BY Jonathan Griffin in Reviews | 04 JUN 09

Postcard from Venice - pt. 2

The best pavilions at the 53rd Venice Biennale

BY Jonathan Griffin in Reviews | 04 JUN 09

Of course Venice is incredibly beautiful, and we’re all lucky to be here, but boy are we tired, and hot. Our minds are saturated with images and ideas and names and associations. A far from ideal state, in other words, in which to look at art.

I wonder, therefore, whether it’s a coincidence that some of the most popular pavilions are those that provide the more comfortable viewing conditions. The first that springs to mind is Roman Ondák’s blissful Loop (2009) – a garden growing within the doorless walls of the Czech Pavilion. It’s not just a joy to wander through, but a simple, smart, and direct gesture. We quickly realize that it succeeds in ticking all the right boxes, and are free to enjoy the garden much in the way that we would were it not art.


Nearby, we are invited to stroll through Elmgreen and Dragset’s conversion of the Nordic and Danish pavilions (pictured above). Fitted out with elegant bathrooms, kitchens and sleeping quarters, the pavilions emulate the houses of (twin?) art collectors. The carpet beneath our feet and the domestic scale of the work (by invited artists) creates a pleasantly quiet contrast to the variously visually aggressive and/or noisy installations in the Russian Pavilion opposite. Of course there is much more to say about both, but I wonder whether such simple factors hold sway in such exceptional circumstances as a biennale such as this.


Testing my hypothesis, I extend my survey: films, provided they are screened in cool dark rooms preferably containing chairs, are winners. (Steve McQueen’s Giardini, 2009, fits the bill perfectly. The Romanian Pavilion, in which videos by Stefan Constantinescu and Ciprian Muresan are shown in tiny rooms that double as thoroughfares, does not.) As obvious as it sounds, beauty is also a balm for tired eyes and minds. On this note, McQueen succeeds again, as does Haegue Yang’s installation Condensation (2009). Works that we stumble upon, such as Renata Lucas’ asphalt road emerging from beneath the gravel path, are far more effective than those pavilions into which we enter with trepidation, such as the blackened Japanese Pavilion, containing Miwa Yanagi’s grotesque and enormous prints of female figures. The subsequent dark cloud that gathered in my mind was dispersed only by Silvia Bächli’s muted and airily hung watercolour drawings and photographs in the Swiss Pavilion.

It will be interesting to see what takes root in my consciousness over the coming weeks and months. I hope and expect to be surprised. But for now, ease, in all its forms, seems to be the order of the day.

Jonathan Griffin is a writer based in Los Angeles, USA, and a contributing editor of frieze.