I landed in Venice yesterday to find long queues snaking across San Marco Airport. The opening day of the 54th Venice Biennale and the city was in the middle of a one-day vaparetto strike – apparently a monthly thing here. By early afternoon I’d made my way to the Padiglione Centrale in the Giardini, where one half of Bice Curiger’s exhibition ‘ILLUMInazioni’ (ILLUMInations) is installed. Having seen the other, larger section of the show – at the Arsenale – this morning, the first thing to say about ‘ILLUMInazioni’ is that this must be the youngest edition of the Biennale to date. With a few exceptions, the selected artists were mostly born in the late 1960s and ’70s; while there are a number of older and dead artists – Guy de Cointet, Jack Goldstein, Jean-Luc Mylayne, Franz West and James Turrell, for example – this is a remarkably young show. This represents a decisive shift from Daniel Birnbaum’s solidly mid-career selection for the previous edition, and there can certainly be no accusations of ‘same old faces’ this time around. The other notable aspect is that this is the first Biennale for a while with a significant number of British artists – there is strong work from, among others, Ryan Gander, Emily Wardill, Haroon Mirza, Nathaniel Mellors and Nick Relph. Has the curse of the YBAs been lifted?
‘ILLUMInazioni’ is, for the most part, elegantly and evenly installed. There is little in the way of bombast or large-scale work (Urs Fischer’s candle pieces are one exception), and neither is there much in the way of film. Curiger has punctuated the exhibition with what she’s calling ‘para-pavilions’ – four artist-designed structures that house mini exhibitions-within-the-exhibition. Song Dong’s contribution – a maze-like configuration of mirrored cabinets circling around a raised house – opens the Arsenale show, housing new work by Gander and Yto Barrada. This likably disorientating opening leads straight into total darkness, where Roman Ondák’s reconstruction of the pod that saved the trapped Chilean miners is spot-lit in a corner (Time Capsule). This is one of several surprising transitions and pairings that run throughout ‘ILLUMInazioni’ – elsewhere we move from Klara Lidén’s collection of dirty trashcans to a beautifully installed gallery by Carol Bove. Or we have Jean-Luc Mylayne’s large-scale colour photographs of birds in the south of France share a space with new sculptures by Rebecca Warren, all in stark black and white. Overall, though, Curiger’s touch is consistently gentle and measured.
The pieces in the Arsenale that were drawing the biggest crowds (and queues) earlier today were a new light piece by Turrell and a screening of Christian Marclay’s wildly popular 24-hour film The Clock, though highlights for me included work from: Relph (three overlapping film projections – about Ellsworth Kelly, tartan and Rei Kawakubo), Gerard Byrne (a series about the Loch Ness monster), Elad Lassry (new photographs and a 35mm film of a ghostly dancer), Rosemarie Trockel and Giulia Piscitelli (a series of iridescent silk pieces stained with bleach and acid).
In the 2009 edition of the Biennale, works were installed in the garden spaces out the back of the Arsenale for the first time. The whimsical, sometimes light works that Birnbaum exhibited there were – for me – one of the most enjoyable sections of the last Biennale, and Curiger wisely takes a similar route. Wandering around the gardens earlier today I found a few members of GELITIN messing around with what seemed to be an improvised kiln to be used for glass-blowing and baking bread.
A little later the New York duo Japanther played a raucous set while a guy in a dress pole-danced on top of a pile of firewood. Why? I have no idea, but after an onslaught of appalling national pavilions (China and Italy are the worst offenders, though I’ll leave it to my colleagues to write more about them…) it was a welcome break.
Elsewhere in the gardens and brick outhouses is an enigmatic marble piece by Trisha Donnelly, a quirky new film by Frances Stark and Sturtevant’s excellent video installation Elastic Tango.
Now off to some of the off-site pavilions, but there’ll be plenty more reports to come between now and Sunday…
Sam Thorne is director of Nottingham Contemporary, UK, a contributing editor of frieze and a co-founder of Open School East. His book, School: Conversations on Art & Self-Organised Education, will be published by Sternberg Press this summer.