Venice, as we all know, is an extremely special place. The water lapping and the boats clanging all throughout the city’s walkways and the nights and days. And it would be nice to think of Venice as having a certain rhythm to it, impervious and steady, like that of a shipping forecast: San Marco, winds westerly, sunrise, 6am. Campo San Angelo: foot traffic mid-to-high, gelato queues forming. For the key commodity of Venice every two years, when the Venice Biennale revives the late 19th century dream of internationalism and institutes a sort of contemporary art Olymplics, is information: the Polish pavilion is worth seeing, the Russian is interesting for once, one has to queue for the American but it’s worth it. And, later in the night, it surfaces in the blister-ripping game of party-chasing that the Venice Biennale has become known for. (Venice is now framed as a party-paradise, with Roman Abramovic’s Haggerston-sized boat docked just out of view of the Zabludovic’s, who might finally feel inadequate. Compare this to the biennale’s two highest years of attendance, 1905 and 1907, where over a million people (by this we mean members of the public) came for the national pavilions and the national artists they were showcasing. Last year only around 300,000 visited the Giardini, where the pavilions, in an Epcot Center-like way (the Russian pavilion has domed turnips, the Nordic pavilion is modernist), represent each country. But why is this?)
This year’s biennale, entitled Illuminazioni, is calmer than usual, with less of the party-chasing, and the wind is coming from a northwesterly direction: sweeping across the US to Eastern Europe, but dying down before the Middle East and China. The American pavilion, where the Puerto Rican duo Allora and Calzadilla are showing, hits the mark: not so much the video or the sculptures but the performance titled Gloria. Working in collaboration with the US Olympic gymnastic team, a gymnast performs a routine upon a replica of a business class airplane sleeperbed, which is badly made, rickety and slightly dusty. The States, that is, resting upon luxury and pumped as with misused prescription stimulants into an overkeen competitiveness of physical and economic exertion, is fragile. Allora and Calzadilla communicate this with a modicum of inevitability and sadness that for us marks this pavilion as one of the best of the year.
Others that fare well: at the Polish Pavilion, the Israeli artist Yael Bartana’s videos — which chronicle a fake Polish party that invites the return of the country’s displaced Jewishp population — has much worth saying, though content and style do not seem to work either in tandem or in opposition (that is, we’re still not sure what to make of it). The Russian pavilion exhumes the Moscow Conceptualist Andrei Monastyrsky in a show that is good like bran flakes are good: demanding of respect but perhaps not the dish to eat here (that is, be more careful with the context for these endless exhumations). The Danish pavilion is a delight: argument and humour with more excellent (Eastern European) cynicism by way of the 1968 film The Garden by Jan Švankmajer.
And what of the Biennale’s crowning jewel? The curated exhibition in the Arsenale and the former Italian Pavilion in the Giardini is good but too safe. The Arsenale, a dark and ominous space, makes all its work feel more leaden than it is, while the airy pavilion feels perhaps too light (with the exception of the Tintorettos, meant to showcase the idea of illumination from which the exhibition takes its title, which bizarrely feel dark and cumbersome. Install those better! And what about Giorgione?). There is good work though, and more on that domani.