Art Speaks To Us All

More than merely an international vernissage, the Venice Biennale is where the worlds of high art and state tourism cross-pollinate.  Dotted throughout the arboretum of the Giardini Castello are the permanent pavilions of the developed nations, which every second summer showcase the work of hand-picked artists in what amounts to an aesthetic free-for-all.  Picture a multi-cultural theme park of the avant garde.

This year, just for a change, the organizers encouraged each national pavilion to feature the work of foreign-born artists, presenting curators around the world with a delicate task.  Normally, they would celebrate home grown talent; this year the different nations would be known by their taste in other people’s art.  Some of the pavilions did just that. Others didn’t. One way or another, the result is an exposition that doesn’t speak the characters of the respective nations as much as it catalogues their stereotypes.

Take the Swiss pavilion.  Not entirely without justification, the Swiss are known as the linear thinkers of the Western world – a nation of no nonsense, no horseplay, and no-talking-while-the-teacher’s-talking.  Their exhibit consists of 119 impressionist oils of the highway from St. Margrathen to Geneva, each rendered from a different overpass.  Linear?  It looks like the sort of thing Renoir might have painted had he worked for Allied Van Lines.

The French installation, meanwhile, demonstrates an enduring preoccupation with l’experience existentielle.  The interior of the pavilion has been converted into a vast mausoleum walled with hundreds upon hundreds of ceramic tiles, each depicting a human skull in an infinitely repeating pattern.  It’s morbid, it’s splendidly done, and it looks like Pol Pot’s bathroom.

Things are even more austere over at the Scandinavian pavilion.  The Finns, the Norwegians and the Swedes have banded together in a huge glass bungalow to see who can outdo the others in Nordic sangfroid.  Since the Norwegian entry consists of six artfully dirty panes of glass strung across 80 feet, it’s really no contest.  Glass within glass.  Absolut klarity.

By contrast, the sculptures in the U.S. pavilion are voluptuous.  Like America itself, they’re dazzling and costly, and breasts and genitalia are a motif.  But it’s really the name of the sculptor that speaks volumes about the U.S.A.  Could Louise Bourgeois fail to have been teased remorselessly in art school?

Perhaps in answer to Philistines inclined to dismiss the Biennale as an indulgent load of rubbish, the Russian offering is unapologetically a load of rubbish.

The pavilion has been remade to resemble a hastily abandoned building site.  There are bits of wood strewn about haphazardly, half-empty paint cans, half-constructed scaffolding.  The interior is shrouded in the shadows and glare of a single naked light bulb.  Off in the distance, from a garden in the rear, comes the muffled thrum of martial music and Party speeches.  Stepping into the light, one discovers that the sound is coming from loudspeakers mounted atop what looks like the People’s ice-cream kiosk: a pastel shed gaily decorated with the Red Star of the fallen regime.

We are meant to interpret this as the nasty heart still beating at the core of the current reforms.  But you don’t have to be Sir Kenneth Clarke to see a country working with the only material left available to it: junk and pessimism.

Right next door, the Germans are operating in the same idiom, but their junk is high-tech and their pessimism is a posture.  The pavilion is ringed with statues made from Blaupunkt innards and cathode ray tubes.  Inside, a slate floor has been smashed by sledgehammers and banks of TV monitors assault the viewer with discordant images and howls of industrial noise.  Remember Sprockets, Mike Myers’ program-within-a-program on Saturday Night Live?  Come to Venice.  Touch the monkey.

And then tucked away in a corner of the park is what looks on first sight like the Toronto Castle Frank subway station – a bungalow of brick with glass doors – but is in fact the Canadian pavilion.  The art therein consists of: a plexiglass globe, a plastic draughtsman’s table, a large plastic turret, and the hood of a ventilator shaft decorated in images of the White House. It’s unclear how this expresses the Canadian cultural soul, unless the Canadian cultural soul is what’s left over after a going-out-of-business sale at an IKEA outlet.  Were we not supposed to admire art and envy the talent that produced it?  Instead of making fun of it, while it makes fun of us?eg