Every two years, Venice becomes the centre of the contemporary art world. MostlyFilm’s intrepid art correspondent Ann Jones reports back from not one, but two, visits to this year’s exhibition.
Every two years in early June, the art world descends on Venice for the start of the Biennale, the 55th incarnation of which closed in late November. The opening weekend invariably clashes with the end of year show at work so I never get to join the throng. In a way, this is an advantage. I’m rubbish at parties and going later means not having to queue as much. Plus there’s something about the art world en masse that I don’t much like. In art world terms, it may be deeply uncool to go to Venice later on but it does have its advantages, not the least of which is being able to ask friends what is and isn’t worth seeing in a bid to catch the best stuff and avoid the worst. It’s just not possible to see it all without decamping to Venice for a month or two and it would be a fairly soul-destroying process even then. In the end, this year I went twice: first in the heat of summer, then in the cold and wet of autumn with the ever present risk of the acqua alta, the tidal floodwaters that submerge low lying areas of the city for hours at a time. It may be the academic in me but I do like a good compare and contrast.
When it comes to looking at art, the heat of an Italian summer isn’t ideal, though of course it does provide ample excuse to eat ice cream. This year, having visited the 55th Venice Biennale in August on holiday with a friend, I returned in November with about seventy students in tow: a very different experience in almost every way. The chance to revisit the Biennale gave me the opportunity to go back to some of the works that had stayed with me most clearly over the intervening months as well as letting me fill in the gaps and catch some of the stuff I’d missed completely the first time. It also meant I got to wade through a foot or more of water in Piazza San Marco in my wellies; that doesn’t happen in August!
Any visit to the Venice Biennale is likely to include two long days of concentrated art viewing – one at the Giardini and one at the Arsenale – as well as a fair amount of wandering around the city in search of some of the off-site pavilions and the many collateral events that run in parallel with the national participations and the central curated exhibition. Just the thought of it is quite exhausting. And if it’s enough to make you long for a little sit down and nice cup of tea, well then, this year you’d be in luck. And, as with everything else it seems, there’s a chance to compare and contrast.
Arriving at the Giardini rather later than planned having ferried a couple of students to a pharmacy and waited around a while for some who’d got lost on their walk through the city, my immediate thoughts – what I need now is a cup of coffee – were quickly pushed out by the idea of heading to the British pavilion for a mug of Jeremy Deller’s tea. Deller’s exhibition English Magic was one of the things I’d enjoyed most in the summer and certainly stood up to a second visit, even if on this trip the time spent sitting drinking tea may have outweighed the time spent looking at the work. There is something strangely pleasing about having a mug of tea and a chat while the sound of a steel band playing The Man Who Sold the World – the soundtrack to Deller’s video – drifts in from the next room. And it was good tea. In a proper mug and everything.
In English Magic, which, unusually for an exhibition made for the British pavilion, will be shown in several galleries in the UK next year, Deller picks up some familiar themes exploring aspects of British (or perhaps more specifically English) culture and history. This is the England of William Morris, albeit a giant mural depicting William Morris throwing Roman Abramovich’s super-yacht Luna – which caused a huge furore when it pitched up in Venice for the opening weekend of the last biennale – into the lagoon. Elsewhere we find out about some of the other things that are bothering Deller: Abramovich’s complex finances, corporate tax avoidance and the shooting of two hen harriers over the Sandringham estate in 2007 (possibly by Prince Harry). Deller is a gatherer, commissioner and organiser rather than a maker and the art and artefacts that make up English Magic talk of injustice and unrest in unexpected ways. In one room of photographs from 1972-3, pictures of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust tour are juxtaposed with photographs of industrial unrest and clashes between striking workers and the police. The Bowie fans and striking miners, dockers and construction workers have everything and nothing in common. Elsewhere, a room of drawings made by prisoners – including many who have served in the armed forces in Afghanistan and Iraq – provides a more contemporary picture and an insight into army life and, given that the common ground of the artists here is their status as prisoners, the lasting effect it can have on the lives of those involved.
The elements of Britishness that permeate Deller’s exhibition are not there as statements of national pride but as incidental eccentricities that provide a backdrop in front of which Deller picks at the loose threads of things that concern him, mostly imagining the ways in which ordinary people (and nature) might rise up against forces of greed and oppression. But while national pavilions might once have been about showcasing the best of each nation’s culture, this isn’t something with much currency now, or not among the long-standing participating countries anyway. Indeed the German presentation this year, confusingly situated in the French pavilion as a result of a cultural exchange commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of I can’t remember what, questions the nature of what constitutes a national participation in a now global contemporary art world with a group exhibition of works loosely about national identity by artists who aren’t German (although one, French-Iranian filmmaker Romuald Karmakar, the only European of the four, was born in Germany). The German pavilion – reworked in the Nazi era and, despite later attempts to de-Nazify it, a problematic space for many of those asked to make work for it over the years – provides an extraordinary space for Ravel Ravel Unravel by Anri Sala, an Albanian who lives and works in Paris and Berlin, one of the works that has stayed with me most clearly since summer and one of the few things I determinedly made time to revisit. The complexity of both the work – a video installation in three parts, based around two pianists separately performing Ravel’s Piano Concerto in D for the Left Hand and an attempt by a DJ to remix the two to bring them together – and its location in the (temporarily French) German pavilion would make for a lengthy post in its own right. I don’t know Sala’s work as well as I should (I am still kicking myself for missing his Serpentine Gallery show) but this piece was one of the stand out works of the year for me. On the downside though, what with this being France (or is it Germany; I’m easily confused), no tea.
Away from the two main sites, national participations by countries without buildings in the Giardini or the Arsenale occupy all manner of spaces across the city. First time visitors Angola, exhibiting in the extraordinary Palazzo Cini, closed to the public for decades, won the Golden Lion for best national presentation for a show in which photographs of Luanda – printed as posters and stacked on pallets – disrupt the palazzo’s exquisite Venetian interior and the displays of paintings and ceramics within it: a reminder of another world beyond not just this strange city but beyond Europe. In the heat of my August visit, Angola was one of my favourite pavilions not just for the work, the way it was displayed and the fascinating opportunity it offered to get access to Palazzo Cini, but because alongside the press releases and leaflets was a pile of Angola pavilion fans one of which saw me through the rest of my holiday. Again though, no tea.
In only slightly less ornate surroundings, and also in a building not previously used for the Biennale, the Iraq pavilion provides the perfect opportunity for a bit of a rest. Iraq returned to Venice in 2011 for the first time since the mid-1970s. This time, they’ve started to settle in a bit and, though Iraq in the wake of both the war and the decades of the Saddam regime that preceded it can hardly be a comfortable place to make art, the exhibition – entitled Welcome to Iraq – does what it says on the banner, extending a warmer welcome to visitors than is usual in contemporary art galleries. Here a grand Venetian home, in the form of a 16th century house on the Grand Canal, has become an Iraqi home and visitors are encouraged to sit for a while and take in both the work and the layers of culture and history that the space now represents. Iraqi blankets have been thrown over ornate Venetian furniture; Kurdish rugs cover the marble floors. There is art here, of course, that’s the point. But Welcome to Iraq is more than a straightforward art exhibition; there are also books to read and, yes, tea to drink.
Making myself at home, I sit at a small Venetian desk to look through a book of photographs of Iraq in the early twentieth century while listening to Iraqi music, coming from a seemingly cardboard radio. Videos are watched on laptops on tables. Curator Jonathan Watkins, Director of Ikon Gallery, has brought together a diverse range of contemporary Iraqi art into a coherent and interesting exhibition. Amongst other works, there is a bedroom installation by the collective WAMI (Yaseen Wami and Hashim Taeeh), whose furniture is made of corrugated cardboard; Cheeman Ismaeel’s heavily adorned household goods whose newly decorative state seems like an attempt at papering over the cracks of the ugly domestic reality of living in a damaged society; the political cartoons of Abdul Raheem Yassir that satirise the difficult reality of day to day life in post-war, post-Saddam Iraq and Jamal Penjweny’s Saddam is Here, a series of photographs of Iraqis hiding their faces behind photographs of Saddam as a reminder that the fallen regime casts a long shadow. In a small back room a fascinating and terrifying film – Another Life, also by Jamal Penjweny – documents the lives of Kurds who smuggle alcohol through a hostile landscape across the border with Iran.
And what of the tea? In the small kitchen of the first floor apartment that houses Welcome to Iraq I sit at the kitchen table and am served black tea in a simple but rather beautiful glass cup with a tiny glass spoon resting on its saucer. The tea is delicious and the atmosphere convivial. And best of all, and here Iraq beats Britain in the generous hospitality stakes, there are biscuits.
Jeremy Deller’s exhibition ‘English Magic’ will tour to the William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow (18 January – 30 March 2014), Bristol Museum and Art Gallery (12 April – 21 September 2014) and Turner Contemporary, Margate (11 October 2014 – 11 January 2015).