Biennale Impression parte II: il punto di vista di una pittrice inglese

In Arte

La nostra Kate Hiley ci porta attraverso la Biennale di Okwui Enwezor con lo sguardo che può avere una giovane pittrice inglese rispetto alla grande kermesse

La nostra Kate Hiley ci porta attraverso la Biennale di Okwui Enwezor con lo sguardo che può avere una giovane pittrice inglese rispetto alla grande kermesse.

It’s 5pm on a hot Thursday evening in May as I collapse on the end of my hotel bed. I’ve only been in Venice for two and half days and already the exhaustion has overcome every inch of my body; my feet are sore, my limbs ache and my mind is completely worn out. Unable even to lift my head and check the numerous emails accumulating on my phone, I simply lie there, happy for a moments respite from the heat. I could blame the weather for my exhaustion, or the never ending stream of tourists that I battle my way through every day to and from the hotel, but the real reason I’m so tired is Art. It’s the opening week of the Venice Art Biennale and I have been invited by an Italian journalist to be her extra pair of eyes and ears. I’m not just a Biennale virgin, I’m also a British artist at an intrinsically Italian event, despite it’s international intentions. Her article on the Biennale will be published that Friday morning and as this is my first time, she hopes I will provide a fresh look on things.This includes making our way through every tiny space and art work in the Biennale’s extensive footprint within a maximum of two days, something I had greatly underestimated.

Kate Hiley in the main Arsenale exhibition, curated by Okwui Enwezor
Kate Hiley in the main Arsenale exhibition, curated by Okwui Enwezor

Arriving at the Biennale I’m not sure what to expect. I’ve been to Venice a couple of times but never have I witnessed the city transformed like this, as the streets fill with art world aficionados, easy to spot against the backdrop of tourists and venetian locals. As for the Giardini, Pavilions and the Arsenale, I had avoided looking at any images before hand so as to begin with a visual blank canvas. With an Italian as my guide, a former local of the city no less, I’m not worried about missing anything or getting lost in the maze of exhibitions. As such the only preparations I made were to research this year’s Director, Okwui Enwezor, and his curatorial theme All the World’s Futures. As a British artist, I know that representing us at this year’s British Pavilion is Sarah Lucas. I’m not hugely impressed with the choice, both predictable and outdated, however I try to keep an open mind until I’m there in person. As a painter, I also took the time to look through the list of artists (136 selected by Enwezor and countless national Pavilions) to search for painters that had been included. Even in this initial search online my findings were slim. I attempt to set my painting bias aside before we enter the Giardini first thing on the Tuesday morning, hoping to see the exhibition as a whole and not just as individual artists.

John Akomfra's Vertigo Sea in the Central Pavilion
John Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea in the Central Pavilion

As we walk from our hotel on the first day, through the winding canals of Venice and down along the water front, I’m expecting to see swarms of important arty types heading in the same direction, desperate to get through the gates of the Biennale the minute they open at 10am. To me, it seems a privilege to have a press pass for the opening days of such and important event. As I soon discover upon entering the Giardini, this is not quite the case. A handful of serious journalists, maybe 20 or 30, are moving around the grounds sipping their morning coffee and staring at their guides, heading in the general direction of the Central Pavilion. A plethora of camera men are waiting outside the entrance, but we don’t catch a glimpse of anyone famous, or anyone at all for the matter. It’s only as I’m moving through the exhibition alone two hours later, that I realise who they were all waiting for. Whilst enjoying a quiet moment with Huma Bhabha’s sculpture, I turn to leave and walk straight into Enwezor himself, almost knocking him over, only to then be trampled by said group of camera men and journalists. I move on sheepishly to the next quiet room, hoping that my moment of embarrassment doesn’t make it onto the 10 o’clock news. For the first three or so hours that we spend in the Central Pavilion, the only other people we see are a few fellow art journalists and a smattering of important curators, who seem to be taking advantage of this first day to get a good look at the art works. In the UK, the opening press days of exhibitions are often full to the brim with anyone who can get their hands on a pass, hoping to see the art works (even though they know it will be nigh impossible) before returning for the evening event. Here at the Biennale, I find myself watching John Akomfrah‘s video piece Vertigo Sea, joined only by the previous curator of the Biennale Maximiliano Gioni and his wife. It’s a lovely moment and the work is one of my favourite pieces in the entire exhibition, but not a moment I would expect for the opening day of such an important event. As my friend informs me, the first day is for those serious about art (very few it seems), the second day is for the party people more interested in seeing and being seen, and the third day is for people who missed their flights. I’m learning the Biennale protocol fast.

But what about the art itself? With my friend’s commentary on the who’s who of the Italian art world and my growing knowledge of Biennale gossip, it’s easy to forget that we also have to make our way through the art work on show. There are two halves to the Biennale; the Central Pavilion and Arsenale curated by the director Enwezor, and the National Pavilions located in the Giardini, Arsenale and scattered throughout the city of Venice. I had always imagined the Venice Biennale to be the king of the art scene, international in it’s approach. What I now realise in situ is that the Biennale itself is completely Italian. Having studied art in Italy, my friend gives a comprehensive description of how the art world here works; students are taught by curators to become curators, the artist is nowhere to be found. Dissatisfied with this one sided approach, she made the radical move of becoming a painter and a journalist. Now, in the thick of the Italian art scene, I understand completely why she left. I’m disappointed with the Biennale. It’s not just the fact that Enwezor crammed far too many artists into an already overwhelming space, that the curation seems to have been an afterthought or that the national Pavilions seem to have chosen their artists for trends as opposed to artistic merit. The most frustrating part about this Biennale is the lack of visual harmony. The artists, both in the Pavilions and in Enwezor’s show, seem to have been selected and organised for their concepts as opposed to their visual relationships.

Ivan Grubanov's installation United Dead Nations in the Serbian Pavilion
Ivan Grubanov’s installation United Dead Nations in the Serbian Pavilion

Granted, having grown up as an artist in London, my idea of an important contemporary exhibition contrasts hugely with that of my Italian counterparts. Where as in Italy, concept and curation reign, in the UK the works of art still take precedence. Whilst almost all of the contemporary art spaces in London have British directors, only a handful have European directors. Recent major exhibitions include Agnes Martin, Zhang Enli, Mark Quinn and Anselm Keifer. On the Whitechapel Gallery website you can even search for exhibitions by medium, should you wish to. It’s a world where, even if curation is present, it is rarely in the spotlight. The Biennale could not be further from the British frame of mind. One walk through the Italian national Pavilion only confirms what I already suspect – that the curator’s ego is a slave to the concept, completely over riding any concern for how the works interact with each other. Each artist’s work is separated by huge concrete walls, unable to communicate with each other, forced to stand alone. Individually they have little impact, even when you have read their length descriptions, and I wonder if as a group they would have been even harder to handle (not in a good way). The Italian Pavilion isn’t the only one. We make our way through multiple Pavilions desperately looking for an installation that has some visual impact without having to read an accompanying text. One or two manage to do this; the Serbian Pavilions installation by artist Ivan Grubanov and the Swiss Pavilion’s work by Pamela Rosenkranz are two good examples, but they are in the minority. Throughout our first two days at the Biennale we not only have to write about the works, but we have to take images to post online. The task of finding works that photograph well without needing a lengthy description is incredibly difficult. Both the exhibition and the Pavilions are exceedingly anaemic and we search around looking for some kind of colour to provide contrast, to little avail. The violent yellow emanating from the walls of the British Pavilion is fantastic and exhilarating, however it’s not enough to save it from the crassness of Sarah Lucas‘s work. It’s not that we think art should be “photogenic” or that colour is the only important factor in a work; it’s that after reading over 100 texts (each a minimum of 2 paragraphs) in order to understand what a work of art is about and why it is even there, we are in desperate need of something visually expressive. There are only so many timelines one can look at before you feel as thought you are in a history museum and not a contemporary art show.

Sarah Lucas's installation I SCREAM DADDIO in the British Pavilion
Sarah Lucas’s installation I SCREAM DADDIO in the British Pavilion

The whole event seems more of a political statement than an artistic one. It’s like Eurovision for the art world, each trying to impress the judges with their most flamboyant, trendiest concept in the hope of avoiding “nil points”. Each Pavilion is desperate to fill their second day private view with art world hipsters holding beers and judging each others outfits. It’s a shame, and even though I didn’t come to the Biennale with expectations, I was hoping to see something that would inspire or even intimidate me into becoming a better artist. It’s true that seeing a terrible exhibition can often give you more fuel than seeing a great one, and even though there are some great moments in both the main exhibition and the Pavilions, seeing so many “bad” works and installations over just two days has pushed me over the edge. I don’t know if I believe in the power of the curator or the growing necessity for concept, not just because I’m a painter or because I’m British, but because it feels outdated and unnecessary. Despite all of this, the one thing I do know is that the Biennale is exhausting. Even without the parties and private views, we walked away from our second day like zombies, trying through tired eyes to find our way home. When I finally do get back to the comfort of my bed, I’m not thinking about art and concepts, all I am thinking about is going to sleep.