At this year’s Venice Biennale an Asian performance artist crawled along the avenue in the Giardini that leads up to the British, French and German pavilions. He was dressed in white, wearing a dog collar around his neck, and he sported a text on his jacket that read: ‘I love Venice Biennale and Venice Biennale loves me.’ Yet my searching through piles of press releases failed to uncover any reference to the event. The Venice Biennale has always been quintessentially European. While Robert Storr’s curated shows are weighed down with the guilt of an ill-at-ease American, artists and their supporters from south or east of the West scramble to feel part of the action.
Only three of the official pavilions in the Giardini represent the region: Japan, Korea and Australia. Japan this year staged Masao Okabe’s ‘rubbing of history’ – sheets of papers on a row of A-bombed stones that could be worked on with soft pencil, and a further series of frottages from Hiroshima. The Japan Foundation seems to choose more conservative artists, this time cloaked in humanist rhetoric around the future of civilization. Korea, next door, opted for the experimental, with Hyungkoo Lee’s distorted monkey-like self-portrait poster adorning the building and a darkened space revealing a suspended skeleton. But Lee’s premise in The Homo Species – the ‘undersized Asian male complex’ – came across as silly.
My own country signalled its ambitions during the vernissage with ubiquitous yellow bags. At the official Australian Pavilion, New Zealand-born Daniel von Sturmer installed a meandering plywood platform that flew over the two levels of the clean and airy space – somewhat overwhelming his quirky videos giving agency to ordinary objects. Off-site, Callum Morton constructed a huge war-torn building, complete with smoke. You stepped inside to find an air-conditioned corporate lobby, screams and scaled-down lifts that failed to arrive. Susan Norrie’s allegorical video imagery of overflowing mud in east Java – more in tune with Robert Storr’s disaster-witnessing – very elaborately transformed the catastrophe into a sublime visual experience.
There was some curious video work over at the recently established Chinese Pavilion, stuck at the industrial end of the Arsenale and this year given over to four women artists. Outside, large sculptural dummies and a Cao Fei’s Second Life tent (China Tracy 2007) appeared infantile. Asian pavilions elsewhere were largely disappointing. Hong Kong seemed gimmicky (cryogenic figures and lenticular images of fruit) and Singapore strangely ornamental (interrupted by Jason Lim’s opening-performance crashing of a porcelain lotus flower chandelier, Just Dharma 2001). Taiwan’s Pavilion, ‘Atopia’, was more captivating, engaging energetically with communications technologies and globalization in the context of Taiwan’s ‘inexpressible phantom status’; Shih Chieh Huang’s electronic plastic-bag flowers and VIVA’s comic books captured my attention. There was, of course, far more. But if you want to know about what’s happening in contemporary Asian art, you don’t go to Venice.