars, bottles and other objects is infectiously likeable. Bodies as mechanisms and geometric motifs feature in Paul Chan’s shadow-play puppet orgy. Inspired by the Marquis de Sade, it apparently grinds relentlessly on for more than five hours. The veteran Italian artist Michelangelo Pistoletto took a hammer to a roomful of ornately framed mirrors, with predictable results. In all of this you could say that worlds are made, or proposed, or symbolised, or described, but clearly Birnbaum wasn’t measuring each inclusion against a strict set of criteria, and what he’s come up with is a general exhibition lifted by some outstanding pieces and marred by more formulaic and lacklustre elements.

The national pavilions are at the core of the Biennale and in recent years Irish representation has come on in leaps and bounds in terms of professionalism and location. It’s impossible to get into the Giardini, but last time round the best alternative yet was found with Ireland North and South sharing different floors of the spacious Istituto Provinciale per l’Infanzia Santa Maria della Pieta, just off the main route from San Marco to the Giardini, and that’s where we are again this year.

With Caoimhín Corrigan as curator, Ireland’s representatives, Sarah Browne and Gareth Kennedy, are showing work individually and collaboratively, as Kennedy Browne. Partly inspired by the minstrels who appear in Visconti’s film of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, Kennedy enlisted buskers to decamp from Dublin to Venice, first commissioning formal portrait photographs of them in the stark empty spaces of the newly developed Dublin Docklands, the face of the Celtic Tiger. His work takes the form of such participatory interventions, designed to elucidate and critique social and economic relations in society.

Mindful of the ambassadorial function of the national pavilion, Browne designed a rug in the modernist idiom of designer Eileen Gray and employed two erstwhile Donegal Carpet workers to hand-knot it using leftover wool. The firm had provided rugs for Irish embassies and other high-profile national locations. Their collaborative video, 167, features a woman systematically paring a pencil down to a stub atop Liberty Hall, with views out over the city. We are referred to right-wing economist Milton Friedman’s impromptu eulogy to the pencil as emblematic of the virtues of a global free market. It could all be terribly dry and didactic, but as with their work generally, their sense of humour confers a welcome lightness of touch.

SUSAN MacWILLIAMrepresents Northern Ireland with three video installations. Long known for her works exploring aspects of the paranormal, she really hits her stride in Venice. One piece considers evidence of “teleplasmic text” at a seance in 1931, another recalls the Irish-born medium Eileen J Garrett, and in the third, MacWilliam participates in a “fingertip vision” experiment in Paris. In each case, we are drawn in and left to figure out for ourselves what is going on and what to make of it all: MacWilliam doesn’t editorialise, and her work is unsettling and often funny.

Apart from the official Irish representatives, John Gerrard, who has already built a significant international reputation, has a substantial exhibition as a collateral event under the aegis of the RHA. It is a brave and, as it happens, worthwhile venture. Even though his Animated Sceneis located off the main island, in an industrial scale space on the Isola della Certosa, it attracts significant visitor numbers and, so far, a tremendous response. His hyper-real video images apply game-design software to documentary material, including a dust storm in Texas, and a frightening-looking pig-production facility. Environmental and moral issues are never far away, and Gerrard never lets the technology get in the way of the import of the work.

Great things were expected of English representative Steve McQueen after his breakthrough feature film, Hunger. And his film for the Biennale, accurately titled Giardini(since it was shot in the out-of-season grounds of the exhibition) is visually sumptuous but, alas, little else. The most authoritative body of work – and the term is altogether appropriate since embodiment is at its heart – is by Bruce Nauman, the US representative. It’s a virtual retrospective, and it spreads to other venues besides the US pavilion, but it is powerful and relentless in its single-minded, visceral intensity. He deservedly won the award for a national pavilion, but it would have been nice to give one to a younger artist as well.

The curatorial partnership of Elmgreen Dragset also took a prize for their Nordic and Danish pavilions, which spin a fictional narrative around two hypothetical modernist residences, one that of a gay art collector who ends up face down in his swimming pool. Oddly moralistic, with inferences about the psychopathology of art-collecting, it’s surely more entertainment than art. Imma director Enrique Juncosa curated the Spanish pavilion, devoted to the recent work of Miquel Barcelo, whose gutsy, instinctive, thickly textured paintings and ceramics are delivered with amazing vitality. There’s another Irish connection in the Slovenian pavilion, which is curated by Noel Kelly.

Germany opted for English artist and theorist Liam Gillick, who whimsically filled the handsome pavilion with copies of his pine kitchen cabinets and perched a stuffed cat atop one of them, providing the animal with an imagined interior monologue. Luckily for him, Gillick can usually talk his way out of anything, although the general response so far has been sceptical. The formidably talented Fiona Tan, who represents the Netherlands, ambitiously shows three substantial projects, the largest of which, about the connections between Venice and the east, with a narration taken from Marco Polo, displays her penchant for raiding film archives to great effect.

Japanese artist Miwa Yanagi has not, for some reason, attracted a great deal of comment, but her installation Windswept Women: The Old Girls’ Troupeis a show-stopper. She has developed a personal iconography based on the dramatic juxtaposition of younger girls and older women, and the four-metre-high black-and-white images of super-women that dominate her show are extraordinary.

It’s surprises such as Yanagi’s work that make the Biennale worthwhile, and this year there are many such surprises. It’s also nice to be able to report that Ireland has managed to attain and consolidate such a convincing presence in Venice.

Making Worlds, the 53rd International Art Exhibition is at the Giardini, the Arsenale and other venues in Venice until Nov 22. Ireland Venice is at the Instituto Provinciale per l’Infanzia Santa Maria della Pieta, Calle della Pieta until Nov 22. Animated Scene by John Gerrard is on the Isola de Certosa until Sep 30