Henry James once described Venice as infinitely sad; touchingly, agonisingly haunted by the loss of its own once great significance as one of the greatest maritime empires the world has ever known. And a journey after nightfall up the Grand Canal by Vaporetto Uno in the general direction of San Marco, starting at the miserably noisy and congested smash-and-grab mobbery of the Piazzale Roma, puts you in mind of why he might have judged the sometime Queen of the Adriatic quite so deflatingly almost one hundred and fifty years ago.
After all, is not this where the entire art world longs to be during the opening days of the 58th edition of the Venice Biennale, which is upon us this week? Wherein this sense of sadness then, on a cool early evening in May?
For the greater part of the lurching, serpentining journey up this ancient waterway, the majority of the palazzi which process for our delectation beside the water, one after another after another, are in darkness. No one’s home to turn on the lights. We cannot even observe for ourselves quite how wonderful they are. Where has Venice gone? Why is it not here to greet us, to accept the tribute of our admiration?
The story of the decline of this once great maritime empire, including its final and chaotic capitulation to a 27-year-old Corsican upstart called Bonaparte in 1797, has been told again and again. The current population of Venice is said to be between 10,000 and 50,000 – it entirely depends upon various factors, which might include the degree of pessimism of who you are asking, and where greater Venice itself is said to begin and end.
But during the press days of the Biennale, a feverish population of art professionals wings in from all over the known world to play, glad-hand, quaff bellinis and proseccos, stare at indigestible quantities of contemporary art, and, above all things else, recognise each other, flickeringly alive once again, and all prinked and pearled to the nines, tens and elevens, to the accompaniment of enormous outpourings of mutual self-satisfaction.
Where do you actually go to see all this stuff? (I mean the art, of course.) Traditionally there have been two important locations. The Gardini (public gardens) at the Eastern end of the island house the national pavilions of the old colonial masters: Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Spain, Holland. Other muscle-flexers have snuck in here too: Japan, China, and Uncle Sam (with the teeny Israeli Pavilion quite neatly tucked into its armpit), for example.
British journalists hurry straight to the GB pavilion to see how she is faring this time around. This year’s British representative is Cathy Wilkes, a maker of installations, who was born in Northern Ireland and lives in Glasgow. Sometimes the latest maker tears the building to bits in order to make his or her point as forcefully as possible. Cathy Wilkes has been fairly respectful of the spaces of this faux-antique villa that backs on to the dreamspace of the lagoon.
In fact, her entire exhibition feels, tame, pallid, under-energised, and even slightly self-apologetic, as if indicative of a failure of nerve or vision. A sequence of installations brings together bits of domestic detritus, eyeless mannequins. Much of it is on the floor. It can be quite difficult to see. It seems to be drowning or dissolving in the too-much light cast up from the lagoon. The mood is one of lostness, bewilderment, life cast adrift on a storm-tossed sea; of where, who and why, and surely-oh-dear-not-me. Nothing quite arrests or allures. We simply don’t feel enough about what we are looking at.
Next door, Canada makes no effort whatsoever to make art of any kind within the confines of its glassy, spiky modernist pavilion. It shows us filmed interviews with ancient, icily moustachioed Inuits, all hard done to by the white man. The entire presentation is an extended act of abject apology, driven by guilt. Oh dear, oh dear, if only history had not been allowed to happen. Luckily, one of the interviewers once played a starring role in the original version of The Killing. The excitement of that recognition factor kicks in like a hoof in the cul. He looks as if he is freezing to death up there in those frozen wastes.
The Russian Pavilion, located just two or three skips and a jump down the hill, has turned a tad nationalistic. Its curator is Mikhail Piotrovsky, who has ruled over the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg – correction, he and his father before him – since clocks were first invented by the Chinese. At least, that’s how it seems. Both floors of the pavilion are dramatically alive with a celebration of museums in general and the Hermitage in particular. The story of Rembrandt’s ‘The Prodigal Son’ (one of the museums many masterpieces) is dramatically re-staged, with sculptural casts of the principal players emerging from the gloom. It’s a jumpy, hammily dramatic affair, with lights that flash, flames that spew, and even, downstairs, a lovely mechanical ballet, with much knee-flexing and floor-clattering from life-size mannesquins.
Looking for somewhere a little less agitated, a little more slowly and soberly serious in its attitude towards art, without the tiresome burden of undue solemnity? The finest single national presentation in the Giardini is in the United States Pavilion. African-American sculptor Martin Puryear is a modern master whose work is still too little known beyond the confines of his homeland. He is a meticulous hand-crafter of clean-lined sculptural objects, often in wood, which speak with restraint, elegance and subtlety, of matters of great political importance: freedom and bondage, for example.
There is a new curator for each edition of the Venice Biennale. This year it is Ralph Rugoff, who is also director of the Hayward Gallery in London. What does he do with his budget of 15 million euros? His job is to curate two big group shows, one in the Giardini’s former Italian Pavilion, and the second in the main buildings of the Arsenal, which were once a factory used to make ropes. In these shows you will find the best that the Biennale has to offer.
The Italian Pavilion feels the more manageable of the two, to deal with, less feverish, less like a tsunami of sense impressions. These group shows have often been dreary experiences in the past. Too much conceptual art. Too many familiar names. Too little coherence. Rugoff’s shows succeed in being visually arresting, skippingly humorous, and sensitive to the fact that art, if it is to win us over, must, above all things else, be alluring from the outset.
Look out for work by these artists in particular: Japanese photographer Mari Katayama, who has forged work of an extraordinary power and strangeness out of her own suffering; the collaged photographs of Frida Orupabo; the delightful paintings by Otobang Nkanga, so crisp and sharp, as emotionally and self-delightingly wayward as they are technically precise. And, last but scarcely least, look out for the extraordinary, untameable painting machine created by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, an articulated hand which rears up into the air and slaps down with a crazed, unstoppable hubris.
During the months of the Biennale many other shows spring up around the city’s voluminous skirts, some as delicious as edible mushrooms, others as repulsive as facial carbuncles. The best of these is at the Palazzo Cini, where the Romanian painter Adrian Ghenie (Romania’s representative at the Biennale of 2015) has created a series of large-scale paintings which seem to have supped at the table of Venice in her heyday, when she was the epitome of pomp, diplomatic cunning, and painterly splendour. These are no-holds-barred extravagances indeed, full of bravura gesturings worthy of Tintoretto, as rakishly, swimmingly colourful as the best street-corner gelato, and possessing more than a touch of humour, self-mockery, and even absurdity.
What is more, they feel of Venice itself, rooted there, not merely creatures who have winged in for the duration to make a small splash.