It is impossible to write in great detail about the fantastic event that is the Venice Biennale. This review does not aim to be exhaustive, but rather, as in past coverage, to give some highlights of the Giardini, Arsenale, some participating countries and collateral events. A useful guide for the first time visitor to this wonderful affair perhaps, who might feel dizzy, disoriented and light-headed at the prospect of trying to find a strategy to begin the journey across such a monumental exhibition. Or perhaps a guide for the more seasoned visitor, who on a more stringent timetable, might prefer to be pointed towards the direction of the most salient pavilions. Only some artists are highlighted, but it is hoped that this will offer a way into the chimera that is the Venice Biennale.

This year Sophie Calle has been chosen not only to exhibit in the Italian Pavilion by Robert Storr, but most importantly as the artist to represent France in one of the most noteworthy exhibitions of the Biennale. An email (possibly fictitious) sent by her partner, by which he severs his relationship with her, is the starting point for her installation. In Take care of yourself 2007, she commissions 107 women to respond to her now ex-lover's text. A doctor, a psychoanalyst, an actor, a musician, a judge, a writer, a teacher and a plethora of other professionals analyse and reflect on the aforementioned email with an invaluable, personal, generous and often amusing input. All the documentation is then displayed in a multimedia installation comprising of a video filled room, texts, objects, sound and photography. Candidly portrayed, elegant and intelligently organised, it showcases responses from the cynical, to comical, to shocked, to exaggerated, to nitpicky, as the text is dissected and scrutinised, placed under a magnifying glass until there is nowhere for the original writer to hide. Take care of yourself is not only a wonderful journey into the female psyche but also in the world of the opposite sex. Many uncomfortable stances and silences could be felt by the male counterparts who entered the pavilion. Perhaps they had a moment of recognition or the hope that the author of the infamous email would be fictitious, for no fate would be worse then such public ignominy.

Another wonderful installation by a female artist can be seen at the Polish Pavilion. Monika Sosnowska's artistic approach however could not be further than Sofie Calle's. 1:1 is the installation she has created for the 52nd Venice Biennale. A metallic black shell, reflecting the structural parts of a real building, has been transported from her native country and installed within the Polish Pavilion. The building she has picked has a very important resonance with the artist, as the structure is from a particular form of communist architecture, which was widely employed in post-war Poland. These now defunct, abandoned and mostly demolished buildings stem for the failure of the idealism of a communist way of life. As the title 1:1 suggests, the scale of the structure is the same as the original, however this does not correspond to the pavilion’s own dimensions. In order to fit this metal skeleton inside the latter, it has been crushed, folded and buckled. This adds a further layer of meaning to the work, for not only it highlights the failure of this structure to serve as it was formally designed, but it also resembles a monstrous useless parasite. Strangely organic, it fruitlessly fights its imposed restricted conditions. A metal dinosaur who has lost its fight against extinction, it now symbolises an obsolete ideology, which, in order to fit with contemporary ideals, it has been bent beyond recognition.

A play with scale and our perceptions can also be seen in the work of Lee Hyungkoo, representing the Republic of Korea. The first installation that confronts the viewer upon entering the pavilion is of two skeletons placed adjacent to each other on a black, dramatically lit background, entitled Mus Animatus and Felis Catus Animatus, 2006. At first glance these seem to be of real creatures, due to the extensive and obsessive nature of the details applied to their structures. However it soon transpires that these bones are of the famous cartoon characters ‘Tom and Jerry’, placed in the quintessential position of one of their frantic chases. To come across such startling realistic representation brings in question our notion of reality; when so much of contemporary life is played within virtual world and de-personalising networking sites, the skeletal Tom and Jerry appear almost realistic. A comic and humorous play with suspension of disbelief and altering our sense of reality, is also present in another of the works he shows in the Biennale. Here he brings to the fore our obsession with external appearances. He constructs a laboratory to cure and fix all the physiological parts of his person, which give him anxieties and inferiority complexes. A helmet, gloves and other appendages are added to his body to enhance his appearance. Eyes, mouth and hands are enlarged forming an absurd and grotesque figure. This structure, created to make him more appealing, however seem to have the opposite effect as a repulsive, yet amusing creature is formed.

It is always interesting to compare the current Biennale with its predecessors and Robert Storr had a very tough act to follow after Maria de Corral and Rosa Martinez 2005 Venice Biennale. This is apparent in the Arsenale; whereby the previous attempt at curating such a vast and demanding space resulted in a varied and stimulating exhibition, Storr's somehow results in a curatorial work where the voice is rather monotone. The quality of the works on show is not questioned, however the space could have been put to a better use if the message conveyed would have been more varied.

One of the first works that confronts the viewer upon entering the Arsenale is La civilizacion occidental y cristiana by Leon Ferrari. A Christ in the classical position of the crucifixion is placed not on a wooden cross, but rather on an American fighter jet. His outstretched arms are nailed to the wings of the aircraft, which is menacingly pointing downwards towards the ground and is loaded with bombs. Furthermore, the sculpture is hanging from the ceiling as though ready to strike at any moment and bring destruction and devastation to all in its path. Robert Storr could not have chosen a more iconographic image to open his exhibition, as the concept behind this work is re-iterated throughout the whole Arsenale.

A wall installation by Nedko Solakov entitled Discussion (Property), 2007 pays particular attention to this concern, albeit in a seemingly more comical way. The inspiration behind the piece is the long dispute between Russia and Bulgaria on the intellectual property rights over the manufacturing of the AK-47. These discussions are told via the artist's own voice as he attempts, more or less successfully, to engage both Russian and Bulgarian sides into a debate about ownership. The result is a convoluted series of events that are told by hand-written text on the exhibition's walls. Unordered, uneven and irregular lines of writing are interweaved in between twelve drawings of the aforementioned weapon, monitors screening interviews and archival video footage, and a decommissioned Kalashnikov. The story is narrated with humour, wit, an almost childlike innocence and with such a light-hearted touch that it is hard to remember that the subject of this installation is the hand-held weapon responsible for the highest numbers of deaths in the world and the most popular tool to take away human lives. Nothing is sacred and safe from the touch of capitalism, as the sales from this weapon of mass destruction become subject of such bitter legal battle.

A concern with warfare, death, abandonment, destruction, dilapidation and man's foolishness is echoed throughout the rooms of the Arsenale. As many artists touch on these subjects, it is with welcome relief that some deviate from this repetitiveness and thus stand out even more from the rest of Robert Storr's curated exhibition. Such an artist is the Italian born Tatiana Trouve'. In her installation Untitled, 2007, a series of sculptures made of minimal furniture and metal are placed together in a room. The harsh lighting of this space is in stark contrast with the softness of the surrounding exhibition areas. The encounter with such starling object within the chaos and jumble of the Arsenale, literally stops the viewer in his tracks. These absurd and useless sculptures are as cryptic as are enticing, they look recognisable, yet alien and obscure. The artist plays a game with the viewer, as she gives only enough information to suggest a hint of familiarity, enough for a pretence of understanding. However the sculptures' purpose is not graspable, their intended use and meaning is just out of reach. Only a part of the story is told, as the viewer is needed as the missing link in Tatiana Trouve' work. Thus one's own spatial and psychological relationship with the installation, baggage of memories and responses to the objects is required to complete the installation.

Objects torn out of their usual surroundings, but to a very different effect, are what forms El Anatsui’s works. One of his starling pieces can be seen in the Arsenale, another can be found in within the labyrinthine calles of Venice (for the visitor who might want to embark in the hunt, it is draped over the Palazzo Fortuny). From a distance Amatsui’s wall hanging, entitled Dusasa I, assumes a gold, glittery and enticing aspect. It appears to be made from sumptuous materials, gems and jewels, decor fit for the most discerning of palates. These intricate 'tapestries', which would not appear out of place in a sultan's palace, are however constructed entirely out of recycled materials. Aluminium tins, bottle tops, metal tags and packaging detritus are intricately and delicately weaved, and held together by copper wire to form abstract patterns. Even if the meaning of the latter might be slightly obscure, as based on African histories that might be unknown to the viewer, the materials he uses speak an international, but yet extremely personal language. He manages to transform discarded and obsolete materials, borne out of the consumerist machine, into transcendentally beautiful works. Aesthetically they interweave western and African cultural references, whilst conceptually they refer to the West’s use of his continent as a wasteland.

It is not just the Giardini or the Arsenale that are completely overrun with contemporary art during the Biennale, but also the remainder of Venice. Every building, island and vessel is turned into an artistic expression. One of such is the Palazzo Zenobio, which, with its courtyard and surrounding edifices, houses the work of many artists of differentiating nationalities. Callum Morton's work, representative of Australia, can be seen in its gardens, whilst the ‘iila’, Istituto Italo-Latino Americano and the Scottish Pavilion inhabit the internal parts of the palazzo.

Particularly impressive are the installations by Ronald Moran from El Salvador and Wilfredo Prieto from Cuba in the ‘iila’. The first presents Habitacion Infantil, 2005, a children's room completely covered in polyester foam. The bed, furniture, clothes, toys, every nook and cranny is covered in this white material. This silent space, of suffused noises, has the same impact on the visitor as waking up on a winter's morning to find the landscape completely covered in snow. However the felt produces a very dissimilar emotion, for what would be the need to cover all these belonging with such a material? What kind of behaviour has sparked the inhabitant's need for such protection? The work is disquieting and unsettling, as the candour of the installation further heightens the underling menace of over protective parents, or perhaps those who have a brutal secret to hide.

Wilfredo Prieto's installation also presents a rather uncomfortable narrative. S/T (Biblioteca Blanca), 2004, comprises of a series of tables, chairs and bookcases that are filled by 6000 publications. On first impact it seems like a fairly credible reconstruction of a library or a reading space, but tellingly all the books are blank. This eerie and odd environment resembles a three-dimensional Thomas Demand photograph. However all the printed information has been edited out, thus highlighting the vanishing freedom of speech with the world’s numerous censured works and, on the opposite scale of the spectrum, the vacuity of many written texts.

After visiting the Palazzo Zenobio, a vaporetto can be taken to arrive in the opposite island of Giudecca. One of the exhibitions on show here is from Wales, entitled And so it goes. The Welsh Pavilion uses the space provided by the 'Ex-Birreria' and it showcases the works of Richard Deacon, Merlin James and Heather & Ivan Morrison. The latter present for the Venice Biennale an outdoor sculpture and a video. The first, entitled Pleasure Island, has a twin exhibited in Heather and Ivan Morrison’s ancient woodlands in north Wales, whilst the second, entitled Dark Star is projected in one of the rooms of the Ex-Birreria. Both pieces are based on the artists’ experiences of travelling around the United States of America and meeting with nomadic groups of people, who live in house/trucks made of felled timber. Consequently Pleasure Island has been made using wood found in their land, derived from a similar source. Furthermore they have used as inspiration fragments of meteorites bought on their journey. In the sculpture this is manifested in its startling design, whilst in the video these objects are more apparent, as they menacingly hover above rather placid and tranquil landscapes inhabited by the previously mentioned caravan. These works present the viewer with a strange dichotomy: they are attractive and repulsive, serene and ominous, sheltering and distancing, familiar and foreign.

As so many works in the biennale they present more questions than answers, and need the intervention and absolute attention of the public in order to complement and complete the work. Therefore a word a caution: the Biennale is not be entered with an absent mind, as not all its noteworthy works ‘shout’ at the viewer, some of its most interesting artistic expressions are often a whisper and might be lost over the background noise of Venice or glanced over by an inattentive eye.

Gaia Persico

 

Images from top: Morrinho Project, Morrinho, 2001/07, mixed media installation, courtesy of Morrinho. Sophie Calle, Take care of Yourself , 2007, mixed media installation, courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. Monika Sosnowska, 1:1, 2007, installation, steel, courtesy of Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw. Lee Hyungkoo, Altering Facial Features with Pink H-1, 2003, digital print, 120 x 150 cm, courtesy of the artist. Leon Ferrari, La Civilizacion Occidentale y Cristiana, 1965, oil on plaster and plastic, 200 x 120 x 50 cm, courtesy of the artist. Nedko Solakov, Discussion (Property), 2007, mixed media installation, copyright Nedko Solakov, courtesy of Arndt & Partner, Berlin. Tatiana Trouve', Untitled, 2007, 6 sculptures, mixed media, courtesy of the artist. El Anatsui, Dusasa I, 2007, aluminium and copper wire, stitching, courtesy of the artist. Ronald Moran, Habitacion Infantil, 2005, installation of polyester foam covered objects, courtesy of the artist. Wilfredo Prieto, S/T (Bibliotece Blanca), 2004, 6000 blank books, bookcases, tables and chairs, courtesy of Galeria Nogueras Blanchard, Barcellona. Heather & Ivan Morrison, Dark Star, 2007, image still, courtesy of Danielle Arnaud Gallery, London. Jason Rhoades, Tijuanatanjierchandelier, 2006, installation, courtesy of Hauser and Wirth, London.