Walking through the Giardini of the 52nd Venice Biennale, it is inevitable to want to push through and see what the big hitters of France, Germany and Great Britain have installed at the top of the hill. I have always viewed this slope as an indication of imaginary art hierarchy in the Biennale and this is always evident in the queues to view the work. However, there is much more to appreciate in the climb than what is at the peak and it is often more enjoyable to encounter the work of countries that may not feature too prominently on the global art scale. This is part of the whole essence that makes the Venice Biennale the greatest show on earth.

It is with this appreciation of the underdog that has brought me to the attention of the pavilion of the Republic of Korea and the selected artist of Lee Hyungkoo. There is an irony in that part of Hyungkoo work raises concerns about his body and that of ‘undersized Asian men’ from his time studying in the USA. In trying to readdress this balance, Hyungkoo created self-transforming devices to overcome this inferiority complex. In addition, the same artist has created a series of Animatus that seemed to captivate audiences of all ages with his pseudo-scientific display of fossil bones depicting archaeological remains of popular cartoon characters of the west. In the work Mus Animatus and Felis Cactus Animatus, 2006 the stage has been set for the skeleton specimens of ‘Tom & Jerry’ to be displayed in all their slapstick glory. Whilst portraying some kind of installation from a Natural History Museum, the monochromatic display also gesticulates at the origins of western cinematic cartoon characters from their beginnings in black & white animation.

The audience participating work of Jacob Dahlgren in the Nordic pavilion also proved popular in relieving some frustration from the inevitable queues at the top. The piece I, the World, Things, Life, 2004 consisted of a wall of black & yellow dartboards that enticed the viewer to take a handful of darts to throw at the wall. I feared the life expectancy of the invigilators removing the darts in a motion similar to painting the Golden Gate Bridge, was reducing rapidly on witnessing the audience dart prowess on display. Whilst this ever-evolving work caused momentary entertainment, it fell upon the AES+F GROUP of the Russian Pavilion to stop me in my tracks and indicate that this year’s biennale was proving to be special. The three screen video installation Last Riot, 2007 was a beautifully choreographed pleasure that engulfed the senses with an animated paradise of adolescent violence heightened with a score from Wagner.

However, the same pavilion provided Lost Connection, 2007 from Andrei Bartenev that bordered on requiring a viewing hazard sign, as the systematic attack on the eyes from the fifty light emitting diode balls would induce a fit in a mannequin. The Russian pavilion seemed to epitomize the Biennale as a whole in that equal measures of brilliance were met with the same quantity of frustration.

On reflection, it is interesting to note that the artist Hyungkoo of the Republic of Korea Pavilion claims himself as an artisan-sculptor based on the belief in the value of manual labour. This is another reason for singling out this artist, as the same belief seems to resonate with the remaining highlights of this year’s biennale. Work that seeps hard graft seems to feature as highly as the ingenious idea and this is never more evident than in the work of El Anatsui and his incredibly sublime wall hangings found in the Arsenale. These pieces seem to engulf the viewer with a dazzling array of discarded metal tags and packaging materials that unite in creating a truly awe inspiring reference of contemporary Africa.

Other highlights from around the biennale include Callam Morton's Valhalla, 2007 one of three artists representing Australia. Found in the Palazzo Zenobio, this constructed one floor building conveys an eerie feeling inside and out as the external walls portray a history of violence, yet the inside is a clinically cold hallway with an impression of working lifts that emit various screams and seismic tremors. In contrast to the beautiful sunshine outside, it is a strange and thought provoking room that really touches upon Robert Storr's title Think with the senses: feel with the mind. There is also a lovely reality check in the work of Marko Maetamm from the Estonian Pavilion. Confessing to a variety of worries and problems that borders between a mid life crisis and a complete failure, the artist’s work manages to provide alternatives that offers hope and choices. Something that we can all hold onto. Similarly, a historical reflection in key examples of Masao Okabe work also caught the attention, as the Japanese Pavilion presented frottages from Hiroshima's Ujina district. This one time major military port provided Okabe an opportunity using simplistic tools to trace curbstones from the station platform that was once a site affected by the atomic bombing. Although this site has long since been demolished, the work evokes a timely reminder of Japan's place in Asia today.

So what became of the big hitters at the top of the Giardini hill? Great Britain showcased a disappointing Tracey Emin. As much admired for her undoubted brilliance in Printmaking and self-autobiographical installation work, it is with much confusion that the wooden sculptural pieces were included, as they seemed more like last minute space fillers than integral components of the show. France provided a platform for the glorious Sophie Calle, which created as much delight with the female audience as it alienated every male with potential boredom. Germany regimented a single file queue dictating an audience of twenty at a time to appreciate the talents of Isa Genzken. However, standing in the queue people watching outside proved more enlightening than the long awaited venture inside.
With Robert Storr’s dedicated inclusion of a variety of deceased artists, it is Felix Gonzalez-Torres work Untitled (Golden), 1995 that sparkled a renewed freshness, with pertinence to the day it was first made. This single piece found in the Italian Pavilion proved as memorable a tribute, as the entire US Pavilions collection of Gonzalez Torres work.

On the whole the 52nd Venice Biennale succeeds in quenching an art thirsty crowd, but it is with an appreciation of the individual works and of the lesser-known artists that provides the main attributes of this years Biennale.

Julian Johnson


Images from top: opening ceremony for the Canadian Pavillion. Lee Hyungkoo Felis Cactus Animatus, 2006 , installation, courtesy of the artist. Jacob Dahlgren, I, the World, Things, Life, 2004, installation of dartboards, courtesy Galleri Charlotte Lund, Stockholm. AES+F GROUP Last Riot, 2007, video installation, courtesy of Multimedia Complex of Actual Arts, Triumph Gallery. Andrei Bartenev, Lost Connection, 2007, installation, revolving light-emitting diode balls, courtesy Multimedia Complex of Actual Arts, Triumph Gallery. El Anatsui, Dusasa II, 2007, aluminium and copper wire, stitching, 550 x 650 cm, courtesy of the artist. Callam Morton, Valhalla, 2007, installation, courtesy of Roslyn Oxley 9 Gallery, Sydney. Marko Maetamm, No Title, 2006, DVD, sound, 11'49", courtesy of the artist. Masao Okabe, Is there a Future for Our Past? The Dark Face of the Light, 1996-2007, installation, coutesy of Hokkaido Museum of Modern Art. Isa Genzken Secession, 2006, installation, coutesy of courtesy of Galerie Daniel Buchholz, Cologne. Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Golden) 1995, strands of beads, copyright and courtesy of the Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation.