Lying somewhere near the graveyard of art criticism is Madder Lake (ahem) Editions, where twisted tales from the artworld are told. Following Alan Phelan's splash in Venice last week, JAMES MERRIGAN is second to take the plunge into the murky depths kissed red-red at the shore with his Booth-Girl review of the 57th Venice Biennale.💀
A wealthy family arrive on the scene; their privilege marked by posture over fashion. Two teenage boys shrug under floppy hair and sunglasses while Mam and Dad try to figure out the queue—what is the least amount of steps and time to enter one of the main venues of the Venice Biennale, the Giardini.
Mam and Dad get frustrated quick. Seconds quick. Dad returns from the ticket booth with the knowledge that he has to pick up a queue ticket in order to buy a real ticket to enter the Biennale. (I watched this take place because I was number 181 in a queue that had just turned 140 on the digital counter above the booth).
Dad reluctantly goes to get a ticket in order to queue for a ticket. (Admittedly this was a confusing system that was universally tripping people over.) Ironically Dad finds that a queue has formed in the queue ticket booth. After 30 seconds he storms out of the queue ticket booth, pushes through the hoi polloi and starts saying something to the girl in the ticket booth proper; by the look of his gestures he is not a happy camper and neither is Booth Girl. Booth Girl shrugs as Dad's sons have been shrugging since they arrived on the scene, but there is resignation in Booth Girl's eyes as if this situation has happened before and has a predictable outcome every time.
Dad marches away while vehemently gesturing to one of his sons to queue in the queue ticket booth in his place. Meanwhile. I’m feeling sorry for the sons even though they look like they have just hopped off one of those super yachts on the pier, so I start to construct a history for the sons that involves a detached father who places money above love. Midway through my made-for-TV drama plot the son queuing for the queue ticket returns with a queue number and hands it to Dad. Dad responds with a rictus and throws his hands up in the air. No words are spoken, not one, just flaying T-Rex arms and cool shrugs. I look to Mam for some humility; I get none.
I realise Mam has been hovering around the ticket booth proper while Dad was huffing and puffing but the house was made of bricks. Mam steps up the game and says something short and inaudible to Booth Girl. Mam turns, delicately smirks and gestures to Dad who pauses in split-second resignation that Mam rules the roost when it comes to getting one over on him and the plebs. Dad moves in with his wallet, buys the tickets and walks into the biennale with his family in tow. There is no celebration, just purple privilege, as they super-fuck-you sashay away. The digital counter turns 160. Another 20 minutes should do it for us as I look disappointingly at Booth Girl. The art has a hard act to follow. Viva Arte Viva.
Hold on tight
Spain's National Pavilion is the first act to follow and immediately feels like it's in touchy feely touch with social collective art commentary but out of touch with the big bad world until you get to the last of a series of big screens propped upon the type of timber bleachers usually found pleating the edges of college sports fields in Hollywood movies where the teenage dejected sit or a jock takes advantage of a cheerleader under. But. But, on the back of a very American Ford Ranchero rolling down a very American street an American accented woman dressed all in black orates to a passerby populace and you the observer clearly and enigmatically and persuasively like a magpie stealing away distraction. "Dickocracy" and "Cockocracy" give you the gist of the orator's political sentiment but the longer you listen her headline neologisms wrinkle as they bleat the same message over and over and over and over again until the clarity and enigma of the first message becomes as Trump toxic as 'great' and 'amazing', all the while the realisation comes knock-knock-knocking on your door that propagandising from the back of a pickup is not meant for sustained listening but for the passerby voter who might pick out a ‘dickocracy’ here and ‘cockocracy’ there and continue merrily on their way to the voting booth, no harm done.
The Finish Pavilion with its cuddly irreverent muppetry was fun until the granular giggles slipped minutes quick through the hourglass. Long lasting enigmatic fascination is in short supply at the Biennale all round with the 30 minute lock-in in the Danish Pavilion where a bearable mindfulness soundscape in full darkness is quickly polluted by a trio of horribly insincere and self-righteous voices that sound like a Yoda wizened Whoopi Goldberg, a blithering twit Emma Thompson and a Lord of the Rings elf Cate Blanchett with the white hair and howling voice and so forth. Denmark is every sensual and aesthetic abuse imaginable and you are told in no uncertain terms that if you feel yourself resisting the artist's message about replacing the bad chaotic distracting dependency on light filled progress with the wonderfully woolly wet dark womb of inner presentiment you are unenlightened and resistant and capitalist and wrong and man. And even though Denmark wasn't to blame I blame Denmark for making me miss the two hour window for the German Pavilion performance that same day which I had to return to the following day to experience in all its trendy and unique and dangerous and dramatic and dazzlingly masturbatory wallowness in a soulless and songless and colourless Emerald City fortress of glass and metal and fashion and posturing and voyeuristic consumerism by an audience who are the ones doing all the consuming without really realising it. So there, Denmark.
(Where was Booth Girl when I needed her?)
From good Spain to bad Denmark it got a bit good and a bit bad in other National Pavilions with Japan playing playfully with Japaneseness through a quirky ceiling peephole where your head ends up on the floor of an exhibition space with people wandering around looking at your head set amidst deliciously delicate architectures that sprout from everyday detritus, while, just across the way from Japan Korea is sending up America with Pepto-Bismal toilet roll sculptures and arses spaying diarrhoea geysers and other visceral and volatile shit that parodies Western culture from an Eastern vantage point of dumb but fun depravity.
Speaking of America the US Pavilion looks a little unkept on the surface with dust and garbage and a poem engraved on concrete plaques that front the building with the opening lines Hephaestus I mean nobody likes to admit it Somebody threw me out of my house But inside America is still big, still bold, still swollen, still confidently sashing away like Booth Family through the waste and rubble of its own making. While in the Swiss Pavilion an 80 years old man reflects tearfully and movingly on his happenstance discovery in a book that his mother was Giacometti's lover and that ultimately she was another victim of the Artist's Life of financial and familial ruin, but I was left wondering that her son as a baby, a boy, a young man and now, Now, was the real victim in this familiar story of familial abandonment and embrace in the relationships between the people we love and are responsible for and the things we individually and selfishly dream of being.
The South African Pavilion systematically skewers your empathy with a 3-pronged attack that starts with an arty black and white period scene with a black woman bobbing in a boat and water from which you exit to enter a further dark space and get up close but not personal with the green screen glamour of Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore ventriloquizing refugee stories of oppression, refugees whom you find in the next room in a suite of films against sumptuous green screens and a tinted windowed Venice telling their stories which end up emotionally toppling the arty metaphor and celebrity glamour of the previous film setups.
What I will say is that sometimes National Pavilions at the Venice Biennale go full Eurovision on things but oftentimes it is modesty that you take home with you like say the simply endearing The Mondrian Fan Club displayed in the easy to miss library in the Giardini that scrapbooks the decades' long global art adventures of two nomadic artists who made art so fleeting and in-the-moment that their art happenings weren't always recorded or documented. While in the Nordic Countries Pavilion there's a gorgeous and playful series of super-short and simple Super 8 films that bring together the ghostly film stock with the artist's unique take on and upending of everyday reality so completely and so lovely that I fell in love and took them home in my memory for forever safekeeping. Then pull back the curtain in the Arsenale and you'll find up high on a TV screen an artist dressed as Alien alter ego jumping on a bed in a lonely hotel room while weird but good paintings are placed on a book display that you might find in the kid section of a library which all adds up to the palpable sense that the end of the world is nigh but the temporal treadmill is a Möbius strip that leads you back to a post-future that has no beginning or middle or 💀