From a personal viewpoint, it is with great relief that I am not crawling on all fours in a repeat of the violent heat of summer 2003 trying to engage with the art and staying alive at the same time. For that reason, the pull of the Welsh Pavilion in the slightly cooler setting (In more ways than one) of the Giudecca was too great and it was here that I enjoyed my stay most. This magnetic attraction continued for 2005 as I was so impressed by the Wales debut of 2003 that my view was slightly biased in making sure that we made the effort to return to this part of the city during the vernissage.

Without the homing beacon of Cerith Wyn Evans installation piece Cleave 03 (Transmission, Vision of the Sleeping Poet), it seemed peculiar making the journey across the grande canale without the piercing beam of light shooting into the sky for the opening event. A tough act to follow indeed. It is always with great curiosity what the intentions of the descending artists choose to follow in making and presenting work for Venice. The actual nature of the venue poses so many questions to the artist, that they can choose to ignore the competition with the history of its art or embrace the essence and absorb their work into the foundations of the place.

The title of the Welsh presence Somewhere Else reflects the participation of exhibiting outside the Biennale gardens in the ex Birreria, on Giudecca. As with any small nation, there is always that underlying feeling of being on the outside looking in, but all credit to the Welsh ensemble in embracing the trend of moving away from the masses and establishing their own position. The jostle for superiority in the giardino all adds to the excitement and the volume of art displayed in the arsenale truly tests ones capacity of experiencing the work in one sitting. This is why the vaporetto across the grand canale clears the mind and allows the opportunity of experiencing the Welsh Pavilion in what seems like all the time in the world. Once you have made the trip over, the spectacle of watching the mayhem back on the other side of the water makes you feel that there is no point in returning.

So the selection of artists curated by Karen Mackinnon proved an interesting mix of where contemporary art in Wales stands today. The artists representing Wales for 2005 are Peter Finnemore, Laura Ford and Paul Granjon. Additionally, these artists are joined by Bedwyr Williams as the artist in residence. This residency is a new opportunity organised by Artworks Wales and Wales at the Venice Biennale of Art 2005 and was selected by open submission. Typifying the culture of art development in Wales, the residency once again proves the forward thinking and support in elevating Welsh artists in prominent arenas.

So after igniting the public’s imagination with the show Further in 2003, how does the collective of Somewhere Else stand up in this cauldron of visual feasts? In essence, the show is inevitably more low key than 2003, but there is a feeling that the exhibition this year holds more substance. The initial razzmatazz of Wales participation in 2003 has subsided, so the focus has shifted to the importance of the work itself, which is surely the primary reason for being here in the first place. With an admission of no thematic consideration, the show nevertheless encapsulates many collective traits of a country steeped in culture.

As stated in the notes of Mr. Michael Nixon (Commissioner - Wales at the Venice Biennale, 2005), "If there are similarities in the artists approach, it is through a sensibility which comes from artistic concerns that are generated through social as well as formal interests. This in turn, is approached through humour or an examination of stereotypes and these views, from 'somewhere else' do not subscribe to an orthodoxy, although the work has serious intent".

Apart from Paul Granjon, all the artists were born in Wales and only Laura Ford lives and works outside of the principality. French born Paul Granjon has lived and worked in Cardiff for the past ten years and is deservedly included for his contribution to art in Wales over this period. So with a cultural mix reflective of an ever-evolving country, the work stands out with an equal balance of humour, complexity, childlike perspectives, subconscious observations and an underlying seriousness that pulls all the work in together as one. Without a showcase piece as in 2003, the subtlety of Somewhere Else forces the viewer to fully explore the delightful nuances of each artists work. Humour is a powerful tool as an icebreaker between the work and the viewer and so the audience is left feeling fairly comfortable in the first instant. It is only on further investigation that we are aware of slightly darker themes at play.

This is certainly the case in the work of Laura Ford. Familiar with Laura Ford’s recent solo shows at the Houldsworth Gallery, London – Headthinkers (2003) & Wreckers (2004), the most striking aspect of these shows and the work presented in Somewhere Else is the juxtaposition of the pieces. In Ford’s creation of strange hybrid creatures, the positioning of the work provokes interesting questions that seem to cover a multitude of extremities. In the work Beast, a sole hybrid creature sits on a small stool with a hood covering its head. With an animal like posture, in one extreme it suggests the possibility that it is a creature taking a rest from a children’s fantasy film, but at the other end of the scale it is suggestive of the harrowing torture images one associates with recent news bulletins. It evokes similar ‘Terrorist’ imagery to that of the work shown in Wreckers (2004) of suicide bomber children. Yet, through all of this it plays with this double edge sword of extreme darkness and childhood innocence. Ford seems to take you to places that you probably did not wish to take and reinvents psychological scenes with playfulness that never strays too far away from their dark origins.

Similarly, the figures in Glory Glory are a miss-match of identities from national costumes, deconstructing stereotypes and posing questions of our own identity and emphasising the multi cultural society in which we live. In all, using figures associated with child’s play and placing them in an adult world, it is a surprising mixture that engages all of your primary emotions.

Primary functions seem to be central in Paul Granjon’s work in his creation of a Robotarium. This Robotarium consists of three battery-operated robots that seem to encapsulate basic human needs in a low tech closed in ‘Zoo’ environment. The premise is divided by two of the robots (male & female) actively seeking each other out to ‘mate’ in a synchronised almost balletic dance around the enclosure. This pursuit is dictated at pseudo-random intervals with the robots entering an ‘in heat’ algorithm. Unfortunately, the two robots can only mate successfully if they are both ‘in heat’, otherwise they cannot detect each other. Separated from this mechanical love affair is the third and more humanistic of the three robots, whose sole objective seems to be avoiding all manner of obstacles in its path. Mirroring the many obstacles of life itself, the Smartbot as its titled, enters into programmes of emotion if its simple task of wandering aimlessly results in failure, be it crying, blinking or even swearing (In French & English).

It is an intriguing idea of how basic human functions can be simplified in this makeshift arena and is an interesting and humorous overview of social activity. One of the most insightful discoveries is that Granjon utilises the escalating detritus of the technological revolution to create his work. This filters a more serious outlook on the work, as it is suggestive of how our society exists today and also reflects our intense quest for technological advancement.

Observations of social activity and identity, albeit removed of mechanical machines, are a focal point in Peter Finnemore’s three-screen video installation for Somewhere Else. Finnemore’s work delves into an exploration of memory, the home, Welsh cultural history and narratives with an appealing sense of humour and surrealism. A common theme taken from his current show Zen Gardener is the use of his own garden as a theatre for performance and the appearing actors dressed in character. There is a beautiful madness to enticing members of your own family and close friends to dress up in combat gear and perform in these videos. This is not always the case as mostly, Finnemore acts alone, although in some cases even pets appear in leading roles as seen in Time Lord Explaining Uncertainty Principle to Muffin the Cat (2005). However, the work is extremely complex and multi-layered encapsulating a range of ideas, influences and historical art references. This is evident in Potato Eaters (2005), whereby there are direct references to The Potato Eaters, titled works of both Van Gogh and Turner.

Following on with another diversity of ideas and surreal humour is the resident artist, Bedwyr Williams who in the words of the Welsh press release is ‘Our man in Venice, intrepid detective, reporter, non-participant observer and loose cannon on the island of Giudecca’. This was never more evident than in his publication on Venice, Basta, an observational critique of the more mundane happenings of island life, with occasional comparisons to his own experience of growing up in North Wales. In direct contrast to the endless tourist books and novels on Venice, ‘Basta’ transpires into a book of quintessential honesty, that emanates child-like thoughts without consequence. The fourteen-week residency provided enough time for the artist to almost break down cultures and install a refreshing equality that resonates in the final work.

All in all, the success of Somewhere Else stems from the natural realism evident in all the work. There is nothing forced in this pavilion, just the inescapable feeling that behind all the Welsh wit and surreal imagination is a pertinent questioning of how we live our lives in today’s multi cultural society. Sometimes it is the quietest voice that creates the loudest noise and in Wales follow up to 2003, once again it is evident that Wales have reasserted themselves as a ‘must-see’ event at the 51st Venice Biennale.

Julian Johnson

 

Images from top: Bedwyr Williams Basta, 2005, courtesy of Store Gallery. Paul Granjon Robotarium 2005, (female sexed robot and male sexed male robot), courtesy of the artist. Laura Ford Beast 2005, courtesy of Houldsworth Gallery. Peter Finnemore, Base Camp 2005, courtesy of the artist.

 

51st La Biennale di Venezia (June 12th – November 6th 2005).