Szeemann's moving Venice Biennale: Video work dominates 49th edition

Our overview also reveals the highs and lows of this year's biennale, which draws heavily on Scandinavian artists and pays tribute to grand masters Serra, Beuys, Twombly and Richter


The preview days of this Biennale made it seem more than ever like a theme park complete with queues. Canada had the longest, followed by Germany with Gregor Schneider’s claustrophic house in a house, then high-tech France followed by the US with Robert Gober.

A lot of the art seemed to be there for instant impact ; there was little to encourage quiet contemplation. Was this because these huge art jamborees encourage competitive, dramatic presentations, or because that is what is around at present?

Art and film are now as close as art and photography: is this a short by a film director or an extended video piece by an artist? Answer: the duller ones tend to be by the artists, often with lengthy close-ups of faces.

The Biennale is a great leveller; everyone is in with a chance. Gober in the US pavilion may trade at millions of dollars, but little Latvia mustered two short films that were moving, serious and clever. Both used music from Mozart’s “Magic Flute”, one, by Laial Pakalnina, filming random Latvians in the street as they listened to the Papagena aria through head phones, probably for the first time, and we watched their reactions; the other, by Ilmars Blumbergs and Viesturs Kairiss showed the burial of paupers in a birch forest on a winter’s day. Will the art system push these names to the fore in the future?

There was fashion everywhere: Georgina Starr’s catwalk performance interrupted by gun-toting children (p. 40, ill. 3); Vanessa Beecroft’s lounging models (p. 40, ill. 2); former supermodel Veruschka stitching a tapestry of herself in her prime (p. 41, ill. 8).

Sponsorship for the sake of brand affirmation had made progress since the last biennale: Gucci flew in the magnificent pair of Richard Serra spirals (p.40, ill.1); Bloomberg paid £250,000 for the British Council party on the quarantine island of Lazzaretto Nuovo transformed into a series of runways and with the omnipresent envoys from Vogue chronicling the entire proceedings.

High points were Michael Raedecker’s stunning diptych in Ca’ Zenobio; Siobhan Hapaska’s eerie film viewed from a pungeant rustling grotto of suspended fir trees in the Scuola di San Pasquale; Mark Wallinger’s video “Threshold to the Kingdom”, a very rare investigation of a religious theme ; the full-on street installation of Barry McGee and Mike Nelson’s dusty, disconcerting labyrinth, fraught with secret agendas and tales untold; the clever ideas and sound effects in the Canada pavilion film.

Nationalism is deeply unhip, but art is a useful tool of diplomacy, and the anachronistic survival of national pavilions in Venice gives new or unpopular nations the chance to make a showing on the international stage. Hong Kong is present for the first time this year, doubling up for mainland China, which otherwise cannot attend as Taiwan is already established at the Biennale.

At Hong Kong’s lavish opening party, it was smiles across the Region as Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Singapore and Korea all united in art to present their artists. Endearingly, one of the Hong Kong conceptual works involves real biscuits, biscotti cielo, available at selected patisseries around Venice.

Globalisation makes itself felt through the similarity of much art, no matter where it comes from, and the widespread use of often slightly unidiomatic English expressing vaguely uplifting thoughts. For example: “Those who build a wall around their own spirituality risk to lose it” (Denmark); “The variety of theories taught before like eternal truths (Manuel Ocampo); “Look at an object as if you would see it for the first time (Switzerland). Barbara Kruger has a lot to answer for.

The long roperies, the Corderie, have become almost entirely a series of booths, each with its (often more than 10 minutes long) video; the classic white box of the art gallery has been replaced by the black box.

Szeeman, who is in his sixties, has nonetheless given some space to painters: the veteran, Cy Twombly (who has amazed everyone by abandoning white on white for the sake of colour); Gerhard Richter, Helmut Federle, Neo Rauch and Manuel Ocampo.

In the meanwhile, Tanja Ostojic, his girlfriend (one supposes), has trimmed her pubic hair into a square and calls it in the catalogue her “hidden Malevich”, which, she says, only Harald Szeemann will have the right to see, in order to declare it an official part of the 49th Venice Biennale.

Photography by Lorenzo Cappellini

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Very moving'