Labyrinthine art: A craze for mazes
If my tour of the Giardini of the Biennale, is anything to go by, mazes are a big theme this year. Here are a few:
Mike Nelson has transformed the British Pavilion into a labyrinthine warren of rooms from an Istanbul house (see gallery below). Depending on your point of view, it either resembles a smelly squat or an enigmatic walk through the detritus of his memory of living in Istanbul in his youth. It left me non-plussed but I seem to be in the minority, with many people extolling its compelling links between East and West. If you have never seen Mike Nelson’s work before, this all-encompassing installation is a great place to start.
Christian Boltanski’s weird metal scaffolding maze in the French Pavilion resembles a printing plant developing film of babies heads. Perplexing.
Thomas Hirschhorn’s Swiss Pavilion created a maze encased in tin foil and packing tape. I saw it as a bizarre homage to recycling, filled as it is with bits of broken glass, magazine and newspaper clippings and beer cans, among other things. But how to explain the elaborate q-tip sculptures?
The Austrian Pavilion – you shouldn’t be able to get lost in high modernist buildings but you do here, and that’s what makes it so intriguing.
What I liked in the Giardini
Poland – The Polish Pavilion asked Artangel to commissioned Israeli artist Yael Bartana to make a trilogy of films for them and the results are fascinating.
Bartana is a Jew of Polish descent and her films propose a kind of weird utopian dream of Poland inviting 3 million Jews back to Poland to build its future and make it a better, more diverse and cultural place. Whether or not one agrees with the proposition, it poses an enormous ‘what if’ question: what does a society lose when it has removed its ‘others’ and what if it tried to bring them back?
Yael Bartana’s films – all infused with a kind of kitsch imagery of communist and fascist mass movements – propose hypothetical answers. The first shows a kind of ‘young pioneers’ rally where the speaker asks the Jews to come back, repeating the slogan ‘with one colour we cannot see’. The second film imagines Jews returning to Warsaw to build a kibbutz and the third imagines a funeral cortege and a march where people implore 3 million Jews to come back to Poland now and build a brighter future. The tension between the impossibility of Bartana’s idea and the fervour with which she films it, kept me watching.
Austria – I am not sure I understood what Markus Schinwald was trying to do but I loved walking through his installation. He has taken this pavilion, known for its classic modernist design and created a kind of modernist architectural maze within it. The viewer walks through a series of narrow passages enclosed by high white walls and straight lines until we arrive at an opening where enigmatic videos play, showing people somehow trying to interact with the space. All along the way weird sculptures and paintings poke out of the corners, as if to add an element of the irrational and question the modernist tradition.
Greece was a pleasant surprise. The artist Diohandi decided that Greece and Greek art needed to be renovated so she encased the pavilion in wooden scaffolding as if it was a building site and the viewer has no idea what lies within. Then we walk along a meditative path over pools of water, filled with light and sound that left me with a feeling of harmony – refreshing at the end of a tour of the Giardini pavilions.
Egypt was another pleasant surprise because it was the first interesting show I’ve ever seen at their pavilion. The homage to the artist Ahmed Basiony who was killed in the Tahrir Square protests features walls of video news footage of the protests alongside video footage of one of his performances.
Japan: I’m not usually a fan of animation and high tech installations but something about Japan’s pavilion charmed me. Tabaimo’s (Ayako Tabata) circular installation surrounds the viewer with floor to ceiling videos of Japanese towns and water that literally flow all around us, with traditional Japanese motifs that nod to Hokusai. In the centre of the circle is a kind of light well filled with moving images that we can peer down into.
What not to show in a pavilion
Art that stinks – hands up Brazilian Pavilion with your rotting salt fish installation.
Art you can’t find – hands up Ryan Gander at the Italian Pavilion with your 2 Euro coin taped to the concrete floor.
Art that induces headaches – hands up Dutch Pavilion with droning car alarm like sounds.
Kathleen Soriano’s top tip
The RA’s Director of Exhibitions recommends Big Bamboo – a hollow bamboo tower by Mike and Doug Starn next to the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Dorsoduro. They made their first bamboo sculpture on the roof of the Met last year.
Seemed like a good idea at the time dept
Hanging the Tintorettos in the Italian Pavilion. Biennale director Bice Curiger wanted to bring these Venetian Renaissance masterpieces out of their comfortable homes in Venetian churches and the Accademia into the cold light of the Biennale to show Tintoretto as an icon of the pioneering artist, who broke all the rules of Renaissance art to create a dramatic new kind of painting. Unfortunately, they look forlorn and almost naked torn from their church installations designed for us to gaze up at reverently and brought down to gallery level. Tintoretto’s painting of The Creation of the Animals (c.1550) from the Accademia Gallery fares the best, but all are poorly lit. True, I can see all the bits in the Last Supper clearly now, but its mystique has vanished.
Weird and wonderful idea of the day
Sigalit Landau’s utopian proposal at the Israeli Pavilion to build a sculptural salt bridge across the Dead Sea to mark the 20th anniversary of the border agreement between Israel and Jordan, which remarkably has remained peaceful.
Fun fact of the day
After a hard won battle fought by the superintendent of cultural monuments for Venice, the pigeons are gone from St Mark’s square at last – their guano was ruining the dome of St Mark’s, among other monuments. Astonishingly the bird feed sellers earned 500,000 Euros a year.