The 57th Venice Biennale

'"Another day, another cock'" might have been a better title for the 57th Venice Biennale."

Lisa Hilton

Lisa Hilton (right) takes part in ZenMaster Fu’s ambulant sleep project

Crossing the Punto della Dogana at the top of Dorsoduro to catch the vaporetto to the Biennale pavilions, I passed a uniformed maid cleaning one of Damien Hirst’s faux-archaeological torsos from his show Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable. She caught my eye morosely as she flicked her duster over the statue’s engorged penis. “Another day, another cock” might have been a better title for the 57th Venice Biennale. At Fondazione Prada, a Marigold-gloved sex worker is filmed lighting a cigarette as she manipulates a rubbery member; Jan Fabre’s otherwise poised retrospective at San Gregorio features one in a mosaic of human bone. At Campo San Vio, James Lee Byars’s Golden Tower looms over the Grand Canal. It’s — big. Along with the penises, the pavilions’ most dominant theme this year is, unsurprisingly, migration, though if the visitors are really interested in the refugee crisis they might more profitably spend theirtime in the lavatories, patiently manned by a squad of extra-communitari.

For those planning to visit the exhibition, curated this year by Christine Macel, the following handy checklist may usefully outline what is to be expected. Verbose art-speak explanation of the artist’s concept, video screen, vaguely Philip Glass-ish surround soundtrack, random found objects. Confrontation, transgression and disruption occur frequently and the imperialist gaze is never far away. There is also some delicious complimentary fudge at the Latvian pavilion, whilst at the Belgian exhibit, Dirk Braeckman makes a novel offering of analogue photography. Other than that, it’s mostly cock, not that this matters in the least, because Biennale is nothing to do with art and everything to do with a flatteringly intellectual knees-up in the most beautiful artwork known to man — Venice itself. Don’t ask too much of the installations and you’re guaranteed a good time.

View of “Qwalala” by Pae White, at Le Stanze del Vetro until July 30 (photo ©Enrico Fiorese)

Installation view of “Ettore Sottsass: The Glass” at Le Stanze del Vetro until July 30 (photo ©Enrico Fiorese)

Angst is a convenient deflection tactic for contemporary art. At the Czech pavilion, Jana Zelibska has “sardonically drawn attention to the ready-made objects” which surround us by plonking a group of them — in this case inflatable swans — in the middle of the floor. Presumably producing a unique object would have lacked that ironic edge. If a work purports to be politically engaged, it becomes more difficult to criticise either the poverty of the artist’s imagination or the ineptitude of its execution. Many of this year’s installations express an anxiety about language, a desire to transcend its limitations — at the Mexican pavilion, for example, assistants give out a whole newspaper printed in an imagined script — yet whilst this gesture at the ambiguous potentiality of verbal communication might seem a gesture at defining suspicion of the written word in this era of fake news, most of the pavilions depend almost entirely on precisely that to contextualise their attempts at meaning. The press pack for the Giardini alone weighed about three kilos. The effect is paradoxically anti-visual, since if we need to be told so earnestly what it is we are seeing, then perhaps all we are seeing is words. Equally, few of the installations lack a screen, as though the artists’ confidence can only be nannied into being by the familiarity of a device. Speaking of nannying, visitors to the Israeli pavilion at Arsenale take note: the exhibit consists of a “fungus garden” grown from mouldy coffee which really ought to carry a health warning. I saw one lady faint before she could make it into the fresh air. 

In contrast, the Icelandic pavilion on Giudecca joyfully rejects angst in favour of a surreal adult circus, virtually conducted by two giant trolls who chat about life while casually gobbling up tourists. Out of Controll (sic) in Venice is about as politically profound as CBeebies, but it’s terrific fun.

Part of “Life in the Folds”, 2017, by Carlos Amorales at the Mexico Pavilion (©Carlos Amorales)

Detail of “The Hermit Saints Triptych” by Hieronymus Bosch, 1495-1500 (© Archivio fotografico Gallerie dell’Accademia)

However, there are some truly beautiful things to be sought out this year, by artists who actually, you know, make stuff. Venetian glass gets a bad rap, usually associated with hideous tourist trinkets, but at Palazzo Franchetti, the Glasstress collective reinvent this functional, industrial material with dazzling technical expertise and wit. In this city of dazzle and sparkle, the luminous virtuosity of sculptures constructed from layered shards of paper-thin glass possesses a vicious seductiveness — touch and you’ll bleed. Another standout show is Pae White’s Qwalala, curated by London-based gallerist Cornelia Grassi in collaboration with Le Stanze del Vetro on the island of San Giorgio. White has cast 3,000 individual glass bricks, each one unique, to build a twining wall 75 metres long. Infused with pigments adopted from first-century Roman glassmaking sulphur, copper and manganese, they are each discretely wondrous — seen together they are sorcery. The companion show to White’s radiant masterpiece is a retrospective of Ettore Sottsass, commemorating the tenth anniversary of the sculptor’s death. White and Sottsass are alchemists; the formal purity of their works requires no explanation beyond their own hypnotic loveliness.

As an escape from the teeming pavilions, I would also suggest the Bosch and Venice show at the Doge’s Palace. Based around three recently restored triptych panels, the show eerily illuminates the terrifying perversity of Bosch’s imagination in a manner far more haunting than anything on offer in the Biennale programme. Surrealism starts here, but you can take part in your own immersively surreal experience just outside on the Arsenale bridge, by participating in ZenMaster Fu’s ambulant sleep project. Frank Fu offers Biennalists the chance to lie down on a red portable mattress laid on the paving stones to sleep next to him for as long as they wish. Cuddling is optional — he’s willing if you are — and the ZenMaster times each nap with a stopwatch. I had a lovely 29 minutes and 54 seconds of being an artwork, and very relaxing it was too. Lying down is also the key to one of Venice’s most transcendent art experiences, the Tiepolo ceilings at the Carmelite convent in Campo Santa Margherita. Go early, to the first floor, lie down flat on the marble and allow yourself to be elevated into a pagan heaven whose central vanishing point echoes the heavenly portal of Bosch’s Paradiso. It may not be disruptive, but it certainly is art. 

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