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Postcard from Venice - pt. 1

First impressions of the 53rd Venice Biennale

It’s the second day of the preview of the 53rd Venice Biennale and the initial sense of being overwhelmed is beginning to clear as opinions start to pull into focus. Follow the frieze editors on twitter for quick recommendations and photos, while longer reports from the Arsenale, the Giardini and beyond will follow today and tomorrow on the blog.

I’m yet to make it out of the Giardini, the parkland that one of the most talked-about works, Steve McQueen beautiful two-channel film in the British Pavilion, lingers over, following various out-of-season stirrings of life. Other big draws include Bruce Nauman in the American Pavilion (‘Topological Gardens’, pictured below), a mini retrospective that left me disappointed. How long will we have to wait til the US nominates a woman?

In the German Pavilion is of course Brit Liam Gillick, who has surprised his detractors with a pared-back installation that is charming and spare, not to mention unexpectedly funny. Close by is one of the favourites so far, Roman Ondák’s Loop in the Czech Pavilion, for which the Slovakian artist has dug up the floor and planted a small garden of bushes and trees. Small gestures go a long way, it seems, as Renata Lucas’s easily missed swept section of gravelled path (pictured top) deftly proves. Other notable presentations include Mark Lewis’s three films – all involving back-projection – in the Canadian Pavilion and the light-suffused Korean Pavilion, in which Haegue Yang’s two rooms of blinds, fans and mirrors are both poised and smart. Jarring in comparison is Australia’s representative, Shaun Gladwell (pictured below), whose films chart a Mad Max-meets-Cormac McCarthy vision of the outback.

Claude Lévêque disappoints in the French Pavilion, with a melodramatic combination of glittering walls, cages and silver flags. Even this is preferable to Miwa Yanagi’s Windswept Women in the Japanese Pavilion – vast, framed photographs of CGIed giantesses – and the messy house of horrors that is the Russian Pavilion’s group show.

In the Greek Pavilion, elder statesman Lucas Samaras was apparently only lured out on the proviso that Matthew Higgs curate his exhibition. Higgs obliged and the show comprises a mix of the old (one of the mirrored cubes from 1965, pictured above) and the new (a recent series of photographs). Too much for me to digest at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni – which makes up one half of Daniel Birnbaum main curated show – right now, but highlights include a welcome presentation of Lygia Pape’s small sculptures, a room of Pietro Roccasalva’s skewed portraits and Guyton / Walker’s busy studio-like first space.

Many lingered in the main gallery’s web of elastic spheres (pictured above) by Tomas Saraceno, an artist who I am yet to be convinced by, or rested battered feet surrounded by the hyperactive decor of the Tobias Rehberger café at the back of the pavilion. I’m off to the Arsenale now, but much, much more from all of the frieze editors to follow…

Sam Thorne is director of Nottingham Contemporary, UK, and a contributing editor of frieze

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