Venice, nearly an art museum in itself, hosts one of the biggest and most famous art shows in the world and we were lucky enough to see a tiny fraction of it during our couple of days in the city in July 2015. In our afternoon at the Giardini section we were able to see the Australian pavilion and perhaps a dozen others. (We enjoyed the gardens, too, in a city which has very little open space other than its canals.)
Each exhibiting nation has its own pavilion in the gardens. The two I liked most were contrasted in almost every way – Norway/Australia, open/closed, simple/complex, sparse/dense, light/dark, abstract/figurative – but each had something to say and said it well. Which would you expect to be which? The open, light, simple and spacious exhibit would be the Australian one? No.
Norway gave us the light and space, in an open building with a roof which was one enormous architectural skylight and walls which were mostly glass. The sculpture (I guess I’ve got to call it that) was equally insubstantial – huge window frames, inside and outside the pavilion, canted at all angles, with half their glass shattered on the ground. Ethereal, slow-moving music completed the installation; you can read more about it here.
The Australian pavilion was a big black stone box, dimly lit inside and crammed with an assemblage of diverse objects in a wide range of media – masks and birds’ nests, banknotes, bones and clocks – all the work of one artist, Fiona Hall, and all (in different ways) making the point that we can’t go on as we are. A plaque near the entrance informed us that George Brandis, as Minister for the Arts, opened the exhibit, and I couldn’t help thinking he must have done it through gritted teeth, since it is so completely opposed to everything he and his party stand for. Could it have contributed to his decision to claim personal control of arts funding?
As for the others, there were several which were vacuous, pretentious or both. It’s probably inevitable that art with so much national prestige at stake is risk-averse and tends to value outer form and finish over content but still … let’s just say I got more from MONA.
Further reading: Laura Cumming’s overview of the Biennale in The Guardian; the politics of Australia’s pavilion design and Biennale artist selection by John Kelly on Crikey (more questions than answers, I’m afraid) and Tim Stone on the ABC; plus Brandis vs the Australia Council in the SMH.
The Biennale has two main sites and a number of ‘fringe’ shows, one of which we caught by accident. It was in the church of San Giorgio, which we visited just so that we could see Venice from the top of its bell-tower; those photos are here.