Sunday, 24 November 2013


St Marks Square, 19 November 2013

I went late to the Venice Biennale: some flooding but no sweltering or mosquitoes; few queues - though a steady 20,000 visitors per week - but no parties. The conclusions had been drawn by then: Angola, followed by Japan, Lithuania and Cyprus, were the official top pavilions. The press were keen on Britain, Iraq (both providing free tea!), France and Chile. Fair enough, and I also liked Bill Culbert for New Zealand - see my column at

View out of the New Zealand Pavilion

Tino Sehgal and Camille Henrot (as young artist) were lionised. Maria Lassnig and Marisa Merz given lifetime achievement awards. Special mentions for Roberto Cuoghi and Sharon Hayes. The recreation of Harold Szeemann's 1969 When Attitudes Become Form was widely seen as the top collateral event. The main exhibition, Massimio Gioni's The Encyclopedic Palace, was positively received even though its tactic of mixing insider and outsider artists was hardly new. Indeed, Szeemann himself did that, and there was also quite a lot of artist crossover with the concurrent Hayward shows Alternative Guide to the Universe (London) and Curiosity (touring).  Anyway, I've chosen a couple of artists from the Palace, and broadened out to concentrate on the rest of the Biennale. I've also picked up on some of the permanent art in Venice, which I always like to mix in when I visit. So: here’s a broadly chronological sequence of things I thought were interesting, but which got little or no mention in the various round-ups I've read…

Paulo Veronese: Ceres Renders Homage to Venice, 1575

One painting which caught my eye this time in a familiar venue was Veronese’s curiously shaped Ceres Renders Homage to Venice, hung high up at the Accademia. The unusual shape comes from its origins as a ceiling decoration at the Magistrato delle Biade in the Doge's Palace. Veronese organises the puzzle-piece composition around that, with dramatic perspective and colour of a typically limpid intensity. Extra animation comes from how, while Venice may be enthroned, our attention is called to Hercules’ club seeming ready to respond to Ceres’ cheekily lifted skirt (which we’re looking up) while the burgeoning wheat attests to her fertility. 

Hilma af Klint: The Dove, No. 2, 1915

There’s a time-shifting quality to the abstract spiritual evocations of the Swede Hilma af Klint (1862-1944): she completed a thousand large format paintings from 1906-40, but her will stipulated that they be kept secret for twenty years after her death – so, having preceded Kandinsky and Mondrian into abstraction from a theosophical point of view, her reputation has been building only since the 1960’s. She could be seen as one of the better-known of the many ‘outsiders’ chosen by Gioni for his Encyclopedic Palace, though af Klint was actually a trained artist who made her living with conventional work while painting separately as a medium. 

Emilio Vedova: Absurd Diary of Berlin, 1964 

Venetians haven’t featured much in the story of post-war Italian art, which is perhaps why Emilio Vedova (1919-2006) seems to be promoted around every Biennale as an artist who should be considered important. I can’t say I’ve been convinced, but I did like the two sculptural collages of paintings bolted together with steel at the Ca Pesaro, Venice’s own, somewhat outgunned, modern art museum. They come from his Berlin period (1963-65), and suggest some sort of politically relevant, if ramshackle, wall-building with an urgency born of the angular clash of surface and colours – which seemed to abate come his circular grey  productions of the 70’s.

Roy Lichtenstein: Maquette (1978) for Mermaid (1979)   

It was in fact the Foundation Vedova, set in former salt stores, which put on a powerful show of Lichtenstein’s sculptures. I struggle to see much connection between the artists, but the presence of studies and a maquette for Mermaid made for a tidy connection between the two Oceanside stops on the art circuit: the original is on Miami City Beach. It’s full of wit: the sculpture has two dimensions and represents its volume by a parody of shading, the light from the peeping sun has as much solid presence as anything else, the palm tree is allowed to escape the conventions to indicate it’s due to be real in situ. 

Nobuo Sekine: Phase of Nothingness - Water, 1969 / 2012 

One room in the Punta della Dogana combined Italian arte povera with the Japanese Mono-Ha ('school of things'). The shared sensibilities were no surprise, but none the less enjoyable for that. One of the Japanese founders, Nobuo Sekine, was showing two steel containers painted with black lacquer, and filled with water. The effect was shimmeringly reflective, and the equivalence –  they both contained the same amount – was somehow surprising. Indeed, the more obvious equivalence was with Roni Horn’s Well and Truly installation of cylinders on the floor above, in which glass looks like water.

Mark Manders: Fox / Mouse / Belt, 1992

Inside and outside often got muddled: you could talk to trees in the Swedish Pavilion; the roof had been partly removed from the Australian Pavilion so that the work was matured by the elements; the economically caustic Spanish Pavilion contained – in pulverised form – the same materials as were used to build it. One strand of Mark Manders’ very rich Dutch Pavilion, possibly the  best in show, saw him strap the mouse a fox might have eaten on the outside of its stomach. This was a bronze painted as if it were clay, in a reversal of the usual artistic order which was designed to increase its apparent vulnerability.

Antoni Tàpies: Nude, 1995

You can rely on the Palazzo Fortuny for a fascinating mash-up of cultures and times, and this year it integrated an impressive retrospective of Antoni Tàpies, along with some of the eclectic collection found in Tapies' house when he died last year: Aztec featherwork, a Cycladic sculpture, a John Cage score etc joined plenty of painting and sculpture. Tàpies himself is a grandmaster of brown, and it turns out he owned a superb 1969 Rothko work on paper which – though its called Untitled (Orange and Yellow)  - uses just the sandy range which features in Tàpies' literally tellurian works, such as the beached nude shown here. 

Wifredo Díaz Valdéz: Violin, 1996 (in its open state)

Uruguay showed work from 20 years by Wifredo Díaz Valdéz (born 1932), who finds old wooden items and deconstructs then in such a way that – by means of an elaborate system of hinges – they can still be returned to their original shape. This original twist on the ready-made connects with his own rural origins while providing a sense of the past being recoverable. Valdez also finds ways to make the reconfigurations echo the fragmentation and displacements of his nation’s politics, or to tweak art history – here a violin-come-bird riffs on the cubist still life. How come, I wondered, he isn’t better known?

Linda Fregni Nagler: The Hidden Mother, 2006-13

My favourite photo-discoveries were Nikolay Bakharev’s groups on the beach near the provincial mining town of Novukuznetsk in the late Soviet era, and Linda Fregni Nagler’s collection of a thousand 19th  – early 20th century photographs of babies. Nagler found a novel way to foreground the subjective nature of what we see.  Contemporaries may have been sufficiently entranced by the very capture of infant likenesses to overlook what seem to modern eyes the risibly jarring, as only notionally disguised, figures in the background – necessary, given the long exposure times required, to keep the baby in place.  What, we might wonder, lies in our plain sight, unseen?

David Koloane: The Journey, 1998

South Africa’s Pavilion focused on apartheid and its aftermath. David Koloane (born 1938), among the longest-established black artists, showed a sequence of 19 drawings tracking the capture, interrogation, torture, death and autopsy of Steve Biko in 1977. They were made in response to a police application – which was refused – for amnesty from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission 21 years later. Though rightly disturbing, Koloane’s virtuoso smearing of oil pastel on acrylic and telling use of near-repetition to indicate timescales avoided sensationalism and hinted at how long the facts remained murky.  

Vladimir Peric: 3D Wallpaper for Children’s Room, 2007

There was quite an accumulation of accumulations in Venice: Ai Wei Wei’s 886 wooden stools, for example; Kan Xuan’s records of all 207 imperial tombs in China; some of Okhai Ojeikere’s 1,000+ photographs of Nigerian hairstyles…  The Serbian Pavilion included a proposal for children’s wallpaper: 247 soft toys of Mickey Mouse, made in a Zagreb factory from 1968 onwards and zealously collected by the artist, Vladimir Peric. In case that seems too joyful, Peric points out that the children of the sixties have been blighted by Civil War and poverty – the battered toys may memorialise a ‘lost generation’.

Frédéric Bruly Bouabré: from La Haute Diplomatie, 2007

Ivory Coast debuted with a strong quartet, including their most famous artist, 90 year old Frédéric Bruly Bouabré, who also featured in in Il Palazzo Enciclopedico. His postcard-sized ballpoint pen and colour pencil drawings, in the same format since 1948, are now well integrated into the art world – yet they also fit Gioni’s eccentric outsider category, as Bouabré founded his own religion and represents the 448 hieroglyphs of a near-extinct unwritten language which he has sought to revive. God, he believes, writes the universe and he transcribes it with teeming distinctiveness. Drawings from High Diplomacy were an appropriate choice for the Biennale, featuring as they do representatives of 193 countries, attired in national colours, extending a hand in friendship.

Hito Steyerl: How Not To Be Seen. A Fucking Didactic Educational .Mov File, 2013

Hito Steyerl (born Munich, 1966) has a PhD in Philsophy and is a leading film theorist, so you might fear heavy going. Far from it: she’s not above cheap jokes and playful devices to get her message across, which is here that low resolution images have their merits in a world in which disappearance is both desirable (to avoid surveillance) and potentially fatal (as represented by the ghosts of the politically disappeared). The 14-minute film takes the form of mock lessons in how to become invisible, one method being to be smaller than the state’s levels of resolutions can detect – very small indeed these days: cue characters dressed as pixels, and the Three Degrees (as above) asking ‘When will I see you again?’. Too silly for you? Read Steyerl’s essay In Defence of the Poor Image instead.

Richard Mosse: The Enclave, 2013

Richard Mosse’s Irish Pavilion lured you in with three pink landscape photographs, given an edge by the explanation that they were taken in the Congo using discontinued military reconnaissance film which registers the normally invisible spectrum of infrared light, and that over 5m have suffered war-related deaths in the region. All the same, the action – destroyed dwellings, dead bodies, morgues, burials and urgent food grabbing - on the seven big screens within still came as a mesmerising shock intensified, yet aestheticised, by the poisonous pink. 

Mladen Miljanovic: A Sweet Symphony of Absurdity, 2013 

Bosnia & Herzogovina’s Mladen Miljanovic asked members of the Banja Luka Philharmonic to perform their favourite piece, starting solo, with twenty more joining in turn (the flautist's cello-coloured shoes are a neat touch). The mounting cacophony of personal choices super-imposed provided a suitable background to Miljanovic’s considerations of individual and collective. That used the diversity within the convention of gravestone illustrations to provide a granite aesthetic rendered knowingly bathetic by the artist carrying a slab engraved with what his countrymen expected of him at the Biennale.

Rudolf Stingel at the Palazzo Grassi

Rudolf Stingel’s takeover of all three levels of the Palazzo Grassi was quietly but immensely spectacular. Every floor and wall was covered in carpet with a blurry oriental rug design on it, which came into focus when seen – as it often could be – from a distance. The ground floor had the carpet plain; the first floor insinuated silver abstract paintings with hints of pattern into most rooms; the second floor substituted Stingel’s black and white ‘portraits of statues’, which look photorealist until you get close enough to see the paint’s rather carpet-like patterning. All this spoke of Freudian containment counterpointed by the more expansive history of Venice, but what was most striking was how two decades of Stingel's paintings seemed now to have been produced in order to allow this display to make sense of them.  

Lawrence Carroll: Re-creation Series

Only one of the 55 Pavilions I saw contained Ab Ex scale (310 x 245 x 15 cm) abstraction. That was from the least-expected debutant state, Vatican City. The Australian-born, US raised, Rome-dwelling Irish painter Lawrence Carroll brings aspects of Rothko, Morandi and Cornell to muted 3D-tending paintings which often incorporate objects resonant with prior uses, and which Carroll has compared with votive hanging of objects as ‘a way of believing in painting’. Here, as part of a project revisiting Genesis, his five canvasses included one literally frozen (attended to by Carroll above) opposite one festooned with lighting cords and a solitary lit bulb. Meanwhile, all 207 pages of Robert Crumb’s cartoon but word-for word retelling of The Book of Genesis were framed and hung in The Encyclopedic Palace. My End is in the Beginning...

R. Crumb's take on the creation

About Me

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Southampton, Hampshire, United Kingdom
I was in my leisure time Editor at Large of Art World magazine (which ran 2007-09) and now write freelance for such as Art Monthly, Frieze, Photomonitor, Elephant and Border Crossings. I have curated 20 shows during 2013-17 with more on the way. Going back a bit my main writing background is poetry. My day job is public sector financial management.