10 to see at the 2017 Venice Biennale

Published 12 May 2017

Phyllida Barlow RA’s bulbous sculptures, Robert Cuoghi’s messiah machines and Damien Hirst’s demons – here are ten highlights of this year’s contemporary art spectacular.

  • 1. Barlow for Britain…

    The national pavilions of the Venice Biennale are the closest thing art has to a World Cup. To extend the metaphor: Britain’s star player this year, sculptor Phyllida Barlow RA, is a long-serving skilful and expressive midfielder who, late in her career (she is now 73), is receiving her dues on and off the pitch.

    Bursting out of the neo-classical British Pavilion, her large, low-fi sculptures – including huge rough and ready concrete columns – have a young artist’s enthusiasm and an older artist’s hard-won confidence. So much confidence, in fact, that the visitor feels like an intruder in their spaces.

  • Phyllida Barlow RA , Installation view, folly

    Phyllida Barlow RA, Installation view, folly, 2017.

    Photo: Ruth Clark © British Council. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth.

  • 2. …and Maclean and Richards too

    Away from the main settings for the national pavilions – the gardens (Giardini) and the docks (Arsenale) of the city’s Castello area – the British Council presents a powerful, site-specific film installation by Scotland’s representative Rachel Maclean, in the darkness of the Chiesa di Santa Caterina. It’s a good job the church is deconsecrated, since what is projected in place of the altar is most ungodly: a savage satire on the debasement of our culture through lies. The fantasy narrative riffs on the Pinnochio story, and verges from laugh out loud lightness to hard to watch violence. Similarly schismed (although less extreme) is Wales representative James Richards’ audio installation in Santa Maria Ausiliatrice. This epic sound work moves from Mac-made noise to hand claps, smooth vocal segments and what sounds like hand-plucked piano strings.

  • Rachel Maclean, Spite Your Face

    Rachel Maclean, Spite Your Face, 2017.

    Courtesy Scotland + Venice. Commissioned by Alchemy Film & Arts in partnership with Talbot Rice Gallery and the University of Edinburgh. Photo by Patrick Rafferty..

  • 3. Italy takes it all

    The Italian Pavilion is my standout of the national presentations, for the pitch-perfect performance/installation by Roberto Cuoghi. He has created what could be described as a Christ factory: a production line, staffed by a devoted team, which manufacturers large devotional figures of Jesus lying down. At the entrance of a cavernous space, we see staff working various contraptions and filling moulds of body parts. Once hardened (sometimes with the help of a furnace), these fragments of figures are carried to something akin to Matt Damon’s plastic tent in The Martian. Inside is a very odd experience – an unsettling merger of sci-fi and medievalism, and a treatise on ideas around replication and religion.

  • Roberto Cuoghi, Installation view, Imitazione di Cristo

    Roberto Cuoghi, Installation view, Imitazione di Cristo, 2017.

    Photo: Roberto Marossi.

  • 4. Moving image moments

    High quality video art can be found at the New Zealand and South African Pavilions (both in the Arsenale). Emissaries by kiwi Lisa Reihana is a panoramic video that takes its inspiration from 19th-century wallpaper picturing Captain Cook’s voyages. On what appears to be a painted background, actors play out real and imagined interactions between Europeans colonialists and indigenous Pacific peoples, the action spooling leftwards from incident to incident.

    Videos by Candice Breitz and Mohau Modisakeng in the South African Pavilion mined issues around immigration. The latter showed a hypnotic work on three screens, each displaying a small white boat with a figure inside, as seen from above. Slowly water starts to come in – the travellers’ reactions range from serenity to struggle. In Breitz’s Love Story, by contrast, famous actors tell the first-person stories of refugees. An honourable mention on the film front should also go to the Swiss Pavilion, which had a fascinating work by duo Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler, imagining the life of little-known artist Flora Mayo, a friend of Giacometti.

  • in Pursuit of Venus [infected], 2015–17, Lisa Reihana: Emissaries, Biennale Arte 2017

    in Pursuit of Venus [infected], 2015–17, Lisa Reihana: Emissaries, Biennale Arte 2017

    Photo: Michael Hall. Image courtesy of New Zealand at Venice

  • 5. Garden respite

    Each year a huge, specially curated international group show spreads across a large pavilion in the Giardini and successive spaces in the Arsenale. My advice is to give it a miss. This year’s is a repetitious succession of conceptual pieces on relational issues – community in particular – which lacks poetry or connection to real issues, leaving ideas mute. And there was way too much textile work.

    But if you do venture forth, my highlight was a simple but magical participatory work by the Taiwan-born artist Lee Mingwei. It begins with a performer encouraging you to enjoy a moment’s peace on a chair in the Central Pavilion’s Carlo Scarpa-designed garden. And it ends with a gift, to help you connect to a comparative experience of beauty in the future.

  • Lee Mingwei, When Beauty Visits

    Lee Mingwei, When Beauty Visits, 2017.

    Photo: Sam Phillips.

  • 6. Art across palazzi

    One of the joys of the Biennale is exploring breathtaking Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque buildings full of interesting and diverse art. Three group shows provided such joy this year.

    Intuition at Palazzo Fortuny looks at its titular theme through works ranging from ancient sculptures to modern movements (some great Abstract Expressionism, Surrealism and Fluxus) to contemporary art by figures such as Anish Kapoor RA. The Diaspora Pavilion is not a pavilion as such, but a lively group exhibition in the Palazzo Pisani Santa Marina. Ten artists whose work deals with the diasporic condition – particularly issues such as migration and cultural transmission – were mentored by likeminded, more established peers, and all participants now show their diverse, dynamic, witty works together in Venice. And the stunning Palazzo Contarini Polignac is the stage of the international, highly remunerative Future Generation Art Prize, whose winner this year is South Africa’s Dineo Seshee Bopape.

  • Menhirs-Steles and Basquiat

    Menhirs-Steles and Basquiat

    Intuition © Jean-Pierre Gabriel

  • 7. The return of Tehching Hsieh

    The Taiwanese Pavilion – set in the slightly foreboding surrounds of the 18th-century Palazzo delle Prigioni, a former prison – presents material from the legendary performance artist Tehching Hsieh. The Taiwan-born, New York-based artist gave up art in the 1980s, but not before he had carved his niche in 20th century’s canon by completing his gruelling (to say the least) series, One Year Performances.

    Artworks in the series included being confined to cage for a year; being tied to another (female) person for a year; taking a photograph of himself every hour, in the same spot, for a year; and staying outdoors, in Manhattan, for a year. These latter two works are foregrounded in photos, films, documents and ephemera, making a small but must-see show for performance art-interested visitors to Venice.

  • Tehching Hsieh, One Year Performance

    Tehching Hsieh, One Year Performance, 1980-1981.

    © Tehching Hsieh.

  • 8. The return of Damien Hirst

    Having been in the press of late more for his art collection (on view at London’s Newport Street Gallery) than his own art, Damien Hirst makes a comeback of some magnitude in a frankly bonkers show across 5,000 square metres of exhibition space at the city’s Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana.

    Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable is a vast array of sculptures posing as ancient artefacts newly found from the ocean floor. The mythic figures and beasts merge various myths (Egyptian, Assyrian, Meso-American, Greco-Roman), sitting uneasily at the juncture of spectacle and satire, but their sheer detail and scale (one figure, Demon with Bowl, stands several storeys high) makes the jaw drop. In terms of eye candy if not good taste, the show is essential viewing when in Venice.

  • Damien Hirst , Demon with Bowl (Exhibition Enlargement)

    Damien Hirst, Demon with Bowl (Exhibition Enlargement), 2017.

    Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS/SIAE 2017.

  • 9. Russian Revolution remix

    Those who visited the RA’s recent show Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932 will be interested to see the V-A-C Foundation’s Space Force Construction exhibition. Over 20 contemporary artists show new commissions alongside historic works from international public and private collections including the Art Institute of Chicago and the State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow – these works roughly correspond to the years examined in the RA show, when all forms of visual art were harnessed for revolutionary purposes.

    Barbara Krueger brings her characteristic bold advertising type to agit-prop Russian vocab; Florian Pumhosl channels the spirit of Suprematism with his minimal white sculptures in a replica El Lissitzky room; Janice Kerbel makes beautiful geometric patterns from representations of Russian synchronised swimmers. At the launch, a performance by Tania Bruguera saw an artist sculpt portrait busts of sitters in Leninist style, against a backdrop of 1920s propaganda images.

  • Florian Pumhösl, Relief I-V (on the walls of the El Lissitzky Room)

    Florian Pumhösl, Relief I-V (on the walls of the El Lissitzky Room), 2017.

    Produced by V-A-C Foundation Photo: Delfino Sisto Legnani.

  • 10. There’s always Guston

    And lastly an artist who is no longer contemporary, having passed way in 1980, but whose art is as gut-wrenchingly good and influential as any of the new work on show in the city: Philip Guston. The American artist’s work is famous for having three distinct phases – realism, Abstract Expressionism, and then an unexpected return to figuration, with a highly idiosyncratic, and cartoonish, visual vocabulary. A terrific exhibition at the Gallerie dell’Accademia di Venezia mixes and matches across these stages in his career, making connections between series through Guston’s love of poetry (the show reveals, among other things, his rarely seen illustrations for poets’ works). It is a melancholy and moving exhibition, full of some of his best work, and a reminder of the standard to which all artists should aspire.

  • Phillip Guston , Painter's Forms II

    Phillip Guston, Painter's Forms II, 1978.

    © The Estate of Philip Guston Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. Museum purchase, The Friends of Art Endowment Fund Photo: Tom Jenkins.