The Venice Biennale has been a rite of every second spring since 1895. The oldest biennial art fair in the world, it’s the one on which all the others are based. Australia has only been participating since 1954 — starting with Sidney Nolan, Russell Drysdale and William Dobell. This year, it’s Tracey Moffatt, the first solo Indigenous artist to represent the country.
Moffatt’s art deliberately re-invents history, mixing the grit of dispossession and disadvantage with the glamour of Hollywood. A film splices images of the asylum-seeker boat that smashed on the rocks of Christmas Island with shots of Elizabeth Taylor, Cary Grant, Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland — who peer, aghast, at the scene of devastation through slatted windows or sunglasses. The arrival of the First Fleet is captured on an old camera supposedly left behind by Captain Cook and recorded on film made from boiled pigs’ hooves. A series of photographs portray Moffatt wearing a maid’s outfit near a deserted house in a desolate landscape while another series shows ‘40s-era film noir characters on a harbour in the mist. The intoxicating alchemy of Moffatt’s admixture elevates it above the leaden social activism that weighs down much of the Biennale. The American entrant, Mark Bradford, is obviously ashamed of the Trump government — maybe the feeling is mutual — although the smartly-dressed US consul doesn’t give a hint of disapproval that Bradford has turned the once immaculate pavilion into a bit of a tip to show his contempt.
Indigenous soprano Debra Cheetham kicks off Moffatt’s opening with a haunting song and George Miller, director of films as diverse, celebrated (and, let’s admit it, commercially successful) as Mad Max, Babe and Happy Feet, meditates on the creative process. It seems safe to say commercial success is an uncomfortable concept for the broader crowd at this extremely well-heeled art fair. How does one even purchase a performance that involves refugees making green geodesic lights, which sell for 250 euros? It seems peculiarly like a colonial-era exhibit of ‘noble savages’. Moffatt is a hit with the crowds. More than 6,000 people visit the pavilion on the opening day, three times the number for the Australian at the previous biennale. Amongst the throng are their royal Highnesses: Princess Beatrice often flies the flag for her granny and Princess Eugenie works at The Hauser and Wirth gallery in London. They — like thousands around Venice — were seen sporting the Australian Biennale bag, emblazoned with the words Indigenous Rights on one side and Refugee Rights on the other.
It’s hip, but not unhappy enough, for the judges who give the Golden Lion to the angst-ridden Germans. The German Pavilion has history — it was once a Nazi shrine to Hitler and Mussolini — but the link between its odious past and the award-winning five-hour performance piece is obscure. Unkempt youths shuffle around above and below a glass floor, under which are a mattress, spoons and handcuffs. The critics say the Dobermans fenced in at the front of the pavilion are menacing, but they seem far more engaging than the mirthless Goth performers — the dogs at least wag their tails and enjoy themselves. The judges say the installation poses urgent questions for our times. One might be: why is this considered the best work at the Biennale?
Across the Grand Canal at the Punta de la Dogana museum, enfant terrible Damien Hirst is denounced as cynical — no doubt because his show is intended to be commercially successful, meaning he creates objects that others would like to own. The smart set damn his shows as ‘a disaster’ and ‘devoid of ideas’… a quality that seems merciful to those being boxed around the ears by jejune polemicists. Like Moffatt, Hirst invents history. He creates the tale that the works, titled Treasures from the Shipwreck of the Unbelievable, were collected by a freed slave in the 1st century who lost them all when the ship transporting them – the Apistos, or Unbelievable – sank. Twenty centuries later, Hirst says he dredged them from the deep. It’s hard not to be entranced by these extraordinary sculptures and objects – one 20 metres high – made of marble or gold and transformed by their watery resting place. The haul includes everything from Kali fighting a hydra to an Aztec calendar and Mickey Mouse. They evoke Ariel’s Song in The Tempest:
Full fathom five thy father lies; of his bones are coral made; those are pearls that were his eyes; nothing of that doth fade, but doth suffer a sea-change, into something rich and strange.
Predictably, Hirst has been labelled an ‘art thief’ and the show has been denounced for cultural appropriation by a New York-based Nigerian who wrote that young Nigerian contemporary artists will someday be told by ‘a long nose critic’ that their work resembles that of Damien Hirst.
Through the crumbling iron bars of the Punta de la Dogana, the old customs house, one sees the city spires, floating between sea and sky, east and west, like the phantasmagoria of an opium eater.
All the world may be a stage but nothing so looks the part as Venice. In the week before the Biennale, le beau monde descends on this most imaginary of cities, magnificent wraiths, strutting the cobblestones and gliding down the canals, draped in finery.
The Australian contingent, led by Naomi Milgrom, can hold their own with the best of them. Milgrom not only chose Moffatt but drove fundraising that contributed around $2 million to the cost of Australia’s presence and put together a spectacular program for a couple of hundred champion philanthropists. From rubbing shoulders with Venetian Count Francesco da Mosto in his 15th century palazzo to sipping cocktails on the terrace of the Guggenheim with the director, or listening to Cheetham and the Australian String Quartet in the Scuola dei Frari, it was a week for even the most world-weary art lover to remember.
Rebecca Weisser is a research associate at the Centre for Independent Studies and a member of the Board of the Australia Council for the Arts. She travelled to Venice at her own expense.