la Biennale di Venezia

Originally a locus for colonial powers to demonstrate their wealth, power and supposedly civilised standards through high art, the Venice Biennale is still dominated by the Western canon. To have a presence in Venice is to stake a claim as worthy in the eyes of the new academy. Participating countries are keen to buy into this paradigm, demonstrated by the increase in national pavilions, numbering 77 this year, the highest number in Biennale history. This is made explicit with a visit to the United Arab Emirates pavilion. With cash to flash, it is pursuing acceptance at the top table of international art. And who can blame it or other aspiring nations?

The Venice Biennale is the epic event of the art world. Its location, in a most unique and fantastical city, is impossible to rival. Literally the biggest, but also the first and original Biennale, every two years it adds extra sparkle and glamour to those famous canals and grand palazzos. 53 editions on, it retains prestige, elegance and disconcertingly high production values.

The draw of the Venice Biennale is undeniable and potent – there is real joy in consuming and participating here. This powerful, almost indescribable drive to be part of the epic nature of the Venice event operates at all levels. All biennales spawn ‘collateral events’ and fringes, not necessarily part of the official programme, but taking place simultaneously. These attempt to capitalise on the platform national and international events create and sometimes they comment on the glorious circus as it comes to town. Even artists of the stature of Richard Long, Anselm Kiefer, Gavin Turk and Ai Weiwei are participating in ‘collateral’ group shows within the Venice footprint but outside the official venues of the Arsenale and the Giardini.

One peripheral event was The MakeShift Pavilion, an intriguing project realised by Brighton-based artist-curators Dan Pryde-Jarman, and Micheal O’Connell with his partner Mary Dobbin. It consisted of two parts; the first was a screening of films by highly regarded international artists Bob and Roberta Smith, David Blandy, Blast Theory and Semiconductor, amongst others. The second aspect was process driven, with artists in England sending instructional text messages to co-creators O’Connell and Dobbin, who interpreted and built the art pieces on site from a limited range of materials and within a severely limited timescale. The films were screened in the cool dark of a battered industrial shipping container, and the constructed items (resulting from SMS messages) were displayed in a converted London bus; both spaces were situated on a mainland campsite on the lagoon coast, a twenty minute boat ride from central Venice.

Location and site were integral aspects to this initiative. Art practise has a long tradition of using obsolete industrial spaces; the irony and symbolism appeals to artists, along with their general affordablity. The Arsenale, the massive industrial complex which used to be the ship-building heart of the Venetian empire, has institutionalised the connection between industry and art for successive Biennales. By contrast, The MakeShift Pavilion, with its make do and mend ethos, and self-conscious use of shipping container and bus, is a fresh iteration of this theme. Given the population drift from tiny historic Venice to more modern and affordable locations on terra firma, the mainland, there is an implicit contrast between the museum city of old Venice, and the mainland as the site of contemporary living, working and residency. This underpins the pragmatism of siting the MakeShift Pavilion at Camping Fusina with some political currency.

Both these unusual showing spaces were found, as make shift venues, on location. The high production values of the Biennale and its official fringe events meant that many projects rented a crumbling palace, magnificent church or well maintained canal-side academic venue. However, the MakeShift Pavilion did not receive any official funding, and was conceived to take place in Camping Fusina. Designed by Venetian architect Carlo Scarpa, the campsite has various permanent sculptures on site. Director Valde Berzins hosted and generously sponsored The MakeShift Pavilion, both as an alternative activity to the main Biennale and to the camping staples of drink, disco and karaoke. This sponsorship made the project possible and has the makings of an interesting and hopefully ongoing partnership between the MakeShift group and the campsite.

The collection of films for the screening was well assembled and thoughtful; the context of their showing thoroughly excavated by curator Dan Pryde-Jarman in conception and programme notes. Distinctive and varied, the films combined to explore the interplay between imaginary and physical worlds; between the landscapes of the mind, and the landscapes of actuality. To watch them as a whole was to experience the banality of the everyday transformed into expressions of the human psyche.

Assembling such excellent films by generally high profile artists was a curatorial coup. With explicit permission – and in some cases, contractual specification – from the artists, the films were projected directly onto the back wall of a well-used industrial shipping container, rivets and all on show, endowing a tatty urban authenticity familiar to emerging artists but less available to those with a higher profile. The films were presented in pairs daily for a week, unlikely to be appropriate for the holidaying campsite audience, but this was the only wrong note in an otherwise strong initiative. The diversity of form and treatment – from the gloriously imaginative docufiction of David Blandy’s “Soul of the Lakes” to the digitech fluency of Semiconductor’s “Matter in Motion” and Blast Theory’s “TRUCOLD” – presented variations on a theme that was consistently rich and informative. The use of the container was an idiosyncratic triumph, creating a functional, intimate and distinctive environment that felt both right and comfortable.

A higher risk proposal was the Interactive Text element of the project. As with many rule-based works, the experience of enacting the conceptual plan was required to demonstrate how viable this proposal could be. Participating artists in the UK were given 90 minutes to send instructional messages, acted upon by O’Connell and Dobbin in real time, at a rate of three artists a day for two days and two artists for one day (totalling seven artist-participants). The concept seemed plausible but its execution was problematic. To enable success, the participating artists needed to prepare thoroughly, and the co-creation of artworks needed to be approached with rigour. The limited time for each artist led O’Connell to sacrifice craft skills in the haste and excitement of making. Laura Mousavi, who had provided two prepared canvases, facilitated the only ‘finished’ piece with an air of seriousness about it. Another piece by artist-curator Nadege Derderian instructing O’Connell to re-enact an Yves Klein performance, (airing dirty washing in public and complete with Klein-blue paint) felt reasonably substantial. But generally, this part of the project was less successful than that of the screening. As an experiment it was interesting but the objectives of the process were unclear, as was the decision to produce it in Venice during the Biennale. The practices of the participating artists range from illustration to live art, and the only unifying element appeared to be the Make Shift theme. This weakened the performative elements and meant that the exhibition did not communicate well to viewers.

As a pilot, The Makeshift Pavilion has tremendous potential. With a rigorous evaluation, greater preparation and polish, fine-tuning, adequate budget and marketing, a better incarnation is waiting to emerge. In siting the MakeShift Pavilion across the lagoon from Venice, art is made available to contemporary Italian audiences; the people who service Venice but cannot afford to live there. It is this aspect that could be further developed in The MakeShift Pavilion of 2011.

It is the way of artists to make statements and Jayne Eagle is no exception. Not selected to participate in the formal MakeShift project, she staged a fringe piece to this fringe event: a wreath of the letters G0D, on the boundary fence dividing the campsite from wasteground and lagoon. A small but powerful intervention in a city festooned with overly-familiar religious symbolism, it deftly reworked the religious principle of bringing the divine into the physical world, while simultaneously questioning beliefs in an omnipotent deity altogether.

Dan Pride Jarman

Micheal O’Connell

Jayne Eagle