BY Dan Fox in Reviews | 10 SEP 03
Featured in
Issue 77

50th Venice Biennale

Various Venues

BY Dan Fox in Reviews | 10 SEP 03

Speeding across the lagoon from the airport towards Venice (trying to pretend that the ten other people with whom you've split the extortionate cab fare aren't there) is how I imagine Marcello Mastroianni might have felt in La Dolce Vita (1960) - a member of a glamorous jet set living the high life at full throttle. Returning a few days later is much the same, only you feel like Mastroianni at the end of Fellini's film - stumbling along the beach in a crumpled suit, seedy and washed up, with all your money squandered on late nights. No matter how hard you try to inveigle your way into its affections, Venice keeps you at arm's length. It was founded in order to repel invaders, and old habits die hard. You are a tourist. You have no place there.

The art shown at the Biennale has little to say to a conurbation who's sole living culture seems to be the restaging of its own past (though some might argue that this isn't so different from the rest of the contemporary art world). Venice acts as a stage set that makes the art world's tourist class feel like heirs to timeless worlds of intellectual beauty and vicarious Grand Tour glamour. It cannot be an easy place in which to exhibit, yet the Biennale displays a depressing level of curatorial insensitivity to the surrounding urban museum. And somehow, as if in revenge for the invasive clamour of works vying for attention, the city's Baroque heritage wins out. A video projection may scream 'look at me' but it's the Canova maquette tucked away in the corner that really grabs you. Incongruity undermines us. The simply spectacular beats the spectacle. As Guy Debord said of Venice, 'the Venetian jungle has shown itself to be the stronger.'

'Zenomap' was an unusual exception. Split across two sites, Scotland's presentation wooed Venice past and present, like the traveller who always manages to ingratiate himself with the locals and find that great little bar before any of the rest of us has even made it through the hotel door. Taking its title from the names of two 14th-century Venetian brothers who charted the North Sea and Nova Scotia on behalf of the Earl of Orkney, the exhibition worked loose historical connections between Scotland and Venice into a concoction of contemporary Baroque ebullience. Claire Barclay, Jim Lambie and Simon Starling's show tuned itself in with crystal-clear reception to the fading splendour of the Palazzo Giustinian-Lolin, while eight newly commissioned film and video works were screened in a nearby school gymnasium - a rarely seen locus of normal, everyday life in Venice.

Katy Dove's video You (all works 2003) performed a graceful animated dance, with soft-hued, amorphous shapes gliding and pirouetting across the screen to the accompaniment of lo-fi electronic meanderings. Her languid choreography elegantly presaged Duncan Marquiss' Seelenzustande Land, a sequence of cold, mesmerically uneventful landscape shots, also driven by a musical pulse, yet one of a far more sparse and folky character. Luke Fowler's The Way Out (A Portrait of Xentos Jones) made for a bewilderingly psychedelic viewing experience. Terrifyingly delirious, this funny mock documentary charted the life of an obscure cult hero, exploding and careering through its 30-odd minutes with wired intensity and frenzied insanity. Fowler's smart and wayward cinematic vocabulary was thick with allusions to experimental film techniques and the far-out reaches of surreal British comedy. Like an Henri Micheaux mescaline drawing, his film followed the curlicues and flourishes of its own tangential digressions in almost cavalier fashion, constructing a dense panoply of clandestine histories.

'Zenomap' worked loose historical connections between Scotland and Venice into a concoction of a contemporary Baroque ebullience. 

Jim Lambie's Paradise Garage sculptures over at the Palazzo Giustinian-Lolin gave a high-voltage jump-start to the elegant decrepitude of the chambers in which they sat. The ecstatically crazed zebra-like flooring complemented the ornate geometry of the room's ceiling timbers, providing a Rococo field on which island outposts constructed from mirrors and peculiarly angled doors picked out sumptuous architectural details. Reflected in the mirrors, the décor of the room added further surface complexity to Lambie's sculptures without either party dominating - each generously bearing the markings and heraldry of the other without ever compromising its own character. Named after the famous New York club, Paradise Garage is both disco and masked ball, and, like Venice, a paradise crammed with relics.

Claire Barcaly's was a much more understated voice. In Low Scenic skeletal wooden armatures framed panels printed with the same pattern as the room's decaying fabric wall coverings, rendered in stark black and white as if they were part of an ornate Rorschach blotting. Spindly arms jutting here and there gave the structure the macabre air of a frail domestic screen that somehow doubled as a gallows. In a separate room Drop Gag hung from the ceiling - two metal and glass cylindrical shapes, both sheathed in leather. Again a dual functionality was hinted at, suggesting fetish objects curiously disguised as light fittings.

Dominating the central room of the Palazzo was Simon Starling's Island for Weeds (Prototype). A fully functioning flotilla, the island carried an abundant bed of rhododendrons - classified as a destructive weed in Scotland when it first arrived from Spain in the 18th century. Venice was originally founded in the malodorous lagoon around the 5th century by those unwanted on the mainland, a refuge from the marauding barbarian hordes, and as a dry-dock island housed on a floating city, Starling's haven for outsider plants resonated with its environs as Lambie and Barclay's more interior focused contributions. 'Zenomap' was an archipelago of gestures sympathetic to its immediate surroundings, pushing towards a healthy island mentality.

Dan Fox is the author of Pretentiousness: Why It Matters (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2016) and Limbo (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018). He co-directed the film Other, Like Me (2021).