Lying somewhere near the graveyard of art criticism is Madder Lake (ahem) Editions, where twisted tales from the artworld are told. First to take a plunge into its murky depths kissed red-red at its shore is artist ALAN PHELAN's with his water-based review of the 57th Venice Biennale.💀
This is a monkey mermaid, a woman in a cave with golden wing fins. She is narrated by a tannoy voice in French, detailing some sort of observation on human existence, ritual and evolution, perhaps. It was difficult to know but the experience was fascinating. You enter through a giant hand, sit on a rubber-chipped mound and stare at an armless, human-sized finger puppet figure navigate quizzically through the antics of various clad and semi-clad actors (including a rather sweaty and sexual reclining Jesus; turns out the finger puppet is Saint Bernadette, so Jesus makes sense suddenly). Monkey mermaid was surrounded by drips and raucous ritual, a tad more wet and sticky than the array of swim suited sculptures that filled a park opposite the giant billionaire yachts parked adjacent to the Giardini. They were part of a five venue show by a famous hyperrealist sculptor I have never heard of before, the froth and bauble that this place attracts.
I went with a brief of searching out water-based art and turns out there was buckets of it everywhere. As an organising method for viewing it was no more daft as the nonsense Pavilions that Christine Macel had come up with to structure the non-national areas of the Biennale. These were fluid leaky barrier free zones anyway and ideas trickled between spaces or sometimes repeated too much to spoil each other, canceling out difference because of sameness.
But I was there to navigate water based art not discuss book based art. Tucked here and there and almost everywhere were little seascapes, sea creature sculptures, blossoms floating on the sea, floating houses, seascapes with words and bamboo boats dripping with wax and good intentions. Unlike most reviews of Venice I am not competing in the game of hierarchies, best of, longest queue equalling success reviews. That stuff is out there if you want it. I am following the sequence of the photo layout, snapshots thrown together after a persistent five day hunt for water.
So at the end of the Arsenale we have a dead artist falling from a tree into a river and a human skeleton morphed with a snake vertebrae gushing over with water and surrounding watery clutter (not photographed). Between the start (arrow boat) and end (scaffold holding up a giant roof reflecting pool) there is water. It all eventually reminded me of how Pompidou shows tend to look, not just those floor to wall platforms but the institutional imperative to explain. The Love show at IMMA curated by Macel in 2015 packed the small galleries with tons of work, showing off all the cool stuff the Pompidou had but also an inability to edit or unwillingness to not include all that could be. That show had lots of great photography never seen before. This one did too. More on that later.
For now the photo sequence leads me from a gushing cardboard box in Little Britain to the staring vegan millennial cult in Germania (boy in hoodie is standing in a sink). Both shows broke hearts and minds, the sentimental love story of an artist in late career opposed to a young sprite wrecking everyone’s heads with five hours of incongruous actions with fascist and romantic overtones. Epic.
Next door a Japanese artist who built an oil rig on a bin liner seascape out of a food carton and little 3D printer boom cranes which actually turned out to be straws. Then he put them on everything and trying to do lots of different things wrecked the original notion of water reflections of buildings becoming sculptures. This happened in lots of other places too. Outside the Giardini was a private show about whales with literary connections, a shiny table top boat battle was made from the same material as the billionaire boats outside the window. Not sure if this was intentional. The intro video seemed to locate the work in personal and historical points but the financial excess of the presentation was in sync with the tubs outside. It is an epic project that starts in Venice, tours and accumulates until 2020, so there is a lot more to happen there.
Hilariously there is a big shiny gold pole which has historical merit that escapes me but it was by the canal. Better still was the Pavilion of Humanity (not a Macel one) at Academia bridge which, like the best DIY apartment based shows, had work in the bathroom and bedrooms making weak concepts flush faster. But that is a bidet in the photo; I know. One of the funniest reviews I have read described someone using the loo in the Estonian bathroom art installation. It did have a sea serpent or snake in ice in the bath but I forgot to take a picture. The rest of the show just confused and disappointed me too much. I had wanted to see the giant photo cut outs and wired domestic combo machines that the artist makes but the rooms were just too claustrophobic and she needed a kunsthalle really, not an apartment to show the work in.
Back in the Arsenale the curator was showing off her vast knowledge and had found some really dreadful painted photos of Venice canals doing a Paddy’s Day greening as art not tourism, but really, is there a difference? Lots of the work had watery connections. There was a strange encyclopedic joke going on all through the anointed themes. Bad sea food, stones in water, filling bottles and inky drippy globes did not make it better. Back and forth, whale meets boat between different shows. This water-based theme of mine connected all the wrong stuff and sometimes made the good stuff bad, not vice versa.
The most spectacular water feature was just that, at Canada, with the building stripped, ponds, clocks, and planks spurting water everywhere. The statement about the work was by the artist not curator, a long thorough thought piece connecting public and personal histories brilliantly. This was a playful spectacle missing in so many other places that have similar mixes of ingredients but fail to deliver. Brings me back to the Japanese cranes and more whales elsewhere but more so the wooden building from Georgia that was raining inside, a sad nationalistic statement of fact, neither fun nor fiction.
That kind of dynamic came up a lot in the wall panel text and press releases, excruciatingly soft concepts hammered apart by tedious binaries and rambling waffle that overstated the obvious. Speed reading and extracting four pertinent words sufficed as an entertaining interpretative strategy for me and my companion. Water drips in the middle of the Arsenale bore holes in the stacks of coloured photos—how long this took or if it was staged was not very relevant as it was a mid floor counterpoint. Again at building extremities the epic projection of watery histories of New Zealand proved popular as tech spec over indigenous rights, a toy town naval disaster scene proved a narrative is always necessary when you throw stuff into a space and the naive Inuit whale hunt drawings proved that outsiders are in and the same as everyone else, especially when everyone gets the same framer (looks like the show got a good job lot done with the same beech frames on several different works).
Again somehow the lady on the beach ball was also equivalent to the bottled water from Iraq, despite good intentions the works there failed to move past grad show standard display, despite a famous name being involved. What stood out all over was queer art, Lady Bunny ranted and sang to great effect mid Arsenale with sunsets on seascapes decrying our neoliberal present. She joined a dozen other queer twists dotted around that provided an edge to the content that so many were sharing. I am probably biased.
Big budgets and big timelines were more effectively staged at the Fortuny, Louis Vuitton and Prada spaces. Odd that these three fashion houses proved more thoughtful. The intuitive excess at Fortuny was magical in the way it was supposed to be, years of research connecting so much, drawing on so many resources, then hung in chaos that should have been haut-pretentious but just was not. The Antarctic albino penguin translated into animatronic ceiling-bot, the iceberg island translated into orchestra and ice rink surrounded by emergency poncho’d audiences was maybe a has-been but I had not seen it before. The misty trans-disciplined scale of the project is astounding. Compare to fairy light swans or coloured balloons of oppression and all is forgiven for the lift not working and having to suffer walking through a shop. The dying octopus did save someone’s day however. No such problems at Prada where the most complex, well produced show sparkled in the murky canals of art. The mix of photographer, film maker and set designer produced a mind tingling array of crossed purposes. All those fact fiction real imaginary binaries were made non binary. This curatorial queering fluidly fluxed and fucked around with the artists who were all part of this orgy of trans-purposed ideas. There was even a little boat between all the stuff I am not allowing myself write about. The boat was leaking and the captain lied, as the show was called which encapsulated so much of everything, incredibly.💀