Young Brits scandalise the Biennale establishment

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The Independent Online


For any international gathering of the art world, the most salient question is who can cause the most outrage.

The early betting here in Venice was on the United States "video artist" Bill Viola, who recently gave his mother 15 minutes of fame that even Andy Warhol would not have contemplated. He exhibited a video he shot of her on her deathbed.

In the US pavilion today, Viola has a video of himself in the shower. This is not untypical of the art at the Biennale which officially opens to the public tonight. Country after country has, to the disquiet of many critics, forsaken painting for "video art". The consequence is long queues as the hi-tech inevitably breaks down, just as Viola's did at the press opening, at this biennial showing of the world's efforts to show the best in contemporary art.

A different problem beset the Israeli pavilion where the installation artist Joshua Neustein's exploration of the relationship between anarchist and archivist involved setting up a library complete with hundreds of books, stepladders and computers. Unfortunately, many visitors assumed it was a library and walked straight past.

But the greatest outrage has been attempted by the top-level British contingent here in Venice - not by the official entry, the veteran painter of impressionistic London life, Leon Kossoff, who is among the favourites to win the top prize - but by setting up a fringe show of young British artists.

It has all but sparked an international incident of which the Princess of Wales, visiting the British pavilion, was unaware.

The show has been put on by the British Council in part of a 17th-century monastery near the Biennale site, seemingly in contravention of the wishes of Jean Clair, the former head of the Picasso Museum in Paris, who is running this year's Biennale. Mr Clair had decreed that there should be no "Aperto" this year, the Biennale fringe in which dozens of countries are funded by the Biennale to show the most daring of their youthful contemporary art. But the British Council, whose visual arts advisory committee is chaired by Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate Gallery in London, has defied him and rented out the monastery's school. At a reception to launch the Young Brits show, Mr Serota did not attempt to hide the Anglo- French dispute, or the parallel battle of conceptual versus figurative art that lies just beneath the surface. He said: "I am sorry that Jean Clair has cancelled the Aperto. And while he has squashed the Aperto he is projecting his own line in figurative painting. In the exhibition in which he is involved he has chosen artists including Freud and Bacon. The Biennale has always been about looking forward. It's absurd to say ... that younger artists are not making interesting and vital art."

However, the British gesture did not win universal praise. The show includes: droplet-shaped glass vessels with a dark red solution, positioned to create the impression that the building's walls are bleeding; a film of a window shot at night with a foreground tree in silhouette; and several video installations.

The show was scorned by Karen Wright, the editor of Modern Painters magazine. She said: "How can you go from Kossoff to that? It's meaningless. It's one-line jokes trying to take themselves seriously."