The Arsenale and outside pavilions
The Biennale sprawls outside of its original pavilion gardens – the Giardini – and takes over the city, which is part of the fun. I spent Wednesday looking at some of the pavilions outside the Giardini and seeing the Arsenale, where this year's Biennale director Bice Curiger has curated a show called 'Illuminations' that, along with the Italian Pavilion in the Giardini, reflects her view of what sheds light in contemporary art.
First, the good news: Scotland
After trekking to find it and walking up several steep flights of stairs I found myself in a multi-sensory, neo-rococo installation by Karla Black. She has filled the space with abstract sculptures made from materials as diverse as topsoil, compost, powder, marble dust, cellophane, candles and – notably – soap. And since the gorgeously coloured soaps have been supplied by Lush soaps, fragrant scents fill the air. This pavilion, like so many, has a labyrinthine feel, as if you are walking from dream space to dream space following your eyes and your nose.
Image slideshow: Copyright Scotland + Venice
Near the Arsenale is a cluster of new national pavilions including Bangladesh and Iraq. I loved the colourful umbrellas crowding the entrance to Bangladesh but could have lived without the caged taxidermied pigs inside.
Iraq, back at the Biennale for the first time in 35 years, was a mixed bag. But its title Aqua Ferita (wounded water) refers not to its political turmoil but to its wider ecological problems of water shortage, expressed by a colourful sculpture there by Azad Nanakeli (below).
Azad Nanakeli, 'Au(water)', 2011. Mixed media installation with audio, 280 x 320 x 200 cm (detail). Courtesy of the artist.
Chiharu Shiota's installation 'Memory of Books' Nearby, I absolutely loved the woven room by Chiharu Shiota entitled Memory of Books, curated by James Putnam and organised by the Gervasuti Foundation. The artist has woven a web of thread around what appears to be a study in a small Venetian shop and it is like looking into a dream.
At the nearby Welsh Pavilion, I liked Tim Davies meditative film Drift, with his hand dipping in the water of a Venetian Canal.
Now the not so good news: The Arsenale
The Arsenale show as whole fell a little flat for me. It lacked flair and felt very European, rather than truly international.
Dayanita Singh, 'Dream Villa Slideshow', 2010. Slideshow installation of images from the Dream Villa series. Courtesy of the artist
To be fair, though, there are some standout works in Bice Curiger's curated show, ‘Illuminations’, which, along with her show in the Italian Pavilion in the Giardini, reflects her view of what is important in art now. And Curiger's idea of inviting artists to make ‘parapavilions’ is an original one and a good way to break up the cavernous spaces of the Arsenale. These freeform structures that are part art, part architecture contain other artist's work. When they work well (as with Franz West and Song Dong), they create mini shows within shows. When they don't (Monika Sosnowska's ‘parapavilion’ containing David Goldblatt's wonderful photographs of South Africa in the Italian Pavilion) they distract from the work they contain.
Franz West's parapavilion was the star for me because of its wacky multimedia nature. It is as though he is unable to stop making things – objects seem to grow organically from his original idea, so we see a Venetian glass sculpture, paintings, mini sculptures, photos. Inside, the pavilion shows slide projections of India by night by Indian photographer Dayanita Singh (above right).
Song Dong's Parapavilion © Song Dong, Courtesy of The Pace Gallery, Beijing
At the entrance to the Arsenale, Song Dong's dramatic parapavilion is a reconstruction of his hundred-year-old Chinese parental home. It holds photographic and film work by French-Moroccan artist Yto Barrada, that reimagines her childhood.
What I loved at the Arsenale:
Christian Marclay's The Clock – I could watch this for hours, literally. If you missed it in London earlier this year, make a special point of seeing it here.
Franz West's parapavilion and knotted pink sculpture at the end of the show.
Franz West, 'Tea kitchen at Franz West Studio', 2011. Photo: Heiri Haefliger/Atelier Franz West. Courtesy of the artist
Urs Fischer's monumental wax candle sculpture (below) based on Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabine Women, with a life-size wax candle sculpture of the artist's friend Rudolph Stingel admiring it as he burns.
Urs Fischer, Untitled, 2011 Photo: Francesco Galli. Courtesy: la Biennale di Venezia
Nicholas Hlobo's massive voodoo sculpture that seems to engulf viewers.
Jean-Luc Mylene's hypnotically beautiful photographs of birds.
Installation view of Jean-Luc Mylayne's works. Courtesy the Artist. Photo: Franziska Bodmer e Bruno Mancia - FBM Studio
Mariana Castillo Deball's Aztec-inspired long printed scroll covered with enigmatic symbols.
Rebecca Warren's bulbous sculptures of the female form, which evoke ancient fertility symbols.
Gigi Scara's hilarious Elevator from the Subcontinent – literally a lift that you step into filled with video installations that simulate descending down into India, and makes you feel mildly seasick.
Ayse Erkmen's Turkish Pavilion – a vast, colourful, maze-like installation of water purification units, pipes and cables.
Adrian Villar Rojas's Argentine Pavilion entitled Now I will be with my Son – an all-encompassing concrete jungle filling the entire space with broken architecture, metamorphosing into organic forms.
Katharina Fritsch's outdoor sculpture – at last she's gotten away from black rats and injected some fun and colour into her work!
Katharina Fritsch, '6. Stilleben', 2011 Photo Composition for Venice Art Biennale 2011. ©VG BILD-KUNST, Bonn. Courtesy of the artist
Top tip of the day from Ossian Ward, art critic of Time Out: "Modernikon – a show of contemporary Russian art, curated by Francesco Bonami of the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin is the first good show of new art from Russia that I've seen. Really an eye-opener."
Top tip of the day from the RA's Director of Exhibitions Kathleen Soriano: "Palazzo Fortuny show of the collection of Axel Vervoordt – as thrilling the third time around as the first!"
- Stay tuned for: Day four and a tour of the collateral exhibitions of the Biennale – looking forward to seeing Modernikon, Venice in Venice and, especially, Palazzo Fortuny.