Who would have thought that Gilbert and George and a pile of stinky ginkgo would make the best Venice Biennale yet for Waldemar Januszczak
The last Biennale was so dour, it must surely have played a catalytic part in the success of this one. Selected by a human textbook from France called Catherine David, the signature display on that occasion tracked an assortment of joyless post-colonial attitudes regurgitated in a dull series of pamphlets, films, projections and videos. My memories of the Biennale are black-and-white, with lots of words. This one seems deliberately to have gone in the opposite direction.
Instead of lumbering themselves with an overarching theme, the 2005 selectors have basically contented themselves with lining up one arresting artwork after another. It’s a no-brainer of an approach that Francis Bacon — represented strikingly by a roomful of late nudes — would have approved of, because it was Bacon who insisted that art must circumnavigate the brain and appeal directly to the nervous system. That doesn’t mean it has to be stupid. It means it has to earn our attention on a visceral level before it can lecture us on a theoretical one.
Bacon is found in the more adult of the Biennale’s mixed shows, The Experience of Art, which looks at the various ways in which artists seek to get to us. Being dead is no disqualification for this encouraging array of methods. Agnes Martin and Philip Guston both have rooms to themselves: she lures you gently into the rhythms of her polite abstractions, while he grabs you by the lapels and yanks. There is much varied fun to be had at The Experience of Art, culminating in a hilarious mock trailer, by Francesco Vezzoli, for a filmed follow-up to Gore Vidal’s Caligula, in which all the clichés of the Hollywood hard sell are re-enacted in a stirring send-up. “Beyond sensuality,” intones a particularly portentous narrator, “there is sexuality. Beyond sexuality, there is perversion. Beyond perversion — there is only Caligula.” Cue much frantic splashing of sperm. Was I the only viewer to notice that in the fast-cut finale, Caligula is revealed to be the new Pope Benedict? Nobody seemed to care. That’s the art world for you. Easily bored, but impossible to shock.
Out in the famous Biennale gardens, where nation is pitted against nation in the battle of the pavilions, a definite creaking of bones can be heard as assorted old-timers are called up to represent their countries in the old-fashioned way: with good art.
It’s fair to admit that this is a conservative Biennale. In the American pavilion, Ed Ruscha, born in 1937, presents a suite of poignant roof lines as he revisits sad bits of industrial architecture that he originally painted in the 1990s. Then, he found proper companies in America, manufacturing tools and tyres. Now, he encounters oriental supermarkets, fashion warehouses, or nothing at all.
When the news seeped out that Britain was to be represented by Gilbert and George, I went: “Oh, no.” We all did. Whatever it is that G&G are — and it remains one of art’s most impenetrable aesthetic mysteries — they have been for 40 years, ever since George the gent met Gilbert the Italian at St Martins School of Art in the 1960s. Choosing G&G now seems so obviously retrogressive: it’s two decades too late, possibly three.
Another worry concerned what our ageing swingers might seek to exhibit. They are in their mid-sixties now, but remain toddlers at heart, and do so like to shock. Their Naked Shit Pictures of a few years back, in which they stripped off — again — and foregrounded their poo, constituted the least mature body of work I have encountered from anyone with any claim to being a significant British artist. To be 64 and still to believe that producing pictures of your poo is clever is as sad as sad gets. So, G&G are old, evil and puerile. In most situations, this would count against them. But at the 2005 Venice Biennale, against the odds, it ends in triumph.
Sometimes, being too old and no longer giving a shit are excellent qualifications for saying what needs saying. The chief subject of G&G’s Venice contribution is fear, and particularly fear of Islam. Called the Ginkgo Pictures, this dramatic assembly of 27 huge heraldic images was apparently prompted by a walk through Central Park, where a foul smell that New Yorkers were avoiding turned out to be wafting from some fallen ginkgo leaves. Attracted where others were repulsed, G&G picked up the ginkgo and took it home. I fancy that on a weird, subcutaneous level, they identified with it: the ginkgo leaf consists of two halves bonded as one. But that’s Freud’s territory.
In art terms, their fascination with the stinking leaves has resulted in a suite of looming self-portraits in which our two conjoined heroes, scowling and girning crazily, surround themselves with decorative arabesques of ginkgo and a cast of aggressively staring Bangladeshi boys in hoods. The whole show feels like a standoff between rival gangs: hoodies and Daily Mail readers. G&G are on the side of the hoodies. Various pictures rhyme the outlines of the Bangladeshi boys’ cowls with monkish silhouettes sported by G&G. But I’m not sure how seriously to take this religious comparison. “We are ginkgo,” these life-size friezes appear to scream. “You don’t like our smell. And we don’t like yours.” Or something like that.
I worry that a deeper probing of the moral make-up of the Ginkgo Pictures — the liveliest G&G art I have seen for two decades — might deposit us on some truly malodorous terrain. It seems that only the female of the ginkgo emits the foul smell. Yet in siding with the Bangladeshi hoodies so presciently, G&G are innocent of cowardice or avoidance. Congratulations to them for mentioning so many unmentionables. The pictures look extra-exciting, too. Having recently conquered the computer, G&G now control every step of their production process, and the colours of their digital stained glass have intensified noticeably, as if selected by a vengeful migraine sufferer.
The Biennale has always been a useful political baro- meter. And this year’s diplomatic machinations on the part of the organisers seem particularly revealing. The Chinese have been granted an official pavilion in a prime location next to what will be the Italian pavilion at the next Biennale, while the Taiwanese, who have contributed so energetically to recent exhibitions here, are no longer allowed to call themselves a national pavilion at all. Instead, their contribution, housed in the old prison cells of the Venetian republic, has been billed as the Museum of Taiwan. The artists get their own back by making the Taiwanese contribution a rumi- nation on the freedom of speech.
It has been obvious at recent Biennales that the event’s epicentre has moved from the famous Giardini, where the official pavilions of Britain, Germany and France have commanded the main spaces since colonial days, into Venice at large, where smaller countries, in wilder shows, have been making the most energetic cultural running. I always enjoy seeking out the Biennale’s least likely exhibitors, and settled this year on the countries of Central Asia — Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan — which have commandeered a lovely palazzo near the Rialto. Their contribution is, quite simply, astonishing: as hard-core as anything in the main shows. In her most ambitious piece, Almagul Menlibayeva shows seven naked Kazakh women embedded up to their waists in snow as they pay tribute to the hardiness of their ancestors. Their own hardiness is pretty special, too. In the next room, Rustam Khalfin records a performance in which the ancient Kazakh way of making love to a woman on a galloping horse is vividly re-enacted. Now that’s what I call balance. Video is clearly a godsend to medium-starved societies such as Kazakhstan. Its ability to record a passing moment is genuinely precious. How extraordinary to be confronted so instantly by such distant and ephemeral thinking.
It’s also away from the Giardini that the best of the official shows, Always a Little Further, is located, in the former arsenal of the Venetian navy. Battle commences here with a suite of man-bashing posters in toxic colours, produced by the Guerrilla Girls for a set of nonexistent Hollywood epics about male exploitation of women. To view these Guerrilla Girls posters properly, you need to peer through a giant chandelier made of tampons by Joana Vasconcelos. Normally, I would not expect much from a chandelier made of tampons. But this one, amazingly, is beautiful.
Always a Little Further is well chosen. That’s the only secret of its success. It’s not overcrowded. It’s gratifyingly untexted. Once you get past Mariko Mori’s lustreware UFO with the psychedelic mind lab in it, the show’s second half is devoted mainly to nocturnal projections, but these, too, have been excellently selected and bring tangible poetry to their artificial nights.
As I said, this is my 10th Biennale. But it’s the first I can unhesitatingly recommend.