by Roderick Conway Morris

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Daniel Zakharov
Vadim Zahkarov restages the myth of Zeus's seduction of Danae.

Serendipity Spices a Surprising Venice Biennale

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 4 June 2013


Sea levels may be rising and economies shrinking but the expansion of the Venice Biennale goes on regardless. Twenty years ago 53 countries were represented at the Venice event. This year there are 88 national pavilions, with Angola, the Bahamas, Bahrain, Ivory Coast, Kosovo, Kuwait, the Maldives, Paraguay, Tuvalu and the Vatican officially appearing for the first time.

Portugal achieved a first by sailing its pavilion all the way from Lisbon and parking it outside the Giardini, or Castello Gardens. This seaborne representation takes the form of the 'Trafaria Praia,' a decommissioned passenger ferry boat that used to ply the waters of the Tagus, transformed over a period of a year by Joana Vasconcelos and her team of 30 painters, seamstresses, carpenters, metalworkers and electricians into an inside-and-out work of art that will take visitors on regular excursions around St. Mark's Basin throughout the Biennale.

The exterior of the vessel has been encased from stern to prow in a wrap-around frieze of over 7,000 traditional tin-glazed, blue-and-white, hand-painted 'azulejos' tiles depicting 20 kilometers, or 12 miles, of the Lisbon skyline. It is inspired by the 'The Great Panorama of Lisbon' of 1700, which was itself inspired by panoramic prints of views of Venice from the 15th century onward.

Below decks the main saloon has been transformed into a mysterious, dark-blue sea cave, padded from floor to ceiling with crocheted and stitched soft submarine forms, pulsating with fairy lights and gently vibrating with the ship's engine, evoking visions of the womb and of Jonah in the belly of the Whale.

The only installation in Venice to match this in size and complexity is Jacob Hashimoto's 'Gas Giant' at Palazzo Querini Stampalia (through Sept. 1). He has filled the upper story of the palazzo with a beautiful, billowing, cloudlike, thread-suspended sequence of around 8,000 translucent pearly, patterned and golden bamboo framed disks and panels through which visitors wander as in a delightful light-filled dream.

In the Russian Pavilion at the Giardini, the conceptual artist Vadim Zahkarov re-stages the ancient myth of Zeus's seduction of Danae in the form of a shower of gold as a comment on the materialism and greed of modern times. Visitors can observe from a gallery gilded coins tumbling from the ceiling above onto the floor below, where they form an enormous heap. Access to the lower floor is restricted to women, who are handed transparent umbrellas to protect them from the cascading largess, and invited to pick up coins and deposit them in a bucket, which is periodically hoisted up and its contents poured onto a conveyor belt to replenish the supply of coins falling from above.

Maxim Kantor was the artist chosen to represent Russia at the national pavilion in 1997 and returns to Venice with 'Atlantis,' an extensive exhibition of recent paintings and graphic works at Palazzo Zenobio (through Sept. 10). Here, canvases of Atlantis, disappearing beneath waves, and other apocalyptic visions act as metaphors for the crises of modern Western civilization, accompanied by Mr. Kantor's satirical graphics of historical and contemporary life and politics. The artist, who is also well-known in Russia and elsewhere as a novelist and cultural commentator, took up residence seven years ago on an island off the west coast of France. This experience has given rise to new departures in his painting in the form of striking new expressionist images of the beaches, dunes and seascapes around his new home.

Watery themes also characterize installations at the Arsenale. An improbable escalator (surely the only one in Venice) conveys visitors to the circular, domed chamber of the United Arab Emirates pavilion, where they find themselves surrounded on all sides by Mohammed Kazem's 360-degree film of heaving waves. The idea is 'to experience what it is to be lost at sea, to walk on the waters unafraid,' but is also remarkably effective at stimulating sensations of seasickness.

The Chilean pavilion across the way contains a large tank filled with opaque green water. Every three minutes a meticulously realized, glistening scale model in resin of the Giardini with its trees and national pavilions rises from the deep, before slowly sinking back again.

For its first-ever exhibition at the Biennale, 'In Principio,' the Holy See has chosen the work of a group of artists to represent 'the first eleven chapters of the Old Testament book of Genesis.'

But the combination of pictures, photographs and sculptures is so opaque and allusive, not to say elusive, as scarcely to begin to do justice to such dramatic events.

In the Italian pavilion, also at the Arsenale, Giulio Paolini and Marco Tirelli illustrate how disciplines like mathematical perspective, which dates back to the Renaissance, can still be used today to produce vibrant and intriguing works of art. Mr. Tirelli's extraordinarily subtle use of perspective, light and sfumato shading to produce sculptural forms on flat surfaces is displayed here in an absorbing array of his works on paper.

Massimiliano Gioni, the artistic director of the 55th Biennale, takes the overall title of his shows, 'Il Palazzo Encyclopedico' ('The Encyclopedic Palace') - at the large Central pavilion in the Castello Gardens and the Corderie (Rope Walk) in Arsenale - from a 136-story tower designed by an amateur Italian-American architect, Marino Auriti, in the 1950s.

A model of this tower greets visitors in the entrance to the Corderie. Auriti's hope was that this gigantic edifice, over 2,000 feet, or 600 meters, high and covering sixteen blocks, would be built in Washington as a repository of all human knowledge. And in the first room of the Central Pavilion is a glass case containing Carl Gustav Jung's 'Red Book,' a compendium of visions, dreams and fantasies that he spent 16 years compiling.

At 39, Mr. Gioni is the youngest-ever curator of the event. He has chosen more than 150 artists, twice as many as were featured two years ago, and his selections look back at the art of the past 100 years as much as they explore the state of the contemporary art world. Quite a number of the artists that Mr. Gioni displays are or were, like Auriti, amateurs, and not a few of them in the grip of various obsessions and idées fixes. The overall effect is visually rich and diverting and has the virtue of being different from recent Biennales, although in its inclusion of historical and unusual pieces has echoes of the edition curated by Jean Clair in 1995.

To mention but a sample of the obsessional cases: After his death in 1992, the American Morton Bartlett was discovered to have a substantial collection of winsome, handcrafted Lolita dolls that he himself had modeled out of clay, and of photographs of them with and without their clothes on; Arthur Bispo do Rosário, a Brazilian visionary, spent five decades in a mental institution, where he created over 800 tapestries, robes and sculptures; and the Japanese commercial photographer Kohei Yoshiyuki devoted countless nights during the 1970s to snapping with infrared film voyeurs spying on couples having furtive sexual encounters.

Beyond the realms of art as pychopathology, there are a good number of serendipitous surprises. Imran Qureshi, for example, has reinvented the Mughal miniature by replacing courtly scenes and portraits with everyday figures from contemporary life in Pakistan, still executing the pictures with exquisite care using traditional gouache and gilding techniques. And the Belgian Thierry De Cordier has recently created a series of majestic paintings of mountainous seas that embody and convey a palpable sense of awe, even fear, in the face of wild nature.

55th Venice Biennale of Visual Arts. Castello Gardens, Arsenale and other venues.Through Nov. 24.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024