BY Dan Fox in Reviews | 05 JUN 09

Postcard from Venice - pt. 3

An overview of the 53rd Venice Biennale

BY Dan Fox in Reviews | 05 JUN 09

It’s three days in to the 53rd edition of the Venice Biennale. The sun is shining, and the temperature is pleasantly hot: wanting to disprove the old line about only mad dogs and Englishmen going out in the midday sun, I am sat in the cool shade of my hotel jotting down these first few tentative reflections on just a small part of the overwhelming volume of art I’ve seen in the past two days.

So what I have seen? I’ve so far checked-off all 29 national pavilions in the Giardini, and both parts of Daniel Birnbaum’s curated exhibition ‘Fare Mondi’ (Making Worlds) in the Palazzo delle Esposizioni della Biennale (formerly the Italian Pavilion) and the Arsenale. First impressions? Although there seems to be more collateral exhibitions than ever before, the pace feels less frenzied than in recent years – this is partly, perhaps, due to the way economics appears to have weeded out the loud champagne Charlies whose mission always seemed more geared towards the pursuit of Visconti-esque decadent oblivion than looking at the art here, but perhaps also due to the understated character of Birnbaum’s show.


‘Understatement’, however, is not a word I’d use to describe many of the national presentations, certainly not Sean Gladwell’s Australian pavilion based on Mad Max (pithily described by a friend as trying to express ‘tender machismo’) or Claude Lévêque’s corny black flags and glittery walls in the French Pavilion. Only Loop (pictured above), Roman Ondák’s outstanding work for the Czech & Slovak pavilion, would fit the bill for understatement: removing the doors of the building, filling the pavilion with trees and plants, and covering the stairs in front of the entrance with soil and gravel, Ondák has effectively extended the Giardini through the pavilion, making the building look as if it had been plonked down on top of the garden’s paths. This simple idea, elegantly executed, looks effortless in comparison to the relative heavy-handedness in evidence elsewhere, where a certain level of self-reflexivity seems to be the order of the day: at least five other pavilions feature artworks made in response to either the buildings themselves, the Giardini or Venice.


Next door to Ondák is the pavilion of Denmark and the Nordic Countries, in which Elmgreen & Dragset have curated ‘The Collectors’. Re-imagining Alvar Aalto’s classic Modernist pavilion as the home of a wealthy, gay, contemporary art collector, works by 24 artists are installed along with the furniture and personal effects of their imaginary owner. Lounging around the pavilion are a number of handsome young men, who look like the beautiful-but-bored extras from a 1970s Italian neo-realist film – or, rather, an Ingmar Bergman family psychodrama. Outside the building entrance is a small swimming pool, in which floats a ‘dead body’ – echoes of rock stars drowned in their swimming pools, the sinister aftermath of some sleazy debauchery, or the tragic suicide of someone who realized that money can’t buy them happiness. ‘The Collectors’ lays on its critique of collecting with thick, heavy silver-spoonfuls (subtlety has never really been Elmgreen & Dragset’s strong point), but it is nonetheless enjoyable, and possessed of a sense of humour lacking in Dorit Margreiter’s ponderous, fey black and white film over at the Austrian Pavilion, showing alongside work by Elke Krystufek (whose overwrought expressionist painting, with its pushy sense of its own criticality, I have to say, leaves me cold) and Franziska & Lois Weinberger. Filmed in the pavilion itself, Margreiter’s film comprises slow tracking shots across the building’s floors and fixtures, intercut with images of two women dressing for a performance or fashion shoot that never happens. After seeing the film, a friend remarked that the film fits the current trend for slow, ponderous tracking shots across Modernist interiors, occasionally alighting upon a person, or group of people, engaged in some profound meditation or mysterious, unexplained activity. I was reminded of this observation in the Arsenale, where I saw Ulla von Brandenberg’s film. Slow, ponderous tracking shots across Modernist interiors? Check. Enigmatic-looking, beautiful actors playing existentially troubled haute bourgeoisie? Check…

More self-reflexivity can be seen in Steve McQueen’s film for the British Pavilion. Shot in and around the Giardini in winter, we see dogs foraging amongst rubbish and detritus, close-ups of colourful insects and plants, two men hugging in the nighttime shadows, and hear the distant sounds of what could be a football match or political rally. The film is stunningly made, with McQueen’s signature attention to detail, especially in the sound design. I am, however, a little bewildered as to what it all means beyond its depiction of an un-idealized Venice, and allusions to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, but it’s still early days… The most interesting work in Fiona Tan’s three-work presentation at the Netherlands Pavilion also concerns Venice, juxtaposing shots of Asian antiquities with contemporary news footage shot in the Middle East, and narrated with readings from the travel diaries of Venice’s most famous explorer, Marco Polo; an exploration of both Orientalism and the romance of Venice.


The German Pavilion is no stranger to self-reflexive works about the venue itself; inaugurated in the dark days of 1938, many artists have used the opportunity to show at the pavilion to address its history. This year, curator Nicolaus Schafhausen made the somewhat controversial decision to invite not a German artist to represent Germany, but a British one: Liam Gillick. Expecting a rather typical Gillick installation – some Perspex and steel ‘discussion platforms’ perhaps, maybe with a large wall text about neo-liberal capital and a scattering of glitter on the floor thrown in for good measure – I was pleasantly taken aback to find a stuffed cat perched atop ranks of wooden kitchen units. In ‘How Are You Going to Behave? A Kitchen Cat Speaks’, we hear a voice tell the story of a town that worships a speaking cat, and wishes to find out from it ‘its positions on the history of totalitarian architecture or the restriction of credit within the context of failed models of globalization’. The pine kitchen units (pictured above), the accompanying booklet tells me, ‘exists as a diagram of aspiration, function and an echo of applied modernism that resonates in opposition to the corrupted grandeur of the pavilion, which was designed without lavatories, kitchen or any areas to rest.’ Gillick’s presentation balances just about enough levity against the weightiness of his usual areas of interest in Modernism and its political and economic legacy.

Well, that’s a long postcard so time to sign off. More soon…

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).