Tuesday, 12 May 2015


Not necessarily better or worse, but different.  They bring, among other qualities, colour, compassion and children to the arid world of contemporary art.
It has been a fact little commented on that there were so many women artists represented at the Venice Biennale 2015. Perhaps that's accidental or perhaps it's just that 30 years after Guerilla Girls first started their campaign to expose the rampant sexism in the art world, it is finally time for them to get their say as a matter of course.
In the national pavilions in the Giardini, some of the very best work on display is by women artists, whether it be Sarah Lucas's custard coloured rethinking of the British Pavilion or the way that the 78-year-old Joan Jonas turns the US Pavilion into an entrancing fantasy of her own thoughts, with a multi-media installation that binds films of children dressing up, with old American legends, drawings of bees and fish with driftwood and mirrors into an entirely satisfying whole.  It speaks of memory and ghosts and music and madness and made the bustle of the Biennale a suddenly meditative place to be.
Meanwhile, in the French quarter, Celeste Boursier-Mougenot offered another different perspective on nature with uprooted trees that followed you round, like a magic forest, or Birnham Wood come to the Rialto; Fiona Hall turned the Australian pavilion into wonderland of ticking clocks, driftwood as moulded as sculpture, masks and nests, making witty and unexpected collisions speak loudly of the past poking its fingers into the present. Hito Steyeri provided a haunting, energetic digital installation with great dancing for the German entry.
For Japan, Chihauru Shiota hung red string from the ceiling, with keys from around the world dangling like jewels.  The effect was both dazzling and strangely evocative, like a miasma of lost answers tantalisingly out of reach.  For Switzerland, Pamela Rosenkranz filled a pool with viscous, pink liquid, and coloured the walls complementary green, creating an image that might have been fashioned in a pharmaceutical laboratory not a gallery.  For Chile, another veteran, Paz Errazuriz turned a grave but gentle eye on transvestites in prison and abandoned mentally ill inhabitants of an institution, with tender and moving effect.
And it wasn't just in the nationally sponsored pieces that female artists gleamed.  They irradiated the main exhibition, curated by the Nigerian Okwui Enwezor too. I loved Marlene Dumas's ghostly skulls, like a frieze around a wall and Taryn Simon's pressed flowers sitting delicately atop heavy tomes of economic forum reports.  Mini retrospectives showed off the power of Ellen Gallagher and Lorna Simpson;  Sonia Bryce provided a bright, provocative video about the relationship between men and women in Exquisite Cacophony; Adrian Piper won the Golden Lion for a highly conceptual piece which asked visitors to sign statements saying things like "I will always do what I say I am going to do" or "I will always be too expensive to buy."
All these voices are sharply contrasted, but they stood out against the heaviness of so much of the Biennale's thinking this year, the iron weaponry, the bludgeoning message that workers of the world must unite to shake off their chains.  The women, by sheer force of numbers, spoke strongly to me and made themselves heard; they were radical and thought provoking without ever attempting to beat me into submission.  I loved the experience of encountering them.


Enwezor's entire Biennale offering was a critique of the capitalist values that the art world too often represents, setting readings of Marx's Das Kapital at the heart of a deeply serious and deeply political display. This caused odd collisions: the collectors confronted by a critique of their collecting, the curators faced with the sheer grind of hard labour; the artist biting the sponsor's hand that feeds him.  But it also made you deeply aware of art that really had a message - where it said something that mattered in a way nothing else could achieve.
I thought Armando Lulaj in the Albanian pavilion spoke very loudly of the confusions and chaos of Communist dictatorship and the importance of a different vision of state and soverignity.  His work felt meant and important, reaching far beyond contemporary art cliche.
In My East is Your West, commisioned by the Gujral Foundation, the work of Pakistan's Rashid Rana was exhibited alongside a display by the Indian artist Shilpa Gupta. Rana hit upon a very direct way of making a deeply felt point.  As part of a five room installation, people in a market in Lahore were linked by live stream to the people walking through the Palazzo Benzon in Venice. You could talk and wave over an internet link - and the directness of that communication felt as fresh, inspiring and important as anything else in Venice.  The critics were, by and large, slightly underwhelmed, but the simplicity of the concept seemed to me to be its strength. (See below)


The Venice Biennale is a madness, but it has two abiding strengths.  It brings a vast amount of art from all over the world to one place and allows you to see it.  Because the art is chosen in so many different ways by so many different people, it is remarkably various and free from the defining constraints of either curators or the market.
As a result, it emphasises how much in art is purely a matter of personal taste.  There is no ultimate judgement, no final standard.  I found Sarah Lucas's show energising and witty; many of my colleagues found it shallow.  I adored Steve McQueen's Ashes, but it has barely rated a blip on most people's radar.  I found
John Akromfrah's video Vertigo Sea, rather over-lush and over-easy in its startling effects.  Many critics think highly of it.
The power of all art is that it should make you think, challenge your notions, make you see the world differently - either by its beauty, its intelligence, its significance or all three.   Venice reaffirms that it is possible for 100 people to look at the same thing and see it differently which is, in its way, incredibly comforting.  It's an affirmation of the richness of things, a thumbs up for complexity.