Christoph Schlingensief turns the German pavilion into a convincing simulacrum of a church, albeit a David Cronenberg Videodrome church that shows endless timelapse video loops of decaying rabbits. Overwrought, Wagnerian choral music blasts out as people (including several Muslim women and this lifelong atheist) automatically and comfortably settle themselves into the candlelit pews for a quasi-Christian experience. Nobody dares approach the altar, even though there seem to be things up there that we should look at.
Just like his Giardini neighbour Mike Nelson, Schlesinger completely gets it: how to use the scale and scope afforded by having a whole building at one’s disposal, how to bring people into his world, how not to break that world once they’re in it by doing stupid shit like over-explaining or asking for anything except that people trust him a bit because he’ll look after them.
I’d like to note here a kind of iPhone or iPad/tabletisation phenomenon visible in the video presentations (whether good, bad or incomprehensible) across the entire Biennale, including Schlingensief’s bank of rabbit-rotting projections: portrait format (i.e. 3:4 or 9:16) video everywhere, as if it truly only just occurred to many people that a rectangular screen can be rotated 90˚ just like a canvas or a piece of paper.
Mike Nelson’s UK pavilion was one of the few places where I wasn’t furiously (sometimes in every sense of the word) writing notes, so absorbed and transported was I by the experience. Also, it’s bloody dark in there.
That word “transported” is relevant: Nelson actually does make you feel like you’ve woken up in a strange place, or popped out of the TARDIS doors and stepped foot almost casually in some mysterious past or future. To me that’s a very precious experience. I’ve been lucky enough to travel quite a lot and have those kinds of experiences in places that are unequivocally real, but Nelson has the gift of manufacturing them from raw materials at will.
At Venice (or rather, no longer in Venice) you step into a low-key nightmare world, perhaps a complex of workshops somewhere in the Balkans or on the Bosporus. There are filthy work benches with unidentifiable machine parts strewn on them, a courtyard lined with doors and staircases, none of which seem to offer any meaningful egress or escape.
There’s the tiny, genius detail of a ridiculously creaky horror film door that swings shut of its own accord behind you, complaining all the while. There’s a grimy photographer’s dark room and nearby photos hang from the ceiling in what can only be described as a menacing manner: the photos are of the building we seem to be in, or of similar ones. It’s almost as if the building were documenting itself, or dreaming of itself. Nothing specific or particular can be demonstrated to have happened… but whatever that nothing was, it wasn’t good.
For once, a Brit has done us absolutely proud at the Biennale. Tracey who?