The 2007 Venice Biennale

The Italian pavilion at the Venice Biennale re-opened after an absence of 8 years, apparently, which seems a bit strange when you’re the host country of an art event of international significance! But it seems that this year the pavilion was conceived as a different entity: not a showcase for a display of nationalistic and artistic pride but as a broader opportunity to explore the theme of the Biennale: Pensa con i sensi – senti con la mente. L’arte al presente or Think with the senses – feel with the mind. Art in the present tense, whatever that means… This year’s Director is an American, for the first time, Robert Storr. According to the catalogue Think with the senses – feel with the mind “is the result of his look beyond the new frontiers of world art; not only to rapidly developing artistic languages, but also to personalities, countries and trends emerging on all… continents”.

Storr’s own essay in the ‘short guide’ to the Biennale says something similar. “Rather than trim the edge or reweave the pattern to neaten it, this exhibition focuses on selected aspects of curent production that hint at what the emerging patterns might be without presuming to map them entirely. No attempt has been made, therefore, to be programmatically ‘representative’, either in terms of styles, media, generations, nations or cultures. Instead certain qualities and concerns widely found in contemporary art have been used as magnetic poles for gathering work from all seven continents, in all media, in various styles and of all generations now active. Between the poles to which some works have readily gravitated is a force field where many other works hover. The poles themselves have been used like tuning forks, such that the criterion for selection has been resonance or mood as much as subject matter or aesthetic methodology. Among these vibrating points of reference are the immedacy of sensation in relation to questioning the nature and meaning of that sensation, intimate affect in relation to engagement in public life, belonging and dislocation, the fragility of society and culture in the face of conflict, the sustaining qualities of art in the face of death”.

So what’s it all about then Robert? I don’t know if I have a definitive answer, and you could justifiably accuse me of having only scratched the surface of the exhibition (I thought we did rather well taking a 5-year old there at all, but there were obvious limits on what we could achieve and so we were only able to visit a handful of pavilions in the Giardini and saw none of the Arsenale exhibitions, nor any of the peripheral shows around the city…), but I did form a few opinions about the work I saw!

First up was the Italian pavilion, which seemed like a sensible place to start, and it was amazing – so good, in fact, that I was only able to cope with seeing a few of the rooms before I began to feel rather overwhelmed. I took the same approach to the Biennale as I did to my choice of theology courses when I started at university: why struggle to glance over the major world religions and come away with very little more than a postcard-view when you could get up-close-and-personal with your European, christo-judeo-centric heritage? I chose to take my time over the latter course, and in the Italian pavilion I contented myself with long meanderings around the exhibitions of Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Felix Gonzales Torres and Robert Ryman. Believe me, that was heavy enough…

Image by Felix Gonzalez-Torres

Before I came home from the Biennale and started to do a bit more research I have to confess that I knew little about these artists except for their names, which feels like a timely reminder to me that being an artist necessarily involves reading and also looking at art and that perhaps I should be doing a bit more… so anyway, it’s been good to do a bit of reading and looking recently.

Gonzales-Torres, I am reminded, was a Cuban who moved to New York via Puerto Rica, and who died in 1996 from AIDS at the young age of 39, six years after the death of his lover, Ross. The best summary of his work that I’ve found comes from an essay on the Queer Cultural Centre website,

“Felix Gonzalez-Torres combined the impulses of Conceptual art, Minimalism, political activism, and chance to produce a number of “democratic artworks” including public billboards, give-away piles of candies, and stacks of paper available to the viewer as souvenirs. These works, often sensuous and directly audience-centered, complicate the questions of public and private space, authorship, originality and the role of institutionalized meaning… His primary audience, as he explained in an interview reproduced here, was his
lover, Ross… yet his work clearly appeals to a large audience for its combination of formal restraint and emotional lushness. The theme of lovers is co-mingled with themes of mortality, loss and absence which surface in the later work. Always charged with the sensibility of an overtly queer man, his art nonetheless often passed under the radar of the self-appointed moral guardians in both the political and art worlds. Felix Gonzales-Torres was a not-so-secret agent, able to infiltrate main stream consciousness in a most beautiful and poetic way. Activist without being didactic, a catalyst of that rare combination of sensuality and political empathy, he raised the bar on future queer art making, and continues to be one of the most influential artist of his generation”

‘Democratic’ art by Felix Gonzalez-Torres

An interesting exploration of entropy and place: the stacks are constantly worn down and rebuilt by the museum or gallery, which invisibly replenishes the stacks. The site of the exhibition becomes a non-place, a non-site, where the exhibition both is, and is not, happening

I don’t know whether I agree with the final statement but I know that I find Gonzalez-Torres’ work very powerful. There’s something very poignant to me about the images of the waves and of the lone seagull. In many ways both images have been overused, but in Gonzales-Torres’ work, embued with an autobiographical layer of meaning in the life and death of his lover Ross, they become statements about the loneliness of the one in the absence of the double, a constant search for partnership, a joining of souls. Very quiet, very sad work.

If you’re interested in more about Felix Gonzalez-Torres it’s worth reading the interview with him on the Queer Cultural Centre website, but it’s far too long to include here. Interestingly, the interview is with Robert Storr…

The installation of one of Gonzalez-Torres’ pieces of ‘take away’ art in the gallery, with protective cover sheet in the foreground pile and image in the background pile

Another web-essay about Gonzales-Torres talks about another of his ‘democratic’ works of art, a corner full of licorice candies.

“The museum label describes the dimensions of the piece as “700 lbs. ideal weight.” Ideal weight describes a human being in a state of wellness. Being under- or overweight suggests ill health. The candy spills are like beings who, due to constant viewer participation as well as inaccurate replenishment, are never at their ideal weight, never healthy. Candy itself serves as a sense pleaser, a body destroyer or a reward for which we are punished with sickness and dentistry and, in this culture, guilt. Candy is such a compact little metaphor for human desire and repercussion, especially in a culture [the USA] which believes so strongly in punishment”.

Series #24 by Robert Ryman

Robert Ryman is another ‘name’ I know but I don’t know much about his work. How I love his paintings, though. A series of frameless squares around the room, painted mainly in white over a monochrome ground. I found them intense, powerful, moving – and yet, if you looked at them, weren’t they just daubs of white paint repeated monotonously over black or grey? For me there was a depth, a profundity that comes out of a formalist concentration on a single shape, a single colour. White is somehow more than ‘just’ white. The diagonal brushmarks of these paintings seem to move over the image and it visually comes to meet you off the wall, and the wall is also a part of the image.

Series #24 (detail)

I notice in my own work that I am drawn to minimalism, although I haven’t achieved it yet. There seems to me to be a path drawing me through imagery from realism to abstraction and beyond, to minimalism in a reductive process that doesn’t limit the depths of meaning in an image, be it print or paint. Minimalism is what I am striving for but haven’t yet achieved, and I think I’ve got a long way to go! But I think a common thread in Ryman’s work and my own is an interest in mark making and surface. Texture is an important part of his work, not in the sense of bringing the canvas into three dimensions a la Brett Whiteley’s mummified cat’s head, for example (which I saw at the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane!), but in subtle ways to do with choices of surface and paint and brushwork. Ryman’s subtle manipulations of the white square format set up a tension and a dialogue between the work, the gallery and the viewer. I’m hooked…

There’s a good essay about Ryman’s aesthetic by Ann Rorimer on the Dia Centre’s (New York) website.

Deucalian’s Flood (Axial Age) by Sigmar Polke

In ancient Greek mythology Deucalion was a son of Prometheus, the Titan who stole fire from Mount Olympus and gave it to mankind, thereby earning himself the eternal torment of having his liver eaten daily by an eagle… Anyway, presumably before his agonies began Prometheus warned Deucalion (who is a parallel figure in the mythology to Noah and Utnapishtim: all survivors of a great flood) that Zeus was going to cleanse the land of the savage and cannibalistic Pelasgians by unleashing a deluge. Deucalion was to build a ship and save himself and his wife (not the animals).

I wasn’t really ‘hooked’ by Sigmar Polke’s work, although I did find it visually and technically interesting. A room was hung with seven large pieces – a triptych and six separate works – all of which were apparently conceived in Venice. I’ve read things about Polke but still find that I don’t understand much about him or his work! These pieces are large and brooding and, typically, combine elements of photography with painting.

What I liked about the paintings was their dark, brooding quality. They seemed like omens of bad times ahead, and Deucalion’s Flood is almost prophetic in a water-bound city on a lagoon in an age of climate warming and melting ice-caps. We’ve been coming to the Biennale for 112 years, and the UK and USA have raised hundreds of millions of pounds to save the city – what happens when the weather changes?

I wasn’t so sure about the ‘graphic’ inclusions in some of the pictures, but then, perhaps I didn’t take the time to make sense of them. Instead I was drawn to the fluid surfaces where layers of varnish or resin built depth into the paintings. There goes my interest in surface again!

Cage 1 by Gerhard Richter

It turns out that I don’t know very much about Gerhard Richter either, but the difference is that I can’t find out very much about him from the web. I can look at many of his paintings, prints and photographs on a website dedicated to him, but there’s precious little in the way of explanation. The only essay I’ve found on the web, is very interesting but doesn’t shed much light. If I’ve read it correctly the author finds him impenetrable, and suggests that he’s managed to find a sort of inner peace that enables Richter to rise above the art world and do whatever the hell he likes without worrying about it. And it’s true that he has many apparently different styles of work, and that he swaps between realism and abstraction, photography and painting without making a statement about his methodology. He’s enigmatic, and I found his paintings enigmatic too.

Cage 1 (detail)

My notes about looking at the Cage series of paintings in the Italian pavilion were again about technique and surface. At first I found the paintings overwhelming, and the multiple colours and the ‘busy’ impression of the surfaces jarred slightly. I guess that I didn’t particularly want to be disturbed by what I saw; I wanted to be pleased, moved, made aware, and in that sense I found his paintings quite confrontational. Richter doesn’t seem to be interested in pleasing, soothing or explaining; there are no helpful titles or curatorial notes. I suppose I could have investigated the official Biennale guidebook, but I have for the most part found translations from Italian impenetrable and I didn’t want to spend €70 on something that I couldn’t understand!

In the end I had to accept a certain un-closable distance between me and the work and the artist, and come to grips with them in a way that was relevant to me. And so, inevitably, I looked closely at the surfaces and the way in which Richter uses his paint and drags or scrapes it across the surface of the canvas. The detail, above, reminds me of Monet on the one hand – the same sense of reflected water, the same blues and greens as the lilypond pictures – and cinematic images of cityscapes reflected in dirty puddles on the other.

Anyway, I think I decided in the end that I found a room full of the paintings too much to cope with, but that close-up I enjoyed the colour and the technique and the surface.

L-R, Cage 3, Cage 4, Cage 5 by Gerhard Richter

Oh dear, and now I have to talk about Tracy Emin again. Artists are chosen by the participating countries, but in view of Storr’s curatorial approach that suggests that this year’s Biennale is a democratic look around the world at the state of art in the moment, does Emin’s selection as the sole representative of the United Kingdom mean that she is the only ‘now’ in British art? What does that say about the British?

The Purple Virgin 2, 5, 10

I have moments when I like (some, not all of) Emin’s work and moments when I’m bored and fed up by it. I feel compelled, sometimes, to defend her because she gets so much sexist, misogynist, patronising shit thrown at her, even as I’m longing for her to present something that ISN’T about her sex life, her relationships, her abortion – again. There is a part of me that is positively shouting aloud with delight at the fact that a woman – unmarried, childless and in her forties – is representing Britain. Being an artist is hard work and Emin has every right to be successful and to be proud of it. Of course, her success and obvious enjoyment in it is yet another sexist brick thrown at her… It gets tiring and confusing, and I just wonder whether Emin is seriously considered by the powers that be in the Royal Academy to be the best Britain has to offer?

My ambiguity about Emin (and it is as much about her self-presentation as the author of her work as it is about the work itself) is nicely echoed in an essay by Melanie McGrath that I found in an on-line version of the Tate Gallery magazine.

Walking around my World

Anyway, there was the renovated British pavilion decorated inside and out with Emin’s work, which ranged from neon ‘light sculptures’ of text to towering constructions of sticks, which seemed to be the most recent pieces.

Tower family

Again very little information was on offer about the work, which was a particular disappointment with regard to the stick towers as they represent a seemingly radical departure from the methods Emin is famous for in making her art: embroidery, painting and drawing. Perhaps the sculptures are part of a hitherto invisible volume of work? I wasn’t sure about them in lots of ways. My immediate impression was of childish games of pick-up-sticks and there was a momentary thought, I could do that! But the sculptures are called Tower Family, so perhaps there’s a message in that. A lot of Emin’s work is around disfunctional relationships. Perhaps stiff, spiky structures with no flexibility and isolated from each other in space are a very relevant commentary about family relationships that comes out of her own experiences? Who knows. They seemed more like space-fillers than anything of depth; I didn’t find them particularly impressive and moved swiftly on… Doubtless I’ll find some learned essay in due course and realise my mistake!


I enjoyed the neon ‘sculptures’ more. Apart from their aesthetic appeal and apparent delicacy (with their trailing wires they remind me of the reverse side of hand-embroidery where the tracery of the stitcher’s work is in evidence – a parallel with Emin’s stitched paintings) they seemed fragile, vulnerable, truthful. Outside the building on one side of the door was an installation that I think (from the catalogue) is called Sock, and is a neon-drawing of a bird. It echoes a drawing Emin did of herself as a small, scruffy bird and I really like it. I think The Independent offered a (“limited edition”!!! with all that term implies for a printmaker like me!) giclée print of the drawing, and I used it at the time as an illustration of the fact that Emin can, in fact, draw.

On the other side of the doorway and inside are text-based neon sculptures. McGrath’s essay highlights the importance of text in Emin’s work, and it’s an interesting analysis.

Waiting for a Moment

Sky Hands

What I like about Emin’s painting is its immediacy. She doesn’t seem to fart about wondering if what she’s doing looks ‘right’; she doesn’t seem to agonise about painting or drawing in the way that I do. I really admire that sponteneity and freedom in her work.

Abortion watercolours

I’m not a fan of the Abortion watercolours, though. Freedom and sponteneity, yes, but they’re basically doodles painted and drawn on pages from an exercise book that have been lovingly framed. I can accept the idea of them as preparatory sketches or visual ‘notes’, but I can’t understand why they’ve been presented as a major work in themselves. Emin isn’t the only female artist to have painted subjects that are painful or damaging – look at Frida Kahlo – but I think I would have found these drawings more interesting as adjuncts to the rest of the work, like Turner’s sketchbooks, displayed alongside his paintings.

Daniel von Sturmer’s The Object of Things

Von Sturmer is one of Australia’s hosted artists (although a New Zealander by birth), but his was the only art on display in the Australian pavilion. I wanted to see my adoptive country’s featured art and von Sturmer’s was the only installation I saw, and I left feeling that I came close to an understanding of sorts, but that meaning was shifting just outside the edge of my vision. Once again there was nothing helpful to the viewer at the exhibition itself, so I’ve been reading up about von Sturmer since I got back.

The artist has his own website with – helpfully – full extracts of texts, unlike people like Robert Rymn whose website references texts but doesn’t enable you to read them! Mind you, a couple of the catalogue essays were, to my mind, prime examples of ‘art bollocks’, but one or two I found really interesting. Charlotte Day’s essay Landscape Thinking talks about von Sturmer’s interest in space and scale, and the relationships between the internal space of the gallery and the external space of the real world.

The installation on display in the Australian pavilion consisted of a strange wooden construction that snaked over, through and around the two-storey space. Custom-built for the pavilion I guess that it did confound the notion of the gallery as a ‘white cube’, forcing the visitor to look at the whole – space, installation and projection screens – differently. The viewer was in a physically different relationship with the work viewed. Day says, in relation to other of von Sturmer’s work,

“Each object manipulates the space around it in some way – framing it, folding it, flattening it or deepening it. For example, in one wooden bent and twisted frame, a partial dissolution of space is achieved. In another object, a humble short plank of timber laid out in an almost ceremonial fashion, space is flattened… While von Sturmer is not interested in projecting any specific symbolic value onto his objects, nonetheless there is a remarkable sensory
quality in this work”.

I really liked the light-screens: a visual essay on the physical properties of light! Starts blank, then coloured translucent squares drop onto it, until the whole screen is black…

We popped into the Japanese pavilion, but only briefly since it was so WEIRD. The artist, Masao Okabe, works in frottage, the process of making rubbings of things using a pencil and paper laid over the subject. His work is underpinned by a strong sense of history and of how the events of the past are inherited into the future. The work at the Biennale is an exhibition of hundreds of frottage drawings (or, in some cases, photos of his drawings, displayed in light boxes) of the paving stones of Ujina railway station and port in Hiroshima before it was dismantled. The stones bear the traces of the atomic explosion of 1945. I think I read somewhere that the rubbings were done over 10 years…

I can see the sense behind the art, and it seems that it is all of a piece with the rest of Okabe’s work as he has apparently done rubbings all over the world, for many years, but I found the exhibition itself obsessive and slightly ineffectual. The presentation of the images in such an oppressive, ‘library catalogue’ sort of way took some of the impact away for me. There was no variation, little information. It was frottage overload…

I found myself in some way disappointed by the work. I ‘got’ the impact behind the work, but was visually bored by it. So – interesting, but no more than that.

Christine Streuli’s psychadelic screen prints in the Swiss pavilion

Yves Netzhammer’s video installation that had Ella enthralled!

So what do I think of the Biennale as a whole? I think I’m not really qualified to comment because I saw so little of it! But what I did see inspired me, on the whole, and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of visiting. I was delighted with how well Ella managed the experience too, and I’m looking forward to visiting again in 2009 – with a bit of luck – and perhaps managing to stay in Venice for longer and see more of the pavilions and some of the peripheral shows.

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