Poet and author Tony Curtis takes us on a dazzling tour of the city of Venice in this Art Biennale year and puts Wales in Venice into a global context.
In the first week of June, I visited this year’s Venice Art Biennale, which runs from the 11th of May to the 24th of November. The curator is American Ralph Rugoff who has chosen the title May You Live in Interesting Times. As always there is a bewildering display of contemporary art from many countries as well as concurrent commercial and individual artists showing new work in a wide variety of venues, from vacant shops to de-commissioned churches, and in some of the grandest and most prestigious Palazzos and churches in the city. This is the most comprehensive exposure of international contemporary art in the context of some of the most beautiful buildings and Old Master artworks of the European tradition. This year is the fifty-eighth such event and is focused on the Arsenale, the former ship-building areas on which the naval power of Venice was based, and the formal and traditional “pavilions” of the original determining nations from a hundred and twenty years ago in the Giardino.
For the last four biennales, Wales has been situated in the Chiesi Santa Maria Ausiliatrice at the end of the Via Garibaldi close to the Arsenale. Whilst this location is more central than the previous – a former brewery on the Giudecca – there are constrictions in terms of the size and number of the rooms. Each artist must also decide how to screen off or incorporate the altar painting. Sean Edwards has brought the altar work into his piece, as the question of Catholicism and his mother’s background in Northern Ireland proves central to his theme.
In fact, his autobiographical exploration and celebration of his working-class upbringing in the Llanederyn district of Cardiff is the subject of his installation. The altar may only be approached through a web of curved wood splints, each bearing text or partial images. In one room four commissioned quilts to hang, with a bound collection of Edwards’s blurred, black and white photographs of Llanederyn thrown on the floor. In another, a period tv monitor shows dominoes being played (on the day I visited, this had broken down and we were told that “an engineer was flying over from Wales to fix it”). In yet another room Nails (or Inheriting Absence) is a large photograph of the artist’s fingernails bitten nervously to the quick.
In two further rooms, there are speakers through which at two o’clock every afternoon Edwards’s mother broadcasts a reading of the same twenty-minute script written by the artist. This last contribution is facilitated by National Theatre Wales but seems close to pointless. The script, which does not vary, is at times stilted, and over the six months of the Biennale poor, Mrs Edwards must surely tire of the whole exercise. Unless, of course, it really is a recording and that artifice is part of the piece. The screens and quilts have a repeating pattern of UN, UN or M, M. to represent the two tabloids which determined the news aspect of working-class life in the Edwards household: The Sun was strictly forbidden and The Mirror was the source of true news.
On one wall is a framed poster which reads: “Free School Dinners”. This is given more resonance by the fact that the children from the nursery school attached to the rear of the building have to access the shared toilet through this room. In a way, they become part of the installation. Sean Edwards may be said to have answered the challenge of the Chiesi, but, as with many autobiographical works, one is left feeling that the conjunction of artefacts and art is loose and arbitrary. I am of an earlier generation, and part of the apparently respectable aspirant working for classes in west Wales, but my engagement with working-class life in north Cardiff will owe more to the witty and irreverent autobiographical novel The Vegetarian Tigers of Paradise by Crystal Jeans, than to this installation in Venice.
About the official British pavilion, there is little to add to the poor press response. Cathy Wilkes has installed strange and unengaging pot-bellied figures amidst strewn furniture and objects: this cannot be her strongest work. Neither is the video by Turner Prize-winner Charlotte Prodger who shows in a disused boatyard just a short walk from Sean Edwards. This is the official Scotland showing. Prodger’s work continues to address lesbian and gender issues with SaFo5 taking its title from a lioness with a mane (and therefore, it is claimed, gender issues) rarely filmed in Botswana. Questions of gender, sexuality, queerness and the survival of the planet are very evident in this Biennale: art may no longer feel it has to mimetically represent our life in the world, but it inevitably reflects the concerns we feel we must address, or are told that we ought to address.
Of the other official pavilions at Giardini, the USA has a strong showing by sculptor Martin Puryear and Canada’s pavilion has a compelling Inuit collective produced film One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk dramatising the threat to traditional ways of the first nation’s lives.
Art as paintings and sculpture reflecting the world are strongly represented this year, but mainly in the major buildings of Venice and parallel to the Biennale. For example, in the Jewish Museum in the Ghetto the ceramic artist Edmund de Waal, prize-winning author of The Hare With Amber Eyes, has installed Psalm a series of his small and delicate porcelain vessels. His work is extremely minimalist (see the cabinet in the National Museum of Wales) but seems apt for the tragic context of the world’s first ghetto.
Perhaps the most prestigious of the locations outside the actual Biennale is the Church of San Georgio Maggiore on an island just opposite St Mark’s Square and the Doge’s Palace. Sean Scully, the American-based, Irish-born artist, is arguably the most successful living British painter. He has been given the major space of this church in which to exhibit this year and, like Anish Kapoor before he has chosen a monumental sculpture for the nave. His column of coloured canvas blocks is so big that you are encouraged to walk inside and view the sky through the church’s dome. Scully also has numerous sketchbooks, notes and fourteen paintings on show. At his best, he has the mystery and power to engage the viewer in the manner of Mark Rothko. There is too a very rare figurative work – a triptych of his family on the beach in the Bahamas – blocks of colour within strong lines.
A retrospective of the comparatively neglected painter Helen Frankenthaler was organised by the Gagosian gallery in the Palazzo Grimani. A contemporary of Pollack, de Kooning and Warhol, her Abstract Expressionist works sing their poetry wonderfully in this context. It is a reminder of long-standing gender inequalities in the arts.
In the magnificence of the Palazzo Grassi, which at the last Biennale hosted Damion Hirst’s critically slated Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, we are on safer ground this year with a retrospective of the significant Belgian painter Luc Tuymans – “La Pelle”. In over seventy painting he prods and challenges us into unsettling situations and interrogates the history of the last century. Here is his “Schwarzheide” laid as a marble re-flooring in the Palazzo; it reproduces a drawing from Alfred Kantor, a concentration camp survivor who smuggled out his artwork.
Then, as one walks over the mosaic, through the columns and up the stairs one is faced by “Secrets”, a 1990 portrait of the Nazi Albert Speer.
The Palazzo Mora on the Strada Nuova over its several floors always has a rich assembly of artists, from the tiny atoll nation of Kiribati which is imminently threatened by rising seas – “Pacific Time/ Time Passes” – to established artists such as Daniel Pešta from the Czech Republic whose video “The Chain” satirises the ritualistic practices of secret business cabals as one by one a group of men sets fire to each other’s arms. It is powerful and I hope it will be more widely available on the web, as is his earlier work.
In the Ca’D’Oro is Dysfunctional, works by eighteen contemporary artists, one of which was this witty Brexit piece positioned in front of a Van de Velde sea-scape. This magnificent palace on the Grand Canal always juxtaposes contemporary art in a provocative way with its traditional paintings and sculptures.
Venice has, of course, its own concerns about sinking and on my second day there the city was again threatened by the absurdly large liners which belly their way down the Grand Canal on their Med and Adriatic cruises. The MSC Opera crashed into a smaller river cruiser and one of the annual Venice regattas had to be cancelled as a consequence. Immediately the arguments for limiting visitor numbers and banning large ships from the city were again voiced. The turbulence of their powerful engines may be eroding the foundations of the building along the Grand Canal; certainly, from the cocktail terrace of the Molino Stucky hotel on the Guidecca, their size outlined against the palaces of Venice is disturbing. Two days later, on June 4th, protest posters appeared on the streets and protest marches took place that weekend.
Even more profoundly disturbing was the inclusion in the Biennale of this ship. She is propped on the side of a quay in the Arsenale as a holed and rusting hulk. The Swiss-Icelandic artist Cristoph Büchel was responsible for it, and it has proved hugely contentious. This fishing vessel was wrecked with anything up to a thousand migrants on board. Büchel negotiated the challenges of ownership and legitimacy to move the boat from a naval base in Sicily. There it stands; you have to walk past it to complete the showings at the Arsenale; there is no title and no mention of the artist and no context. It is very chilling and takes to a new level the concept of interventions and the appropriation of the object brought into a gallery world. We’ve come a long way from Marcel Duchamp’s urinal.
Elsewhere in the winding ancient ship-building workshops of the Arsenale, there are both individual artists on the show as well as some nationally sponsored exhibits. Eva Rothschild shows for Ireland and her sculptural arrangements are always unsettling. I entered into the spirit of her humour and answered the challenge of the Irish custodian to climb up the blocks of apparently degrading plastic which formed one of the three pieces on show. Venice makes you move out of your comfort zone.
At the beginning of the very long Arsenale walk is Ed Atkins’s installation “Old Food” – clothes hanging, drawings and videos which includes the very witty video of bizarre sandwiches being assembled and then dissipated. Sauce covers bodies and faces and toy figures and, in one instance, the Union Flag; Brexit as a hash-up again. Atkins is a 37-year-old lecturer at Goldsmith’s; evidently a rising star, and his fascination with “the suck and bloom of death and decay” is compelling. As are the Black News video installations of updated and period African American newsreels fixed in a backdrop panel of First World War Black GI recipients of the Croix de Guerre. This by Kahlil Joseph – “BLKNWS” 2018 and ongoing…
In the cloisters of the Madonna dell Orto, Tintoretto’s local church in the Cannaregio district where I was staying, is showing the work of Nic Fiddler Green, the English sculptor whose characteristic horse’s head drinking is now a feature at Hyde Park Corner. There are over a dozen heads exhibited here, as well as drawings, etchings and two simple crucifixes. It is difficult to imagine a more apt context for these works; they complement the church and its remarkable Tintorettoes, including the magnificent “The Virgin Being Presented to the Temple” of 1550.
This, the “English Church”, and its cloisters was immediately next door to our apartment. In Venice in a Biennale year or otherwise, you are always living with art.