Venice Biennale, Venice, Italy
Britain's chosen artist, Steve McQueen, shuns the biennale razzmatazz to screen an intriguing film about Venice
On Tuesday night, my vaporetto passed a submarine, moored by a palazzo and decorated alla Tiziano. On Wednesday morning, I was beckoned aboard a tourist boat – sorry, installation – taken over by a Belgian and re-christened 100 Sexes des Artistes.
Was that before the Canadian cheerleaders and the smoking Dominican handing out flyers? I forget. There are rumours of zeppelins. All of which is to say that the 53rd Venice Biennale is kicking off, and to raise a question: what is Steve McQueen doing here?
The answer is obvious: McQueen is this year's British artist, an honour no sane man would refuse. And McQueen is sane, and something more – he is very serious, very intense, wants his work to be seen quietly and without distraction; certainly without zeppelins. Which may be why he is standing at the door to the British Pavilion looking like a bouncer, and why what faces you as you enter that pavilion is a blank wall.
Film is an odd choice of medium for an artist obsessed with control. Paintings and sculptures are by and large static; films change. If you give a painting 10 minutes of your time, you have missed nothing; if you give a half-hour film 10 minutes, you have missed two-thirds of it. This fact may have been brought home to McQueen by making a feature film, Hunger, last year. At any rate, the wall that faces you as you enter the British Pavilion is the back of a rake of seats – McQueen's own one-man, one-film cinema, to which you will be admitted in timed slots of 30 minutes.
The effect is mesmerising. Out there, all is Biennale. In here, all is order – two screens, side by side, on which Giardini, McQueen's Venice offering, dances around itself. To every thing, there is an immaculately pitched anti-thing. We are emphatically – enforcedly – inside, but the subject of Giardini is, as its name suggests, outside: Venice's public gardens, the site of the Biennale, of cheerleaders and smoking Dominicans; of the pavilion in which we sit. Apart from the five months in alternate years when they become an art ghetto, the giardini are parks. A series of doubles, they are rich material for McQueen's dualistic eye: rus in urbe, the country in the town; land defined by water, a place of before and after.
Giardini finds the gardens in their post-art, pre-art state, with dogs (rather than art-dogs) roaming their dusty streets – loping greyhounds, dualistically heraldic and scary. McQueen's un-story unfolds in doubles too. On the left screen, the dogs are head-on, sniffing at the portico of some deserted temple; on the right they are sideways, one black, one brindled. Occasionally a screen blanks out, leaving its fellow to carry on; sometimes both do. At moments, Giardini seems to be about to tell us a story. (Narrative and non-narrative are more of its filmic twins.) By day, the gardens are a place of dogs and old ladies, by night they are a gay cruising ground. Now, each screen shows a man – one black, one white – who eventually meet on the same screen and embrace.
Or do they? As with McQueen's 1993 film, Bear, the line between that other double act – sex and death – seems perilously fine here. These men may be snogging or they may be killing each other. They may not be gay at all: McQueen played the part of one of the nude (and apparently homoerotic) wrestlers in Bear, and he has a wife and child. I would certainly be wary of finding moral content in his work, but it is tempting to say this. Just as Giardini's double screens make it difficult to know where to look, so they make it hard for us to know how to.
There is a moment in McQueen's wonderful new film that sums it up – and sums him up – for me. On one screen a spider sits on tree bark, on the other a mite. The spider has disguised itself, its colours mimicking the bark. The mite, by contrast, is red, presumably to announce its unpalatability to spiders. McQueen, I'd say, is a spider, although he's just as interested in mites, as intrigued by their strategy. Every now and then, I'm reminded of my good fortune in being a critic, and seeing Giardini in the Giardini is such a moment. I know Venice is far away and that there are other things to do there, but make the trip for McQueen, if you can.
Continues until 22 Nov
For more information, see www.britishcouncil.org/venicebiennale
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