This Saturday the Golden Lion for the Best National Participation at the Venice Biennale was awarded to Bruce Nauman for his contribution to the US Pavilion (pictured below) – a decision I don’t really understand for two reasons: one, handing out awards for ‘Best Pavilion’ seems to be one of the most antiquated parts of the Biennale (if we’re not counting the pavilions for countries that no longer exist, like Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia); and two, I thought Nauman’s exhibition was kind of cheesy. I know this opinion won’t be popular, but to me, his neon signs, fountains, and wax, resin and bronze sculptures of body parts looked outdated, and their punning titles seemed lame. I had hoped to see more of Nauman’s early performance videos, which still seem relevant, whereas a sculpture like From Hand to Mouth (1967) (a wax cast stretching from a hand to mouth – get it?) looks surprisingly conventional.
If I could give out some awards of my own, I would recognize Ming Wong’s studious, clever histories of cinema in Singapore presented in the Singapore Pavilion, while my award for most talked-about but underwhelming off-site pavilion would go to Teresa Margolles’ Mexican Pavilion. Though I do respect this artist for being one of the few national participants to engage with current, political issues – which many of the pavilions in the Giardini avoided entirely, and which rarely reared their heads in Birnbaum’s show (in stark contrast to Robert Storr’s exhibition two years ago) – once I heard several people describe Margolles’ concept for her exhibition, it completely sapped the power from the experience of visiting it. ‘What Else Could We Talk About?’ addresses the increasing violence and record homicide rate in her home country with a series of visually understated installations including several rooms left empty except for a bucket and mop, which are periodically used to wash the stone floors by one of the pavilion’s attendants. The wall text reveals that the water has been infused with the blood of murder victims, so, in a sense, we are walking on dead bodies. But my major problem with the work is this: if any of the rules are bent over the course of the six-month exhibition – the blood not real or the buckets filled with ordinary tap water, then the work loses its efficacy and authenticity. A work like this can’t simply be a metaphor: the execution should be strictly faithful to the concept; any deviation cheats the audience and makes the whole work disingenuous.
I would also award an honorable mention to the Taiwanese Pavilion, in which the four artists – Hsieh Ying-Chun, Chen Chieh-Jen, Chien-Chi Chang, and Cheng-Ta Yu – all deal with contemporary issues of national identity, local housing and immigration, and their country’s relations with China. My award for the collateral exhibition that looked like it put in the least effort but came out with the most payback would be James Putman’s ‘Distortion’ (pictured above) – a scrappy group show installed in a dilapidated house not far from the Arsenale, with peeling paint, creaky stairwells, hand-written wall labels, and impressive works by Jamie Shovlin, Oliver Clegg and Gavin Turk, among others.
And the winner, by a landslide, when it comes to exhibitions mounted by rich collectors’ foundations, is Fondazione Prada’s show (pictured top) of works by American artist John Wesley (born 1928), curated by Germano Celant. Wesley’s incredible oeuvre, most of which is on view at the Fondazione Giorgio Cini – feels like a truly great discovery. Though previous Prada shows by Marc Quinn or Tom Sachs seemed like big misses, this historical survey of Wesley’s quirky, sometimes perverse Pop paintings felt right on target.