Venice is an intimate city that somehow manages, once every two years, to contain an art world attempting to implicate itself in the sweltering water-bound architecture. This year, as temperatures and stress levels soared, charging around an impossible number of installations quickly seemed a ridiculous proposition. Canal-side, initial responses on day one seemed a little negative, probably owing to initial explorations of the bewildering Arsenale, which was still under construction. Like a disguised art fair, Francesco Bonami's section, 'Clandestine', merged with Gilane Tawadros' 'Fault Lines' and Igor Zabel's 'Individual Systems' before the 'Zone of Urgency', a typically chaotic amalgamation of artists' spaces and redundant laptops compiled by Hou Hanru, repelled and consumed in equal measure. Meanwhile the underlying commercialism of the Biennale was exacerbated by vodka-fuelled evenings hijacked by the fashion world - Louis Vuitton's sponsorship of the painting show in Museo Correr would have made the most business-minded American museum blush. All of which took place against the background of 'Kisses', an extraordinary gin palace of a boat moored alongside the Giardini.
Individual installations stood out if they managed to overcome the inevitable overarching political, economic and social curatorial agenda and to dictate on their own terms. Enrico David's stylish collage of a camp figure with golden hair and a slowly revolving life-size cut-out figurine sculpture, Avner Ben Gal's grungy paintings of groups of figures and swirling melancholic landscapes playing on Western preconceptions of Middle Eastern landscapes, and Hélio Oiticica's understated, mysterious architectural models in Basualdo's 'Structure of Survival' were all great. Moataz Nasr's video and drum installation in 'Fault Lines' didn't deserve to be the apparent victim of political vandalism during the Saturday of the opening, when all the power cables were cut through and some drum skins slashed, but at least something provoked someone. Tadasu Takamine's animated clay head in God Bless America (2002) just about transcended its own claustrophobic, grubby red room, book-ending 'The Zone of Urgency' with Adel Abdessemed's excruciatingly captivating film of a gallery love-in. Of the work striving for some autonomy in this hubbub, Huang Yong Ping's public sculpture proposal Bat Project II (2002) commemorating an incident involving a crashed spy plane in China, struggled for attention. Other more idiosyncratic and probably interesting installations needed more time to figure out, such as Igor Zabel's entire 'Individual Systems' exhibition. It was a relief finally to be expelled into the gardens at the end, though in a real Utopia the Gurana would have been free.
In contrast, the crisp installation of the first Scottish Pavilion in the decadent, slightly ruinous environment of the Palazzo Giustinian-Lolin had a sagacious charm. Presented under the auspices of 'Zenomap', named after a Scottish adventurer's late 14th-century collaboration with two Italian guides (the brothers Zeno), a triumvirate of Claire Barclay, Simon Starling and Jim Lambie was always likely to be popular. Barclay's installation in two distressed linen- and silk-lined rooms was a precisely balanced gathering of aluminium, brass, glass, leather and wood. Entering from behind a Shaker-style wood screen at 45 degrees to the room, it displayed three panels printed with a repeat design evolved from the wall coverings, with another smaller section pushed forward from the first. On each frame was an uncompromisingly sharpened brass cone. An ambiguous-looking white leather hood, reminiscent of a Dutch bonnet, was draped high up the screen, implying puritanical and masochistic tendencies. White leather armrests abutted two uprights, while two lengths of the pale wooden structure swung from below an extravagant chandelier. An extension protruded further out into the opposite corner, a recessed brass cup shape set into the side. The second room, of knitted stockings enveloping thick metal rods leaning against the linen walls and on the floor, created a stranger scenario, overseen by two black blown glass ovals suspended from the ceiling, one concealed with a loose wrap of black leather. These may be familiar enough forms in Barclay's recent work, seductive and painful, but they conveyed a love of materials and looked tailor-made for the location.
Lambie and Starling may share a critical nostalgia for modernity and its relationship to materials, but both presented installations that were uneven in comparison. Lambie, in two blue silk-lined rooms, with huge mirrors at either end, covered the floor in black and white zigzags, on which were placed seven brightly coloured sculptures mostly derived from old doors which had been sliced, reassembled and edged with mirror. They were odd, slightly vehicular icons in an overbearing 17th-century vernacular architecture, floating and ambiguous. In contrast, Starling's self-sustaining rhododendron island was left high and dry in the corridor on the first floor of the palazzo. With its buoys and pipes visible beneath a fabulous spray of foliage against a backdrop of unidentified 19th-century Venetian oil paintings, it was impotent, reduced to decoration. In any case, had it been moored in the Grand Canal, I doubt Venice's water would have been too kind on its fragile eco-system.
In the spirit of Europe-wide devolution, it was about time that Scotland had its own voice on the Venice stage. While competing on a global platform, the works in this pavilion resisted the tendency towards homogenization, keeping it romantic, but with an awareness of artifice and history. Combining the rational and reasonable with the imaginative and uncertain, Scotland also provided the friendliest welcome, with visitors presented with an appropriately sponsored Glenfiddich 'doggy bag' of artists' prints and posters, in the end the only freebies that made it back home.
First published in Issue 77