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Venice Biennale: from unusual sexual obsessions to a primary school Open Day

Roderick Conway Morris finds a mix of the weird and the wonderful at the 55th Venice Biennale

William Empson believed that ‘the arts are produced by overcrowding’. But, as 20,000 invited guests and 4,500 accredited journalists surged through the pavilions of the Giardini and Arsenale on the 55th Venice Biennale’s preview days last week, it was more a case of overcrowding being produced by the arts.

Over the past 20 years the Biennale has inexorably expanded with every edition. In 1993, 53 countries were represented. This year there are 88, with Angola, the Bahamas, Bahrain, the Ivory Coast, Kosovo, Kuwait, the Maldives, Paraguay, Tuvalu and the Vatican officially appearing for the first time. There are nearly 50 official collateral events and scores of other exhibitions around town.

Massimiliano Gioni, at 39 the event’s youngest ever artistic director, has more than doubled the number of artists his predecessor showed two years ago in the Central Pavilion in the Giardini, or Castello Gardens, and the Corderie, or Rope Walk, at the Arsenale.

The title of Gioni’s exhibitions — Il Palazzo Encyclopedico (The Encyclopedic Palace) — is taken from a 136-storey tower designed in his back yard by an amateur Italian–American architect Marino Auriti in the 1950s. Auriti’s model of the tower is in the entrance to the Corderie. His hope was that this gigantic edifice, over 2,000 feet high and covering 16 blocks, would be built in Washington DC as a repository of all human knowledge.

Gioni has not confined himself to contemporary art, but has chosen works from over the past 100 years. Many of the artists displayed are dead. Many, too, were or are amateurs, and quite a high proportion suffered from delusions, were in the grip of unusual sexual obsessions, or unhinged in other ways. Some of the art is anonymous, such as Shaker gift paintings and shamanistic drawings from Melanesia.


More contemporary concerns are addressed in some of the national pavilions. In the Russian Pavilion at the Giardini, the conceptual artist Vadim Zakharov restages the ancient myth of Zeus’s seduction of Danae in the form of a shower of gold as a comment on money and modern materialism. Visitors can observe from a gallery gilded coins tumbling past from the ceiling above on to the floor below, where they form an enormous heap. Access to the lower floor is restricted to women, who are handed transparent umbrellas to protect them from the cascading largesse, and are invited to pick up coins and deposit them in a bucket, which is periodically hoisted up and its contents poured on to a conveyor belt to replenish the supply of coins falling from above.

Stefanos Tsivopoulos in ‘History Zero’ at the Greek Pavilion surveys the scene of his country’s financial devastation, following a day in the life of three people in Athens, who never meet yet whose lives touch on each other’s. The first is an elderly woman, an art collector, suffering from Alzheimer’s, who has taken to making beautiful origami bunches of flowers out of high-denomination euro notes, which she then puts into black plastic bags and dumps in the communal rubbish container outside her apartment block. The second is a young artist wandering the streets looking for inspiration. The third is a solitary African immigrant who pushes around a supermarket trolley scavenging for scrap metal to sell. The films are poignant and the fairy-tale ending of the last in the sequence pokes some gentle fun at audience yearnings for happy resolutions of the kind that, alas, seldom occur in real life.

Jeremy Deller has won the Turner Prize and organised spectacles including the restaging of such historic events as ‘the 1984 clash between miners and police in Orgreave, Yorkshire’. He has been given the British pavilion for an exhibition entitled English Magic that ‘reflects the artist’s interest in the diverse society and its broad cultural, socio-political and economic history’. But he seems to have had some difficulty in coming up with sufficient ideas to deliver this grand conspectus. There are giant, crudely painted murals of a hen harrier flying with a red Range Rover in its talons, demonstrators burning down a bank in Jersey (on 12 June 2017) and a giant, Godzilla-like William Morris lifting up a Russian oligarch’s yacht and plunging it into the waters of the Venetian lagoon. These are not executed by Deller himself: ‘I don’t paint,’ he said emphatically.

Visitors are invited to handle Stone Age axes and to make their own takeaway prints from provided blocks. Tea is served at the rear of the pavilion. The most interesting section is of drawings made by former British veterans from the Iraq War who subsequently became prison inmates. But the overall effect is of a politically correct primary school Open Day.

Ten years ago Wales instituted its own pavilion in the garden of which a searchlight was installed by Cerith Wyn Evans to broadcast in Morse code the early 18th-century poem by Ellis Wynne ‘Visions of the Sleeping Bard’. But news travels slowly in the solar system, and in the absence of any response so far from Welsh-speaking extraterrestrials, Bedwyr Williams has returned to celestial themes, in entertaining fashion, in his ‘Starry Messenger’, an installation at the deconsecrated church of Santa Maria Ausiliatrice in Castello.

Inspired by his fascination with Venetian terrazzo flooring, composed of marble and stone chips, and by his own star-gazing, Williams invites us to examine, through theatrically constructed sets and a surreal film, the similarities of what we see looking down a microscope and up through a telescope, and to assess our own microscopic existences as tiny component chips floating in this limitless universe.

Some of the most ambitious works appear outside the Biennale venues and official collateral exhibitions. Outstanding among these are shows by Jacob Hashimoto and Emily Young.

Jacob Hashimoto is an American-born artist of Japanese and Irish parentage. His ‘Gas Giant’ at Palazzo Querini Stampalia (until 1 September) fills the upper storey of the palazzo with a beautiful, billowing, cloud-like, thread-suspended sequence of around 8,000 translucent, pearly, patterned, bamboo-framed disks and panels through which visitors wander as in a delightful light-filled dream. He has spoken of these extraordinary confections as ‘having something to do with a general feeling of nostalgia rather than any direct relationship to my origins’.

The Church of Madonna dell’Orto was built in the 14th century after the discovery of a miraculous rough-hewn stone virgin in an orchard there. The lovely cloister of the church provides the ideal setting for Emily Young’s exhibition of her latest sculptures, We Are Stone’s Children (the show is open Fridays to Tuesdays until 26 August, then travels on in September to the Fine Art Society in London).

To create these works, Young carefully selects large pieces of patterned and veined rock and carves faces out of them that convey a strange sense of tranquillity and antiquity. In a process that she characterises as ‘a conversation between me and the piece of rock’, she leaves much of it untouched, ‘inviting people to see the beauty of the stone’, but nonetheless transforming and humanising this inanimate matter through her artful intervention.

The 55th Venice Biennale of Visual Arts is in the Giardini, Arsenale and other venues until 24 November.


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