Still pushing the boat out: The Venice Art Biennale is the wackiest cultural show in the world

But in an age of austerity many of the works have a serious side. David Lister on politics and partying at the pavilions.

David Lister@davidlister1
Friday 24 May 2013 19:48

Remember the paradise island of Tuvalu, the small Commonwealth territory where the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge danced in native costumes during the Jubilee tour last year? Tavalu's entry for the Venice Art Biennale next week will see artist Vincent J F Huang raising awareness of the climate crisis engulfing the island with his massive oil pump interactive/slaughter machine. People fill up for "petrol" while simultaneously "guillotining" Barack Obama's head.

William and Kate must regret missing a sneak preview of that one. Or maybe not.

Eat your heart out, Jeremy Deller. Whatever the former Turner Prize winner gives us as Britain's representative is unlikely to be quite as stomach-turning, sorry, artistically challenging, as that. Deller's work, like most of the national entries, is being kept under wraps until next week.

But enough can be discovered about some of the national pavilions to give a flavour of what is generally the wackiest, wildest and at the same time most political cultural show on Earth. It's hard to know whether the New Zealand pavilion is political. Its artist Bill Culbert will have an installation that includes second-hand tables and chairs – seemingly being lifted and spun through space – each one pierced by a single fluorescent light bulb. Perhaps it is the fact that they are second-hand that is the political statement. Age of austerity and all that.

A genuine insight into the age of austerity will be offered in the Greek pavilion. The artist Stefanos Tsivopoulos has made a film showing how the economic crisis has affected ordinary people in Greece, leading on to an exploration of the role of money in the formation of human relationships.

His film includes an African immigrant who wanders the streets of Athens pushing a supermarket trolley and collecting scrap metal to sell, and an art collector with dementia, who, living alone in a museum-like house, is consumed with creating origami flowers using euro banknotes. It is likely to offer a poignant and introspective look at the national psyche, though thankfully not as introspective as the American pavilion a few years ago when video artist Bill Viola showed a film of his good self in the shower, on continuous loop.

Only slightly more grotesque is the Macedonian pavilion this year, in which Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva will present an immersive installation using 907,000 silkworm cocoons, 700 albino rat skins and four live rats to reflect on the movement, migration and impact of medieval plagues through Western Europe and contemplate current concerns about international migratory diseases.

Great attention will be focused on the Chinese political dissident Al Weiwei who will have an installation in Venice. But the Venice Biennale has always been highly political, from the revolutionary art of the Sixties, which is still talked about, to the fact that in the 1930s the Biennale was run from the office of Sgnr Mussolini, which is never talked about.

The Biennale has long been acknowledged as the most important anywhere for identifying new trends in art, and the countries that are leading the field. It will also see the not always very dignified sight of the art world at play with numerous parties, receptions and a frenzy of networking. On top of this there will be more discreet soirées in beautiful palazzos where leading gallery directors, including the Tate's Sir Nicholas Serota, have in the past wooed wealthy patrons, and will no doubt do so next week.

That is a sign of the times, even if the setting of the Biennale is rooted in a different time, indeed in a time-warp. It has taken place for more than 100 years in national pavilions in the Giardini, vast gardens a couple of vaporetto stops from St Mark's Square. Enter these gardens and you enter a different century.

For the way the pavilions are laid out reflects the world of more than 100 years ago. Thus, the British pavilion is splendidly sited at the top of the Giardini, while the American pavilion is out on the edges. China doesn't get into the park at all. The British can hold their heads up in Venice every other June. Mind you, with Scotland and Wales both mounting exhibitions outside the Giardini, the use of the word British in the British Pavilion is increasingly questionable.

Wales's Bedwyr Williams's will take over a 16th-century church to pay homage to the world of amateur astronomy and personal heroes such as Phil Shepherdson, who built his own telescope out of baked-bean cans. Scotland will also celebrate national talent with three fine artists, who have all studied at the Glasgow School of Art, Corin Sworn, Duncan Campbell and Hayley Tompkins.

They and Deller will certainly not be the only British artists with work to be seen in Venice. A major exhibition will celebrate the work of Sir Anthony Caro, Britain's greatest living sculptor, in the historic setting of one of Venice's most celebrated museums, the Museo Correr. The exhibition will include seminal large steel works such as Red Splash (1966), Garland (1970), and Cadence (1968), as well as more recent sculptures. And for those with stronger stomachs, Marc Quinn will have a site-specific installation specially adapted for the island of San Giorgio titled Evolution – a series of 10 monumental flesh-pink marble sculptures representing foetuses at different stages of gestation.

The Biennale will throw up its imponderables that become must-sees. It's not entirely logical that the Nobel prize-winning South African novelist JM Coetzee should be co-curating the Belgium Pavilion, but the sculptures of Belgian artist Berlinde De Bruyckere combine a poetic beauty and brutal realism, which means that the work will be likely to make for rewarding viewing.”

But who can pretend they are just going for the art? There will be parties galore, There may not be one to rival that put on by Bloomberg a few years back, when the magnate simply bought up an uninhabited island near Venice, ferried guests out in a boat laden with champagne, and watched their jaws drop as they disembarked on the island with fairy lights illuminating the way across it. The Americans usually hold their party at the Peggy Guggenheim museum, a wonderful venue where you can step on to the rooftop terrace and see the view that Canaletto saw.

But, as it happens, one of the hippest shindigs next week well be that thrown by Wales. Entertainment will be provided by synth-pop duo Neon Neon – Gruff Rhys, of Super Furry Animals, and the producer Boom Bip. They will be joined by another local hero, singer Cate le Bon and... an Italian yodeller. As one tends to say quite a lot at the Venice Biennale, "don't ask."

Venice Art Biennale ( 1 June to 24 November

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