Alberto Giacometti, arguably the most famous Swiss artist of the 20th century, never represented his country at the Venice Biennale. He declined repeatedly – graciously, we are told in the press text accompanying Carol Bove, Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler’s presentation in the Swiss Pavilion, designed by his younger brother Bruno – including in 1952, the year of the pavilion’s inauguration. Titled ‘Women of Venice’, after a group of plaster figures that Giacometti consented to be displayed in the French Pavilion in 1956, the exhibition sets seven striking, royal-blue sculptures by Bove – a response to Giacometti: upright and planar, like cubist figures rendered in sheets of Fimo – in the pavilion’s enclosed courtyard. They are called ‘Les Pléiades’: the seven sisters, daughters of Atlas, who, according to Greek myth, were turned into stars by Zeus to escape the hunter Orion.
Inside, a new film by the Swiss/American duo Hubbard and Birchler draws on their research into the now largely forgotten American sculptor Flora Mayo: the lover of Giacometti in Paris in the 1920s. A recreation of a bust that Mayo made of Giacometti, long destroyed, stands nearby, its features somewhat less delicate than his aquiline profile in the only known photograph of the work, in which it sits between the two young artists. The film combines documentary footage of Mayo’s son – born in 1935 in the United States and raised by her as a single parent, modelling tools long set down – with a voiceover of what sound like fragments from her diaries. It ends with the son in a Giacometti exhibition, looking at a flat-faced bust with orange-red painted lips and blue eyes: the only known sculpture of his mother.
Giacometti turned down multiple invitations to represent Switzerland because he considered himself to be an international artist; Mayo has been almost entirely forgotten as a sculptor, perhaps because, having been cut off by her wealthy American family, she had to give up art to raise her son. There are pertinent lessons here for beyond the biennale, beyond the art world.
Of raising children and making art, Phyllida Barlow, who is a mother of five, said in a recent interview in The Daily Telegraph that, ‘The two things are completely incompatible.’ Un- or under-recognized for most of her career, Barlow – now in her seventies – has, within less than a decade, gone from a long-term professorship at London’s Slade School of Art to having solo shows with the international commercial powerhouse Hauser & Wirth, filling Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries and, last December, receiving a CBE for services to art.
The Duveen Galleries might be Britain’s second highest profile public commission behind the British Pavilion at Venice, which she has filled this year with ‘Folly’: a typically cacophonous assembly of large-scale sculptures that spill over into the surrounding outdoor space. (As a fellow journalist said to me: ‘With Phyllida, more is more.’) The first gallery is dominated by five towering grey columns. Unlike the classical ruins they nod to, where fragmentation is its own kind of completeness, these structures look like they want to push out of the glass-panelled roof and have to be contained by the stacked block that sit on top. (Incongruously, the neo-classical pavilion’s ceiling frame is made of bare wood. The glass is grubby. I don’t think I’d ever looked up there before.) The columns’ plaster-dipped sheathes do not extend all the way around, leaving a slash up each that reveals their framework. I have always liked that there is no front and no back in Barlow’s work, seams are not to be hidden, insides not to be concealed. In an adjacent space, an enormous, tilted barricade (untitled: folly; doublehang, 2016–17) squeezes you through to the pavilion’s rear gallery where a plasterboard-patchwork wall features a birdcage-like balcony that looks out to the lagoon. For me, this might be the presentation’s most touching moment. Much has been made of the ‘urban-ness’ of Barlow’s provisional, cobbled-together structures and her use of builders’-merchant materials, but here was a touch of the romantic: in the gutter, but looking at the stars.
It feels like there is more large-scale sculpture here than there has been in recent biennales (which is curious given that this is what pavilion architecture most naturally lends itself to). In US Pavilion, Mark Bradford’s low-bellied installation Spoiled Foot (2016), like the water-swollen keel of a sunken ship, leaves visitors with a narrow pathway through which to enter the exhibition. Inside, the walls have been papered over in black and then white, rendering them canvas-like and, in the central atrium, coils of toxic yellow and black snake up to its domed cupola (Oracle, 2017). If Barlow’s installation draws the eye upwards, Bradford transforms the US Pavilion’s Palladian elegance into a kind of cave, reminding us of the dark underpinnings – historically and in the present – of the systems of power that such stately architecture embodies. (The William Adams Delano and Chester Holmes Aldric building recalls both the White House in Washington, D.C., and Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia plantation house.)
Next door, the tree-pierced Nordic Pavilion houses a collaborative exhibition between the three nations – Sweden, Finland and Norway – that normally occupy the space by turns. ‘Mirrored’, presents the work of six artists from different generations and includes the spectacular Onda Volante (Flying Wave, 2017), a dove-grey fibreglass installation by the septuagenarian Norwegian sculptor Siri Aurdal that seems to float away from Sverre Fehn’s rectilinear architecture. Aurdal has been making these ondulating modular systems since the 1960s – they look a little like large-scale, three-dimensional realizations of the kinetic art experiments of groups such as GRAV from that period. They also have some of that decade’s free-wheeling utopianism: designed to be sat in and climbed over, the works could be reconfigured for different sites including parks and playgrounds, and were often left in situ following an installation.
Columns also reappear here: Government Quarter Study (2014), by the American-born Palestinian artist Jumana Manna (currently resident in Berlin), comprises three full-sized casts of pillars from Oslo’s brutalist government building, which was bombed on 22 July 2011 by the far-right extremist Anders Breivik. Their muted presence – they are almost invisible within the concrete fabric of the pavilion – serves as testament both to the Nordic (self-)image of multicultural inclusivity and the catastrophic consequences when such idealism falters.
In the Dutch Pavilion, this argument is taken up more directly in two films by Wendelien van Oldenborgh that use modernist architecture as a framework to think about inclusivity and erasure in postwar, postcolonial Dutch society (Prologue: Squat / Anti-Squat, 2016, and Cinema Olanda, 2017). Unashamedly didactic and screened in a stepped auditorium resembling the bleachers of a high-school gymnasium, Cinema Olanda forms a kind of alternative text book, shedding light on fascinating, overlooked histories including that of the Dutch-Caribbean revolutionary Otto Huiswoud, one of the first black members of the US Communist Party.
On the whole, though – and in sharp contrast to the tone set by Okwui Enwezor’s ‘All the World’s Futures’ at the 2015 biennale – this year’s Giardini pavilions wear their politics lightly. There are notable exceptions: amongst them Tracey Moffat’s hyperbolic, highly-staged photographic narratives of displacement, servitude, love and loss in the Australian Pavilion and, in the Korean Pavilion (a curious, not entirely unsuccessful combination of history and humour) Lee Wan’s Proper Time (2017) – a room of clocks that tick at different paces according to how long a certain individual must work to earn a meal. However, direct references to the manifold crises (economic, social, political, environmental) of the contemporary world are almost entirely absent. Ars longa, vita brevis: enjoy it while you can.
Check back for daily reports from the 57th Venice Biennale, including articles on the main show, curated by Christine Macel, more on the best of the National Pavilions, and the highlights of the museum and off-site exhibitions.
Phyllida Barlow’s British Council commission is at the Biennale Arte 2017 from 13 May to 26 November. www.britishcouncil.org/venicebiennale
Main image: Phyllida Barlow, ‘Folly’, British Pavilion, 57th Venice Biennale. Courtesy: the artist and Hauser & Wirth; photograph: Ruth Clark © British Council