Venice Biennale: Tabish’s Top 5 at Giardini

Now that the Venice Biennale is in full swing, I’ve paid it a visit and it’s largely a successful year. The main exhibition is better than last time when it was restricted to outsider art – Outsider art is an important genre but it limited the participation and prevented the exhibition from representing the wider art world.

This new theme of all the world’s future is broad enough to accommodate all sorts of artists and they choose wide enough topics so it’s not all doom and gloom or too heavy going – though there is plenty of that too.

The national pavilions have got in on it too with many reflecting this theme with their own works and this makes for a more cohesive Biennale than last time.

So a very positive view from me and this is the first in a series of articles on the best of Biennale. First up is one the two main venues, Giardini. It contains many of the national pavilions and a chunk of the main exhibition.

Photo Tabish Khan
Photo Tabish Khan

1. John Akomfrah: Vertigo Sea
Those of you who follow my writings will be surprised to see a video work top my list as I’ve written about all the issues I have with how the medium is used, yet I was riveted for the full 48 minutes; despite the uncomfortable seating. A 3 screen video takes us through our relationship with the sea, from beautiful scenes of the natural world through to the horrific moments a mother polar bear is shot for her fur while protecting her cubs and whales being killed with spearguns. It’s heavy going, but oh so moving.

Photo Tabish Khan
Photo Tabish Khan

2. Serbian Pavilion
Lots of pavilions have tried to fill up their pavilions, but this proves that less can be more with a simple and powerful work. Crumpled up flags lie on the floor while on the walls in white text are the names and dates of countries that no longer exist including Czechoslovakia, Tibet and Yugoslavia. It captures so many issues about nationhood and cultural heritage in a simple gesture, which is particularly poignant given Serbia’s history.

Photo Tabish Khan
Photo Tabish Khan

3. Japanese Pavilion
In all the reviews of the Biennale I’ve seen this has dominated in the leading image stakes and it definitely lives up to the hype. Hundreds of keys dangle from the ceiling in a wonderful allusion to the warmth of all the hands that have held these keys and how they unlock our most valued possessions.

Photo Tabish Khan
Photo Tabish Khan

4. Joanna Vasconcelos: Giardino dell’Eden
It must be disappointing for national pavilions to be shown up by a commercially sponsored pavilion but this was a clever choice of artist by Swatch. Vasconcelos’s Portuguese pavilion on a boat at the last Biennale was magical and she succeeds once more with shimmering flowers lit up with different coloured lights. It’s a maze that’s a joy to navigate.

Photo Tabish Khan
Photo Tabish Khan

5. Canadian Pavilion
A completely confusing and barmy pavilion with lots going on. Visitors enter through a convenience store and progress through a bric-a-brac store filled with colourful stacked paint pots and countless other objects. Visitors then ascend stairs to insert coins into an oversized and complex arcade machine. It’s a lot fun and very Canadian.

Others to consider

A few more to consider, that didn’t make the top 5 are:

  • the downright left-field Polish pavilion where a national opera is performed at a Haitian roadside to cement historic ties between the two nations;
  • the divisive Russian pavilion where downstairs is terribly dry while upstairs features the ridiculously creepy giant head in a pilot’s mask with eyes that track you;
  • Australia’s Wunderkammer style collection; and
  • Romania’s choice to eschew everyone else’s love of video and installation art to present some paintings of Darwin that aren’t revolutionary, just very good paintings by Adrian Ghenie.

The next in this series of articles will cover the highlights from the Arsenale.

About Tabish Khan

Art Critic for both FAD and Londonist. See as many exhibitions as possible and write reviews, opinion pieces and a weekly top 5 for FAD.