Wednesday 30 October 2019

Venice Biennale - Giardini Pavilions

While I want to write about the Venice Biennale while it is still fresh in mind, there is so much about it to unpack that I can only skim the surface. My first day at the Biennale was spent at the Giardini viewing most of the national pavilions and the second part of the curated exhibition "May You Live in Interesting Times". I will discuss the curated exhibition next week, but for now I will post a few things about the national pavilions.

I had read a few derogatory anti-feminist readings of the work by Renate Bertlmann in the Austrian pavilion, so was not expecting to be disarmed by the sheer beauty of her site-specific installation of glass roses. The rigidity of the formation and the spikes penetrating each fragile flower underline a reading beyond a "pretty" surface providing a thoughtful and balanced aesthetic. Other works in the pavilion give a context for this installation within Bertlmann's previous work.

I couldn't help being impressed by first sight of the Egyptian pavilion, though was quickly underwhelmed by the feeling of being on a pseudo-Egyptian stage set (Stargate anyone?) and then full disappointment that only one (of at least 4, but likely more) video monitors were either out of order or just not turned on.

There were three different artists represented in the Greek pavilion, Panos Charalambous, Eva Stefani, and Zafos  Xagoraris and their installations present a layering of meaning within the concepts of Greek architecture, history and participation in the Biennale itself. I was especially interested in the installation of  Charalambous's glass jar floor, with it's potential for staging a dance (apparent by the placement of music equipment but I was also taken with the historic implications of Xagoris's archival letters and photographic installation, especially as I was also planning a visit to the Peggy Guggenheim collection while in Venice.

The Nordic Countries pavilion provided a reminder of the earth and human relation to it. The pavilion was both airy and bright. The trees within the pavilion did not seem stifled; they were neither threatened or threatening. So it was a breath of fresh air. It was not the only pavilion to take a stance on the climate change crisis, but it did not hit the converted over the head with preaching.

Outside the Romanian pavilion, at both front and back, were what seem to be memorial walls accompanied by buckets of  roses. I was surprised that the artist, Belu-Simion Fainaru has titled this piece "Monument for Nothingness" as I am struck by this as a harshly cynical approach to the concept of a memorial. I, along with others, took a special, quiet moment to interact with the wall, "tak[ing] a rose petal, mak[ing] a wish, and insert[ing] it in the hole in the wall..." I am unfamiliar with Fainaru's practice so perhaps am misinterpreting what point he is making, but I am glad that I did not see this title while in Venice.

The Russian pavilion was fantastic! The theme of Rembrandt as "Prodigal Son" and the heaviness of a Biblical judgment brought to life by sculpture (including moving sculptural works) and video within a darkened space that one moved around, even encountering a "Death" figure, provided an immersive and cohesive sensory experience courtesy of Alexander Sokurov and Alexander Shiskin-Hokusai.

The USA impressed as could be expected and hoped: Martin Puryear's large scale  sculptures owned the spaces both within and outside the pavilion.

I was in the Giardini for six hours, wandering from pavilion to pavilion on a beautiful, warm Venetian day. There were only a few pavilions that did not interest me much, yet I was also acutely aware that I could not give my full attention to any, when there was so much to see. I did not expect to be able to withstand such an art overload, but it was a fabulous experience that I can look forward to having again.

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