The first person I bump into in Venice is an American curator, at ‘Philip Guston and the Poets’ at the Galleria dell’Accademia. The exhibition’s links between Guston and poets including Montale, T.S. Eliot and Y.B. Yeats is tenuous at times (the artist’s return to figuration in the late 1960s is compared in one of the exuberantly-worded wall texts to Yeats’ 1928 ’Sailing to Byzantium’, in a masterpiece of wild interpretative syntax I wish I had recorded). On the other hand, Guston’s direct collaborations with poets like Calvin Coolidge are sublime. There are also a fascinating couple of rooms given over to Guston’s studies of the Italian Renaissance, including some exquisite drawings after figures in Masaccio’s Brancacci chapel which I’d had no idea about before. Whatever heuristic breakthrough is made (or not) by this presentation, inch-by-inch, these galleries feature more quality than any space I will visit in the next four days.
‘It’s a relief to be here and see something great’, says the curator. I ask him what I should make my priority to see at the Biennale. ‘It’s all pretty dreary’, he replies. ‘I wouldn’t really bother’.
So, what instead might keep a drowsy hack awake? ‘Intuition’ is the six and last exhibition to be curated at Palazzo Fortuny by Axel Vervoordt and Daniela Ferretti, most of them similarly abstractly themed (‘Proportio’, ‘In-finitum’, ‘TRA: edge of becoming’). The intellectual orientation for this edition is provided by a wall of quotations from, among others, Picasso, Rumi, Tristan Tzara and The Alchemist-author Paul Coelho – a motley crew that brought to mind the Peggy Lee line which prefaces Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem: ‘I learned courage from Buddha, Jesus, Lincoln, Einstein, and Mr. Cary Grant’. The first floor of the exhibition features wow-factor conjunctions in the manner of Jean-Hubert Martin’s work at La Maison Rogue: behold, a Basquiat paired with spotlit prehistoric Menhirs from southern France; a medieval sculpture of a Madonna and child paired with a big, white, gaping circular Anish Kapoor; rods studded with healing crystals by Marina Abramović alongside a painted 19th century palmistry illustration. On the higher floors, the hang is more crowded and more same-y. There are a lot of wonderful, expensive objects, like a 1972 Asger Jorn sculpture; an Otto Piene; the bozzetto for Canova’s 1787 Cupid and Psyche; and a lot of black and brown (a Kazuo Shiraga; a Pierre Soulages; some Gutai; a table covered in clay balls shaped by visitors hands – a work by Kimsooja). There was one room, almost pitch black, hung with black paintings – one (Vincenzo Agnetti’s 1972 Assioma) bore the sentence in white nitro paint ‘Intuition is conscious reality bumped into the dark’. There was a lot of exceptional good taste on display, but not, for all I could see, a single unifying idea or line of thinking.
Is taste anything more than a kind of intuition? Perhaps it’s a result of passing through the only international airport named after a silk merchant, but I felt like I bumped into the T-word unusually often this Venice: whether about the British Pavillion (‘very important, but not really my thing’), or Damien Hirst’s ‘Treasures From the Wreck of the Unbelievable’, which everyone enjoyed dismissing, but which everyone seemed to make a compulsory stop on their rounds. The purported collection of an ancient private collector, the exhibition is in some sense an interrogation of taste; for my part, I liked one of the exhibits: a gold cast of a dead mammal curled in on itself so that it might be a torque, entitled The Sadness (2017).
Taste was a major subject too of the Palazzo Ducale’s exhibition of Hieronymus Bosch, a slim but effective display focusing on three works in Venetian collections: Three Hermit Saints (c.1493), The Martyrdom of Saint Wilgefortis (c.1497) and the polyptych Visions of the Hereafter (1505-15). Inevitably, the experience is a little underwhelming to any who were lucky enough to visit the phenomenal Prado centenary exhibition in Madrid last year, in which all three pieces were included, but they’re still extraordinary. The polyptych is Bosch at his most expressionistic, with a funnel of white light leading souls to paradise in one panel, and another, a fog of fire and brimstone that recalls Becafumi. The Martyrdom … was the most fascinating to me: depicting the legend of the virgin saint who was miraculous granted a beard to help repel her husband and thus preserve her chastity, it shows Bosch fully engaged in gender dynamics – to the victim’s left a male figure (her husband?) swoons in a crowd, inverting the traditional iconography of Mary at the crucifixion. Taste comes in to play in the bulk of the exhibition, which explores the acquisition of these works in Venice, their circulation in culture of grotesqueries (fascinating to see an engraving by Raimondi, more famous for his copies after Michelangelo, adorning two sleeping nudes with tiny beasties), as well an gradual influence on later Venetian painters who also sought out extreme, fantastical effects.
Elsewhere in the Palazzo was a film by Douglas Gordon, Gente di Palermo! (Citizens of Palermo, 2017), which benefitted from one of the most potent installations I’ve encountered in some time – in a large cell deep in the medieval prisons. Thanks to a complete lack of signage, the visitor encountered the work in a state of almost-despair, desperate for escape: perfect for Gordon’s study of a catacomb in Palermo, piled with preserved corpses (famously photographed by Peter Hujar). In lilting long shots, Gordon films a dolphin shaped helium balloon drifting around the space, nosing up against the bodies curiously, and then bobbing about. In Italian medieval fresco traditions, like the mostly-destroyed ones in Pisa, the escaping soul is depicted as a baby floating out from the deceased mouth; this dolphin seemed too to be gently and sadly seeking transcendence. Though minimal, this presentation compared favourably with Espace Culturel Louis Vuitton’s small survey of Pierre Huyghe, where an albino polyfibre penguin nestled upside down on the ceiling, adjacent to Huyghe’s A Journey That Wasn’t (2005), a Sturm und Drang record of a trip to an island formed from melting Antarctic ice, the form of which the artist tried to translate into a musical score, then performed by full orchestra on an New York ice-rink, occasionally lit by flashes of light.
From one journey to many. The Diaspora Pavillion, curated by David A. Bailey and co-presented by the International Curators Forum and University of the Arts London, is ten years in the making. Though the rubric for selection was not entirely clear to me – a large number of the artists are what might be called Black British, but not exclusively – it was good to see the stakes of representation so explicitly foregrounded (the main exhibition this year contained work by one single female artist of colour; the UK has been represented in the Giardini by three non-white artists since 1948, by my count). As if in overcompensating for the delay, the display was packed, perhaps overcrowded, and ranged from established figures (Ellen Gallagher, Isaac Julien) to emerging (Paul Maheke, Larry Achiampong). Not everything was to my taste (that word again!): there was a certain explicitness to Hew Locke’s models of boats, tinny steel sculptures by Michael Forbes or a library of kente-cloth books by Yinka Shonibare - also, I think, the only artist with a disability that I noticed showing work in my entire visit in this, the least accessible of art calendar cities. But some quieter works excelled: Barby Asante’s multipart installation As Always a Painful Declaration of Independence: For Ama. For Abab. For Charlotte and Adjoa (2017) stood out for its sensitivity to the difficulty of making a single statement on this kind of a stage. In a hallway, votive candles dedicated to women who influenced the artist (from unidentifiable relatives to Nina Simone) lined the side of one staircase, so discreetly they might be quite passed by; in another, a pile of emancipatory books is accompanied by a recording of readings from, and discussions of, the same by the artists and others; inset into another book is a tiny LCD screen, on which a video plays of the artist in a Venetian palazzo, running silently, or jumping in ecstasy, or walking a canal with a tribal mask in front of her face. There was no clear takeaway but that declaration is difficult, requires many moods, and many voices. I also loved Dave Lewis’ Once Removed (2017), in which a 1950s Caribbean migrant seemed to step into modern day Venice, shot in a series of photos from behind, along with images of the city's sellers of bags on the street (predominantly of African heritage), or a close-up of a pair of earrings in a jewellers window, studded with tiny faces of Moors.
I got as much of the ‘Biennial experience’ – measuring currents, encountering new artists, thinking afresh about familiar problems – in collateral exhibitions like these as I did in the central exhibition this year. In particular, I was grateful to the 2017 Pinchuk Prize for providing in their exhibition of this year’s nominees a powerful, accessible cross-section of artistic activity across the globe, offering connections between practitioners as diverse as Andy Holden, Vajiko Chachkhiani and Martine Syms without resorting to curating-by-numbers (or, curating-by-colours, as stretches of the Arsenale seemed to do). I was especially struck here by Asli Çavuşoğlu’s fictional newspapers (sample headlines: ‘Turkey to be ruled by Monarchy!’ ’The blond man’s hair will be dyed red!’) and the Open Group’s installation of a printer which gradually recorded a series of thousands of encounters made by the group with strangers – one for each of the total tally of casualties in the Ukraine since the most recent hostilities began. The tally was over 5,000 when the project began, and now stands at more than 9,000. Reversing Stalin’s dictum, the work movingly attempts to make a statistic once more a tragedy.
Striking a much less solemn note, Lucy McKenzie’s ‘La Kermesse Héroique’ was this year’s contribution from curator Milovan Farronato (who surprised many at the last Biennale with a show of Peter Doig paintings in the same space). The artist drew on questions of taste again - ones craft, design, domestic interiors, international style - with a beautiful but bracingly intelligent show at the Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa. Displacement was the name of the day: McKenzie recreates a monumental lamppost from outside the home of the Scottish administration in Edinburgh, built not in a nationalist but a pan-European, Art Deco style, a lonely monument to cosmopolitan aspirations. A map in trompe-l’oeil marble replaces major European cities with seashells affixed to the surface, their locations untitled. Upstairs, one wall bears a recreation of a station mural from Ghent, with layers of overpainting stripped away to reveal a map of stations jostling with a nostalgic pageant; another, a recreation of a Brazilian train map with racist native figures cavorting around plains. In another room, a faux-marble chimney breast overlooks a bench with two seated figures in vaguely Dada-ish body suits, their heads modelled on sculptures by Donatello. Behind this, a final train map shows routes leading in and out of Budapest, with Hungary’s capital at the dead centre of the map, the navel of the transport world. Decor, the show gently indicates, is part of how we find our place in the world, how we decide what’s central, and what’s distant. Looking at London on the far edge of the Budapest map, I wondered: where is home? Not just what place is it, but where is it in relation to other places? Not here, I thought, as I took a last vaparetto to the airport.
Main image: EJ Hill, United States Pillar, 2017, wood and rubber, dimensions variable, installation view, ‘Future Generation Art Prize @ Venice 2017’, Palazzo Contarini Polignac, Venice. Produced by PinchukArtCentre. Courtesy: PinchukArtCentre © 2017; photograph: Sergey Illin