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Venice Biennale

First look at the pavilions: seven national presentations of note in the Giardini

The Art Newspaper team guide to some of the best things to see at this year's Venice Biennale

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Australia The actress Cate Blanchett was the star guest today, 5 May, at the inauguration of the new Australian pavilion in the Giardini.

The newly-built pavilion is the only 21st-century structure in the Giardini and its inauguration was accomplished with a “smoking ceremony” carried out by two indigenous people, skin painted in traditional style; chanting and waving burning eucalyptus leaves, one circled the building while the other blew on a didgeridoo.

Cate Blanchett and Simon Mordant, the commissioner of the Australian pavilion

The old Australian pavilion, designed by Phil Cox, was never intended to be a permanent structure and so could be rebuilt, unlike all the other heritage structures in the Giardini.

Thanks to Simon Mordant, the Biennale commissioner for Australia, who, with his wife Catriona, was the lead donor and who led the campaign to raise AUS$6.5m from 80 Australians, the building was delivered “on time and within budget,” as he noted proudly.

Faced in inky-grey granite, the cube-like building is cantilevered over the canal and has two openings, one a huge window and the other a doorway weighing a ton. Both can be closed down in winter once the Biennale is over and the crowds disappear. It is the work of Denton Corker Marshall, the architectural practice that also designed the Stonehenge centre.

The artist chosen for Australia is Fiona Hall, who has filled the inside of the building with an eclectic range of objects, from tribal-style masks made with old military camouflage to banknotes ordered by theme, from dams to oil refineries.

Belgium

Belgium faces up to its colonial past in Venice this year. The country “has a strange relationship to its history,” says Katerina Gregos the Belgian pavilion’s curator. “It is tinged with nostalgia and a lack of critical awareness.” Instead of focusing on colonialism’s devastating effects, however, Gregos explores the forgotten relationships and “micro-histories” that emerged in that time. The show’s central work is a new video by the Belgian artist Vincent Meessen who created a new rendition of a rediscovered protest song written by the Congolese Situationist Joseph M’Belolo Ya M’Piku in 1968.

Elisabetta Benassi's M'FUMU (2015) in the Belgian pavilion

Instead of opting for a solo presentation, Meessen, in collaboration with Gregos, has chosen to invite a number of international artists to present their works alongside his own, a first for the pavilion. “We are questioning the notion of national representation,” Gregos says, adding: “it’s irrelevant where artists come from, it’s the context that matters.” The US artist Adam Pendelton’s wall installation incorporates elements from his Black Dada and System of Display series, while the pavilion’s entrance is dominated by the Italian artist Isabella Benassi’s M’FUMU (2015), a tram stop for the tramline 44 which joined the 1897 Universal Exhibition to the Palais des Colonies, which famously exhibited a human zoo. The work is made from casts of animal bones.

 Greece

A complete shop, a vestige of the past, has been moved from the Greek city of Volos to the Greek pavilion in Venice.

Maria Papadimitriou's Why look at animals? AGRIMIKÁ on show in the Greek pavilion © Mikhail Mendelevich

The work of artist Maria Papadimitriou, Why look at animals? AGRIMIKÁ combines the run-down shop, left exactly as it was, with its bicycle in a corner, a small salon tucked away inside, animal skins on the walls, with a video of the 82-year-old shopkeeper talking about his life and the various beasts he traded in. “Believe me, it’s quite something to persuade an 82-year old to part with his whole shop,” Papadimitriou says. Inside the pavilion even the façade of the shop has been reconstructed, with its tiled roof, vaulted windows and branches adorning the exterior.

And as if to underline the precarious situation of the Greek economy, Papadimitriou has left the building almost as she found it when preparing her participation. Walls have holes punched in them, revealing traces of earlier installations; bits of building material or mirrors are stacked against the walls. “And when I came here, the basement was full of rats, and sacks of rubbish!” she says: “Nothing had been done to clean it out.”

The rats have now gone, fortunately, as has the rubbish, but Papadimitriou is interested in the relationship of man to animals—and the destruction man has wrought on the natural world. “Over a million and a half pelts were shipped from Greece to other European countries in just a few decades in the 20th century,” she says.

Japan

Details of Chiharu Shiota's project for the Japanese pavilion were made available way in advance of the Biennale preview, so everybody knew what to expect, but this has not lessened the piece’s impact, judging by the reactions overheard in the pavilion.

Chiharu Shiota, The Key in the Hand (2015), Japan Pavilion

The Key in the Hand is an immersive installation of thousands of keys, collected by the artist and hung from the ceiling on threads of deep red yarn, which is entangled and spread across the entire top floor of the pavilion, making great use of the entire space. Two wooden boats act as receptacles for a cascade of keys which almost swallows them entirely. Walking through the installation and around the boats, the red seems to pulsate and grow in intensity, drowning out all other light and enveloping the viewer.

The keys, which the artist has gathered, act as a metaphor for secrecy, protection and memory, while the boats symbolise two hands that struggle to contain the deluge of collective memory as it falls down from the ceiling. Meanwhile, on the ground floor of the pavilion, a video installation shows young children looking at keys and attempting to recall their own earliest memories.

The installation has an immediate visual impact and its relatively “easy” aesthetic does not take away from the calm and intensely meditative atmosphere that Shiota has created. This is a great crowd-pleaser with a satisfyingly cerebral backbone, two qualities that are not always found in the same work of art.

Romania

Adrian Ghenie turns portraiture on its head in his much-anticipated exhibition in the Romanian pavilion, Darwin's Room. Lenin, for instance, is a fetching shade of blue in the image Turning Blue (2008), his solemn features made comic by his turquoise pallor. Charles Darwin is, meanwhile, blotchy and daubed in beetroot-coloured patches, far removed from more traditional and austere representations of the renowned English naturalist (Charles Darwin as a Young Man, 2013).

Various works by Adrian Ghenie (2012-14) in the Romanian pavilion

"These images are not your usual propaganda," says the pavilion curator Mihai Pop. "They are accessing a certain historical truth." Ghenie puts his own spin on history, he adds. "If you make a painting about an historical moment, the risk will be to illustrate it, to miss the connection with it." In Opernplatz (2014) Ghenie recreates the depraved atmosphere in which the Nazis burned around 25,000 books on 10 May 1933 depicting the suffocating storm that surrounded the burning as a miasma of colour and form.

Ghenie’s paintings, drips and pours of paint, smeared surfaces, and indistinct masses make up his canvases, but figuration predominates in most of the works. In Carnivorous Flowers (2014) the Nazi physician Josef Mengele, seen arriving at his final destination in South Africa, looks on forlornly at a man-eating plant. Another work in the same section, which is entitled The Dissonances of History, depicts an encounter between man and beast deep in a delicately mottled forest (Persian Miniature, 2013). This layering of paint involves a considerable degree of dexterity. (Ghenie is indeed a master of gesture and colour.) 

Ghenie's work hangs in a newly reconfigured space that is based on the three original salons of the Pavilion, which was built in 1938. Natural light floods and frames the works dotted around the grandiose galleries, bringing a touch of tradition to the Biennale proceedings. "It is almost extravagant in Venice to have a conservative painting show," Pop says.

Switzerland

The Swiss pavilion, which is designed by the artist Pamela Rosenkranz, is a delight, but almost despite itself. At the front entrance, a set of green lights bathe an empty pavilion, and there is little to see aside from a large tree, some leaves and ferns. But past this minimal enclosure and down a narrow corridor is a room elevated at eye level, which you cannot enter. Inside, the room is also bathed: not in light, but in pink water, which fills the entire gallery. Here and there, jet treats produce bubbles, so that the water is constantly pulsating.

Pamela Rosenkranz, Our Product (2015) in the Swiss pavilion

The installation is a clever thing, even if it makes a false virtue out of engineering ("how did she do this?" is the central question). There is nothing more vapid than art that revels in its own technological triumph. Rosenkranz's piece is not vapid, but it is all on the surface. Yet the organisers of the show—or, at least whoever wrote the catalogue—have spent too much time thinking about it. In the accompanying publication, we learn that "neotene is a concentrate so rich in biotics that it forms a second skin coextensive with our own, a liquid amnion supplementing every vital function and consolidating our being."

This is too much. This delightful work does not need so much interpretation. It is a pleasant thing, and that's all there is to it.

United Kingdom

Sarah Lucas has taken the British Pavilion and made it exuberantly, but also elegantly her own. Her initial inspiration was apparently a dessert—specifically Iles Flottantes—(very appropriate for Venice) and all the galleries have been painted a zinging custard yellow, populated by white plaster casts of what she calls her “muses”, which could be read as the sculptural substitute for the floating meringues.

Sarah Lucas, Deep Cream Maradona, British Pavilion 2015. Photo by Cristiano Corte © British Council

Yet this jokiness is just one aspect of what is one of the strongest British pavilions in recent years, and which confirms Lucas’s strength and maturity as a sculptor.  There are still many of the classic Sarah Lucas elements that we associate with this most bawdy, bodily and throat-grabbing of artists—but they have been distilled into a serious sequence of all new sculptures that sit comfortably with the history of art, as well as the history of her own work. (Fried eggs are also yellow and white, after all.) 

The emphatically, outrageously male fluid forms of her giant buttercup yellow resin sculpture, Gold Cup Maradona, who bends and stretches and bares his limbs across the entrance certainly subvert the polite neoclassicism of the British Pavilion’s entrance—his erect member even bisects the Gran Bretagna sign—but he also has a meaningful conversation with Henry Moore (whose Double Standing Figure occupied exactly the same spot in 1948). The anarchic, vividly coloured sculpture of Lucas’s late friend, Franz West, and of course Louise Bourgeois’s Arch of Hysteria are also invoked. 

There’s another thrusting yellow Maradona in the first room. Like his companion, he’s a greatly expanded masculine version of the bronze nudes Lucas showed at Venice in 2013—but his looming scale is also handled with formal acuity and he holds the space with aplomb. It is a rarity to see a single Lucas sculpture in a gallery: her last major show at the Whitechapel was a crammed, cacophonous affair, but throughout the British Pavilion, a honed rigour prevails. 

After the two yellow Maradonas, the mood turns emphatically female with a procession of elegant female nudes cast from the bottom half of her close friends. Two are casts of Lucas herself and one is of her gallerist Sadie Coles. There’s nothing tabloid about these timeless, topless nymphs who recline and pose across pieces of furniture, a fridge and even in one case a cast concrete toilet. Their nakedness and even the cigarettes that poke cheekily from their various orifices are more poignant than provocative – and they show that although Lucas is now embracing the grand and the art historical, her work has also lost none of its ability to be utterly human and intimate.