Sydney Morning Herald Column

53rd Venice Biennale

Published June 20, 2009
Yelena Vorobyeva & Viktor Vorobyev, Artist Asleep, 1998, Installation (bed in front), Central Asia pavillon

Making Worlds – Fare Mondi is the theme for this year’s Venice Biennale, the 53rd installment of the world’s leading contemporary art exhibition. In the words of Daniel Birnbaum, the Swedish-born, Frankfurt-based director, the title expresses a wish “to emphasise the process of creation.” This may sound a very modest ambition but Birnbaum does have more to say: “A work of art represents a vision of the world, and if taken seriously it can be seen as a way of making a world.”
“If taken seriously” seems to be the key ingredient in this sentence, because it is almost impossible for anyone who is not a complete art android to respond to such airy, all-encompassing statements with the smallest degree of seriousness. It is the standard Biennale directors’ rationale for showing anything and everything.
After a few days spent traipsing around the national pavilions in the Giardini, the voluminous displays in the Arsenale, and the almost indistinguishable mix of private and public shows scattered all over this picturesque, labyrinthine city, I humbly offer an alternative theme: The Apotheosis of the Queue.

Although queues have been a feature of Biennale press previews for years, this time around they were almost obligatory. One queued for the United States’ pavilion, for the Nordic pavilions, for the French, the Dutch, even the Roumanian. Those connoisseurs of the queue, the British, managed to outdo everyone by insisting that visitors register in the morning for a viewing of a half-hour film by Steve McQueen, who had insisted that only fifty people at a time should be admitted.
By all accounts McQueen – not to be confused with his American namesake, who appeared in highly entertaining movies such as The Getaway – turned out to be an even greater prima donna than Tracey Emin, the previous occupant of the British Pavilion. Emin insisted on a certain thread count in her hotel sheets and a private boat, so one can barely imagine what McQueen must have required. He has allegedly announced that after this show he no longer wishes to be known as a visual artist, but as a film director
The film itself, Giardini, is a self-consciously ‘poetic’ look at the Biennale’s main exhibition area in the off-season. Rain drips, poetically; insects crawl around, poetically; and a pack of greyhounds rummage poetically through piles of garbage. Towards the end of this nail-biter, a couple of blokes meet up in the dark for a cuddle. Inevitably, one met people who thought it was “brilliant”, “the best thing in the Biennale!” Personally, I felt I was watching a film school exercise deserving of no more than a credit. It was a dull, empty piece of filmmaking that strived towards pretentiousness but ran out of steam. It may be a little early for McQueen to sell up in London and move to Hollywood.
The psychology of the queue is that it creates a sense of heightened expectation. When a show fails to meet these expectations the disappointment is more intense, but people still hang around trying to justify the minutes spent standing in line. The wait proved more rewarding in regards to Fiona Tan in the Dutch pavilion, whose major film-work did a pretty good impersonation of the subjective documentaries of Chris Marker. On a large screen the camera roamed over a room full of plundered treasures and curiosities; on another, one was confronted by jarring contemporary views of Asia. The voice-over was taken from Marco Polo’s travels, used in such a way that it was filled with ironies.
Tan, who is of Chinese descent, was born in Indonesia and raised in Australia. She now lives in the Netherlands, making her a truly globalised artist. On the strength of this piece and the warm response it generated, she is poised for elevation to the big time. Maybe we should try and lure her back to Australia, as we do with prodigal footballers.
The queue in front of the United States pavilion led to a very flimsy selection of works by Bruce Nauman, who is now one of the untouchable Gods of international art. The pavilion display consisted of heads cast in rubbery plastic, attached to various devices, while other aspects of Nauman’s work were explored in two satellite shows housed in different parts of Venice. Time did not permit me to visit these shows, but as Nauman specialises in irritating and frustrating the viewer, I didn’t feel too disappointed. It was an inevitability that the artist would be awarded the Golden Lion, no matter what or where he showed.
The Silver Lion for an emerging artist went to Nathalie Djurberg, a Swedish maker of lurid floral sculptures and claymation videos. Her film, which featured naked Barbies doing unspeakable things to each other under the lustful gaze of ecclesiastical Inquisitors, was one of the few items in Birnbaum’s main pavilion that genuinely captured one’s attention. In a show dominated by tepid, formal work, Djurberg’s psycho-sexual pantomime was an obvious stand-out.

In other pavilions, the Russians again produced some remarkably fresh, humorous work in Pavel Pepperstein’s small drawings of imaginary monuments of the future; the Scandinavians pooled their resources in an elaborate, camp spoof on interior design and private collectors. In the Japanese pavilion, an interesting artist, Miwa Yanagi, showed grotesque, manipulated photos of shamanistic amazons, which left most viewers – myself included – feeling utterly non-plussed.
The Germans have apparently run out of artists because they chose to show work by the cynical British conceptualist, Liam Gillick, who installed a mass of unpainted kitchen cabinets and an animatronic cat. If this doesn’t lead to widespread anger and upheaval in the German art world, they are too anaesthetised to care. The Greeks did something similar in handing over their pavilion to who has been an American artist for his entire working life. Their reward was a desperate, messy collection of photo-works by an aging New York superstar in precipitous decline.

And so we come to the Australian pavilion, devoted to Shaun Gladwell’s MADDESTMAXIMUS project. This consisted of a replica of Mad Max’s hotted-up ‘interceptor’ car; a motor-bike partially embedded in the black-painted, outer wall of the pavilion, and a suite of video pieces. The main feature was a film called Apology to Roadkill, in which Gladwell, a motorcyclist clad in black leather, parked by the side of an outback highway and cradled a succession of dead kangaroos.
As usual, with Gladwell’s videos, the action was slow and apparently pointless. There was an obvious reference to Joseph Beuys’s famous performance where he explained paintings to a dead hare. I’m only sorry Shaun didn’t lift his visor and give each carcass the kiss of life. In Blair French’s catalogue essay, which is an anthology of theoretical clichés, there is one splendid moment when he seeks to relate Gladwell’s Apology to Roadkill to Kevin07’s apology to indigenous Australians – before realising that there may be something slightly insulting in comparing Aborigines to roadkill.
I’ve always been strangely immune to the enthusiasm that has grown up around Shaun Gladwell’s videos, but I’d hoped that this display would be more persuasive. Instead, the exhibition peddled a depressing load of exotic ‘Australiana’ to overseas audiences, dropping gratuitous references to George Miller’s Mad Max films, which – by any standards – are far superior works of art. There was a small catalogue for the plebs and a deluxe catalogue published by Schwartz City, for true believers. As well as Blair French’s piece, the latter contained an essay by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, the director of the 2008 Sydney Biennale, who provided this extraordinary insight into life in Australia:
“To an outsider, this work may even suggest one of the most poignant of Australia’s ‘western’ characteristics – feeling ‘down-under’ and the need to reconfigure constantly the parameters of one’s own spatio-temporality which have been inevitably and originally altered and severed.”
Most readers will be familiar with the experience of having to reconfigure the old spatio-temporality every morning, before heading off to work.
An Australian satellite show put together by Felicity Fenner, featuring work by Sean Cordeiro and Claire Healy, Vernon Ah Kee and Ken Yonetani, presented a more engaging view of Australian art. The highlight was Cordeiro and Healy’s Life Span – a towering cube made out of 195,774 plastic video cassettes whose total running time represents the average human life span. This acted as an unusual but effective memento mori – a sense of how little time we have in life, and how easily it is frittered away. Sitting by the piece – hopefully not wasting his time – was the duo’s hard-working dealer, Barry Keldoulis.
On the same day there was hardly an Australian to be found at the official pavilion, which is being managed by a German public relations firm. It is clear that we have reached a new peak of international sophistication when we can sell dead ‘roos’ to the world using German expertise.
53rd Venice Biennale, June 1-November 23, 2009

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, June 20, 2009