img.0 The Israel pavilion.
There is no escaping life’s big themes – the migration crisis, identity politics, populism, an uncertain future – at this year’s Venice Biennale. This, the 57th edition, is curated by the Pompidou Centre’s Christine Macel, under the title ‘Long Live Art’, and most countries have used their pavilions to remind us that the world needs our urgent attention. Antigua and Barbuda, Kiribati, and Nigeria are taking part for the first time bringing a total of 86 nations to the Giardini, the Arsenale and many of Venice’s finest palazzos, churches and galleries.
In the US pavilion, American artist Mark Bradford examines ‘the collapse of the centre’, while Australian artist Tracey Moffatt represents her country with photographs and film referencing migration and false history. A small, Russia-funded Syrian space on the island of Guidecca pays homage to the destroyed city of Palmyra. At the French pavilion, Xavier Veilhan’s live sound experiment hit all the high notes.
Other nations, though, have gone for a lighter touch. At the Finnish pavilion, two messianic figures, represented by talking animatronic puppets, visit the Finland they created millions of years earlier, and try to make sense of contemporary culture there. They, and their ‘findings’ are the work of artists Nathaniel Mellors and Erkka Nissinen. On Guidecca, the Icelandic pavilion is the final destination of Ūgh and Bõögâr, a pair of 36m tall trolls who journeyed from the Berlin studio of artist Egill Sæbjörnsson to Venice creating music, art, perfume and fashion along the way.
Equally eccentric are the outfits of many a biennale visitor, and offbeat performances pop up all over the city just when you’re least expecting them. Enter the mute and miserable man, who stood for hours near the tied-up mega yachts holding a tray of ice with a dead fish at his feet. What he symbolised was hard to fathom, but trying to decipher such seemingly random acts is part of the fun of the Venice Biennale.
With its mouldy floors and walls, peeling flock wallpaper and puzzle shaped floor panels filled with coffee dregs, the Israeli pavilion has been turned from a building of beauty into one of decay. Tel Aviv artist Gal Weinstein uses metallic wool, unraveled felt, pillow stuffing and mould to create sculptures and installations underpinned by historical and geographical references that lead to a post-apocalyptic scene. Weinstein also sees his project as a melancholic and poetic allegory of the Israeli story – one composed of miraculous acts and moments of enlightenment as well as neglect and destruction.
img.1 The Israel pavilion.
img.2 The Israel pavilion.
Daunted by the prospect of representing the UK, it was not until artist Phyllida Barlow saw the biennale as ‘a huge group show that reflects the state of the world’ that she was able to do the job. And she has done it with gusto. Every part of the British pavilion has been colonised by her colossal sculptures in timber, fabric, concrete and found materials, and so closely packed are they that you can get right up close in a way that a gallery rarely permits.
img.3 The Great Britain pavilion. Photography: Ruth Clark.
img.4 The Great Britain pavilion. Photography: Ruth Clark.
Tacky neon advertising motifs reminiscent of Las Vegas and Macau’s ‘casino capitalism’ decorate the exterior of the Korean pavilion. They are the work of Seoul-based artist Cody Choi who shares the pavilion with fellow Korean Lee Wan. Both artists evaluate life in Asia under capitalism, and Wan’s vast display of clocks records the number of hours people in various parts of the world have to labour to afford a meal.
img.5 Venetian Rhapsody – The Power of Bluff by Cody Choi. Photography: Riccardo Tosetto. Courtesy of the artist.
img.6 Proper Time: Though the Dreams Revolve with the Moon, and For a Better Tomorrow, 2017, both by Lee Wan. Courtesy of the artist.
The heads of visitors poking unwittingly through a hole in the floor of the Japanese pavilion makes for entertainment enough. That they are part of an installation featuring discarded clothing whose threads have been woven into roller coasters, railway tracks and towers, is even more intriguing. Architectural and industrial structures inspire artist Takahiro Iwasaki and alongside his drawings and models, the pavilion is filled with intricately carved wooden sculptures that are reflections and motifs of famous temples and shrines.
img.7 Turned Upside Down, It’s a Forest. Photography: Keizo Kioku. Courtesy of the Japan Foundation and URANO. © Takahiro Iwasaki.
img.8 Out of Disorder (Turned Upside Down, It’s a Forest), 2017. Photography: Keizo Kioku. Courtesy of the Japan Foundation and URANO. © Takahiro Iwasaki.
For its first appearance at the biennale since 1958, the Tunisians have set up two ‘checkpoints’ across the city along with a central issuing centre in the Sale d’Armi building in the Arsenale. Manned by genuine migrants (who have been granted 60-day visas, board, lodging and a wage by curator Lina Lazaar) each checkpoint grants a ‘travel document’ to anyone wanting one. Designed by the company that makes Schengen visas, they resemble real passports and require only a thumbprint for validation.
img.9 The Tunisian pavilion.
img.10 The Tunisian pavilion.
It took Singaporean artist Zai Kuning three weeks on site in the Arsenale to construct his 17m long sailing ship. Made from rattan, string and beeswax, it’s the fifth such vessel created by Zai, who has spent years focusing on the seafaring peoples who occupied the South Seas before the lands were separated by politics. His artworks refer to ancient Malay kings, lost trading cities, customs, rituals and threatened communities, among them the orang laut, believed to be the first people of Singapore.
img.11 Zai Kuning , Dapunta Hyang Transmission of Knowledge, 2017.
img.12 The Singaporish pavilion.
Tbilisi-born artist Vajiko Chachkhiani has reassembled an abandoned wooden house, which he found in the Georgian countryside, in the Arsenale. He has filled it with typically rustic furniture and a few simple objects. It’s the real thing in every way, apart from the permanent rainstorm beating down inside. Water crashes upon its walls floor and furniture for the duration of the biennale, and visitors can witness its transformation from quaint rural dwelling to moss covered shell.
img.13 Photography: Maria Nitulescu
img.14 Photography: Maria Nitulescu
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