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'The Bride', Joana Vasconcelos, stainless steel, OB tampons, Guerrilla Girls, digital prints, 2005

On the eve of the big Biennale, a thunderstorm leaves the Venice air clear. Stars out, the Grand Canal is extra special in the dark—history and beauty balance on a liquid, intimate scale. The second you hit this theatre of inner-city canals and blind alleys, you are seduced, as if for the very first time. No wonder Madonna chose to sing from a gondola on that 80s number one.

Sleep in this womb-like place comes easy. Next morning, the world’s most celebrated art event begins for the 51st time in its 110-year existence. This ‘mother of all biennales’ now spills out of the confines of its original, neo-classical campus just a few bridges from San Marco, with 30 ‘collateral events’ elsewhere in the city. The 71 countries officially exhibiting are gathered, randomly it seems, from around the world, showcasing artists of their own choice. But these days the focus lies not so much with national concerns, but with the artists and their relation to each other—the two main exhibitions, organised by the Biennale machine itself, creating a crucible for the whole, sprawling event.

This year, and for the very first time, these two showcases have been put together by women, both of them from Spain. Maria de Corral has created The Experience of Art within the labyrinthine galleries of the Italian pavilion, the biggest in the Giardini, the Biennale campus. Always a Little Further, a different, perhaps more adventurous, but somehow complimentary, selection by Rosa Martinez, fills the vast brick corridors of the Arsenale, a historic building with a vaulted ‘contemporary’ atmosphere, nearby.

Bouncers here in all but name, New York’s collective, the Guerilla Girls, chalk up astonishing Biennale stats at the entrance to that Arsenale show. On King Kong-style Technicolour posters they tell us that in 1995 only 9% of the participating artists were women. In its 102-year history, only 2% of the artists in the Biennale have been women. A woman first represented Britain in 1968 and then not again until 1997. Why? The GGs laugh and leave us to make our own conclusions. It’s a powerful start to an exhibition full of surprises, one of the most striking being ‘The Bride’, 2001, by Joanne Vasconcelos, in the same room as the Guerilla Girls—a vast, exquisitely constructed chandelier made entirely of tampons. Feminism is not dead—it’s beautiful.

'A Needle WomanPatan, Nepal', Kimsooja, part of four channel video projection, silent, 2005 
'A Needle Woman—Patan, Nepal', Kimsooja, part of four channel video projection, silent, 2005
KULIK GOBI TEST, Oleg Kulik, 2004, Film produced by XL Gallery, Moscow 
KULIK GOBI TEST, Oleg Kulik, 2004, Film produced by XL Gallery, Moscow
CHICHIMAN, Gilbert & George, Perversive Pictures, 2004 
CHICHIMAN, Gilbert & George, Perversive Pictures, 2004

Nearby, The Experience of Art opens with equal vitality. On the Italian pavilion, Barbara Kruger (winner of this year’s Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement), another New York-based artist with a feminist agenda, also borrows the language of advertising. She plasters the entire faç?ade, columns and all, with dire, apocalyptic warnings—ADMIT NOTHING. BLAME EVERYONE. GOD IS ON MY SIDE HE TOLD ME SO. So it is that the voice of America, that big, brash, commercial voice, introduces the art within. After the overtures, both exhibitions are sensitively structured, despite their giant size (42 artists in the Giardini, 51 in the Arsenale). Experience of Art unwinds with the air of a museum, a grown-up international collection. Bacon and Tˆpies next to Dumas and Guston are at its core, with work spiralling round in a global constellation. Artists are given a room of their own. Black curtains everywhere reveal a hidden galaxy of video and film. Gravitas blends with moments of fun. Some work combines both.

Candice Breitz, a young South African artist living in the fashionable catchment of Berlin, hijacks Hollywood in two film collages ‘Mother’ and ‘Father’, 2005. Talking heads against velvet black backgrounds leap into action and transfix. There are tears, fears and tantrums as these ‘role models’ from our popular culture are magically stripped of their status. Steve Martin, Dustin Hoffman, Julia Roberts, Diane Keaton—six men, six women—the artist’s cut digitally extracts them all into deeper territory than the original roles directed. Setting gestures on the repeat button, she choreographs the actors to her own tune with the quick-cutting confidence of German choreographer Pina Bausch. The original dramas are dead. But these vivacious talking heads are alive. ‘No good feeling sorry for yourself,’ says Shirley Mclean. ‘Are you here?’ asks Susan Sarandon straight out to the audience. The nuclear family has been nuked. It’s riveting stuff. Not least because it feels like Breitz has entered a sacrosanct artform, the commercial movie, and sliced it constructively to shreds. Unlike some screen-based artworks, this one keeps your bum on the seat right through and makes you want to see it again. A book on this work is to be published by Rizzoli in January 2006.

RAMALLAH/NEW YORK, Emily Jacir, two channel video installation, 2004/2005
RAMALLAH/NEW YORK, Emily Jacir, two channel video installation, 2004/2005
SESSION VI/LOOK, Leigh Bowery, 1992, Digital C-print. Courtesy of the Artist and Perry Rubenstein Gallery
SESSION VI/LOOK, Leigh Bowery, 1992, Digital C-print. Courtesy of the Artist and Perry Rubenstein Gallery
REALITY SHOW (WITH OLYA TEER), Blue Noses, video still from the series The little men, 2004, Courtesy of Guelman, Gallery, Moscow 
REALITY SHOW (WITH OLYA TEER), Blue Noses, video still from the series The little men, 2004, Courtesy of Guelman, Gallery, Moscow

Another film-based work with movie connections, is Francesco Vezzoli’s 2005 trailer for Gore Vidal’s Caligula. Tellingly full of private viewers most of the time, it treats its audience to a feast of flesh, short and cheesy as a pop video made by Footballers’ Wives. Crass but entertaining? Vezzoli seems to be saying, remember, it’s all art. Back at the beginning of this trail, just past Kruger, not far away from the much-reviewed Mark Wallinger’s ‘Sleeper’, 2004 (his video of a man in a bear-suit locked in the cage of a night-time office), Monica Bonvicini spins a pneumatic drill—it is aggressive, masculine, and hangs from the ceiling – a familiar irritant and essential tool of urban dwellers given a new position. Tool or weapon? The companion piece outside continues the conceit with workmen drilling a huge block of concrete down to nothing. It looks like art is on the attack.

While the pavilions in the Giardini come dangerously near to feeling quaintly nationalistic, the general gist of the art at this year’s Biennale comes closer, often through examining ordinary life, to creating global connections: intent on seeking out interpretations of the commune we call ‘our world’. Countries participating include Afghanistan and the USA, Iceland and Brazil, Great Britain and Korea, Turkey and Croatia. South American countries are well represented, African, not at all; though a number of African artists have been included in the two main exhibitions. China, a newcomer, pitches up in the garden behind the Arsenale, and Scotland arrives for its second official visit, not as a participating country as it transpires, but as a ‘collateral’ event.

Four artists were chosen to make work for the Scotland and Venice 2005: Selective Memory exhibition. Housed in a charming venue, next to a church, it is a quietly confident show. Alex Pollard’s creatures are delicate, cerebral sculptures made of old rulers laid out as museum pieces. Bare bones. Questions of preservation and collection are present in the work of a number of young artists working today—Pollard’s rulers take up that serious enquiry in a good-natured way.

Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan’s work blocks the hall. It too has an anthropological/archaeological curiosity. Big shiny black wedges painted with white cartoon faces attempt an Easter Island attitude. Unfortunately, either the venue, or Venice, or the look on the faces, contrives against them. Even the outdoor sculpture, a large man/dog stick figure (hard to find in the Giardini environs) has elusive qualities which make it hard to engage.

All part of the Scotland and Venice 2005
All part of the Scotland and Venice 2005: Selective Memory exhibition
All part of the Scotland and Venice 2005
All part of the Scotland and Venice 2005: Selective Memory exhibition
All part of the Scotland and Venice 2005
All part of the Scotland and Venice 2005: Selective Memory exhibition

A smell of petrol overwhelms the impact of the wedges anyway. At first I thought it might be drying paint, but discovered its source in the room next door where Cathy Wilkes has set up house. Petrol fumes from a tin tray penetrate the hot Venetian air. The room is littered with bits and pieces—TV, a trowel, a phone, candles, pen, sink with a thread-like hair, dirty salad bowls and a shard of glass. There’s a buggy, an oil painting saucer and a pane of glass with stars and moons. Laid out like Kim’s game, this assorted debris is a poignant, humane, intimate, sophisticated, temporal collage from life. In this instinctive selection, Wilkes achieves an astonishing level of reality with remarkably little pretension.

Eeking out a six-hour delay in Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport on the way home, I am struck by how much of the Biennale seems to have followed me there. And astonishingly (for I didn’t think so at the time), it is the screen-based work that are most memorable. Crowds of people criss-crossing en route—here is Kimsooja’s giant ‘A Needle Woman’ 2005, film of a woman with a pigtail facing a tide of people in cities around the globe. We don’t see her face and yet we know her. There is ‘Ramallah/New York’, 2004, a patchwork of daily life in these two similar/different residential areas by Jordanian-born artist Emily Jacir. I look for the goats from Ukranian artist Oleg Kulik’s ‘Unbearable Charm of Mongolia’, a documentary film about a truly organic lifestyle threatened by the very fact we know it’s there and are filming it. Watching people checking in, it’s tempting to put them into the phenomenal, Moscow-based group Blue Noses’ spaces—cardboard boxes full of funny films, like little peep shows, which giggle and wiggle and shoogle about in a manner which entertains and shows us for the animals we are. The Biennale has a lot in common with airports—a huge calculated space full of people looking for gates, on a mission, ready to take something—an idea or souvenir or identity—away with them. It’s just directed with more focus. With that thought in mind, the lock-down in Schiphol was bearable, interesting even.

Alice Bain is editor of MAP