Sarah Lucas’ dildo-like banana spiders – a strange new hybrid creature made from the best parts of man and woman – guard the entrance to the British Pavilion. Slightly friendlier and more cartoonish than Louise Bourgeois’ constructions, they parade a shrivelled vulnerability. It feels safe to enter; these exposed creatures look too exhausted to pounce.
There is indeed a tiredness in this exhibition, the sculptures are literally reclining on the supporting furniture – perhaps after too many late night parties at the Biennale? It feels as if we are wandering into a scene from a lifestyle magazine where the characters have been momentarily frozen.
The bright yellow walls of this luxury apartment vibrantly contrast with the pathos of its inhabitants. Of course, there are puns and one-liners, a British sense of humour that doesn’t always translate so well abroad, but each work is given the space to breath – well displayed, it has something of the still life about it.
Chairs and tables prop up the waist-down plaster nudes. Often repositories for cigarettes, these faded characters appear to neglect the starved and stringy cat sculptures that also occupy the pavilion. There is something to be said about the terror that inhabits these pavilion pets: fear of change, of ageing, of death, all is encapsulated in their arched backs and sagging mammaries. These creatures represent an internal scream.
The Sarah Lucas show is growing on me, but there is a resigned patience regarding the continuation of the YBA legacy within the British Pavilion, a tradition that now inspires a guessing game of who will be chosen next or what an alternative approach might look like. The best idea I’ve heard would be to give Grizedale Arts full curatorial rein over the 2017 pavilion.
Personally, I would invite artist-led groups from each region to take over the space, creating a slightly messy, potentially jarring plurality of voices that presents the unrepresented UK art scene in its glorious diversity. Perhaps with ever increasing concern around identity, it is time to turn away from insular nationalism and open up the borders of our own pavilion even wider.
Of course there are plenty more YBAs and their near contemporaries whose presence in the national pavilion is keenly anticipated. But in the interim, it would be exciting and energising to see a radically different approach snuck in between these major solo showings.
Helen Sear’s sumptuous photographic prints and films, in the Wales in Venice exhibition, reveal layers and depth lent by the physical materiality of these sculpturally displayed pieces. Her exquisite mastery of the manipulated image creates abstracted experiences of nature that can be profound.
But of course they would be – Sear is technically and conceptually rigorous, often returning to film and photograph works anew many times over. Time, space and renewal are central elements within her practice.
This is a deeply sensory exhibition, subtly curated to sit within the architecture of Santa Maria Ausiliatrice church. There is a kind of ritual and ceremony, an enchantment propelled by the rhythm of the flickering spliced edit of company of trees.
The repetitious sounds of birdsong and chainsaw follow the viewer into the Sacrista where birds feed, dart and return in altar and the ground swells and expands as we look down onto the beginning and end of things, at what could be a marble basin but is in fact a video-manipulated pool of water reflecting trees high above.
Moving through this exhibition is a captivating and magical experience. stacks, a huge photographic piece which lines the entirety of one wall, is a life-size confrontation of farmed logs. Composed of multiple images printed on aluminium and stacked along the wall, this black and white piece cleverly refracts and retains colour and light, ever changing as the viewer walks past, creating an effect not dissimilar to that experienced in nature itself.
Sear’s final work subtly references Mantegna’s third painting of Saint Sebastian, using it as a spatial guide onto which she places her own imagery and meaning. The vivid colour of the rape seed, the red arrows piercing canvas and air rather than flesh, along with the clever layering of perspective and material, suggest an untouchable reality. Sear’s contemplative and exhilarating exhibition is a visual revelation.
The motif of the tree also makes an appearance in Graham Fagen’s beautifully presented exhibition at Palazzo Fontana for Scotland+Venice, a site chosen by the artist for its symbolic and historic references to power.
Entering a vast marble-floored hall we encounter the deracinated Rope Tree. Cast in bronze, this self-standing tree reaches up into the vast space, tentacle-like, expressing a lightness and freedom that belies its material fabrication. The sound of distant voices – song, combined with classical music – draws us through the exhibition, lending meaning to the works in each space.
Next, we are confronted by Fagen’s x-ray-like skull paintings, a series of internal self-portraits painted by the artist in response to using his tongue to guide his way around his own teeth. There is something deathly and painful about these works, a psychedelic struggle, explosions of paint across the paper or sinister red and black blotches that somehow bleed into shape.
These works are suggestive of colonial portrayals of primitive masks and anthropoligical collections, made all the more so by the totemic sculpture in the following room, constructed through impressions made by Fagen’s own body and suggestive of some unknown iconographic ritual structure.
Fagen has collaborated with the reggae singer Ghetto Priest, composer Sally Beamish and musicians from the Scottish Ensemble in an interpretation of Robert Burns’ 1792 poem The Slave’s Lament. In the final room, four videos present the musicians and singers, an absent quartet performing in the space.
As Ghetto Priest sings Burns’ words, Fagen’s formal and bodily approach to art making cannot but be imbued with a second layer of meaning. Echoing through the four galleries, we hear the melancholy refrain: ‘And Alas! I am Weary, Weary-O’.
The 56th Venice Biennale, 9 May – 22 November 2015. www.labiennale.org
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