“My art has been commended as being strongly vaginal, which bothers some men. The word itself makes some men uncomfortable. Vagina. Yes, they don’t like hearing it and find it difficult to say, whereas without batting an eye a man will refer to his dick or his rod or his ‘Johnson’.” Maude Lebowski
You don’t need me to tell you that the Coen Brothers’ film The Big Lebowski is a classic; just ask the internet. It’s also remarkable for having two painfully accurate satires of contemporary artists in it. The art talk and Julianne Moore’s mid-Atlantic Sylvia Plath drawl, geometric hair and snotty attitude are all perfectly observed, and hilarious. In fact there’s three painfully accurate satires of contemporary artists if you count The Dude’s landlord Marty and his almost entirely unattended vanity premiere of a self-devised interpretative dance/performance art piece to Mussorgsky in a “nude” bodystocking and plastic vines. I’m sure many of us art lovers have been to those shows and regretted it.
Taiwan’s pavilion is in a grim upstairs dungeon attached to the Doge’s palace via the Bridge of Sighs, so called because prisoners passed over it from the palace to meet their usually horrible fates. In Venice, even the torture chambers are on the primo piano in case of floods. Torturers hate getting their feet wet. It may or may not be deliberate that the formerly dictatorial Taiwan’s pavilion is situated where the Doges would have their political or personal opponents browbeaten and tortured. Probably not. Plaques on the wall say “[famous person] was imprisoned here, [year] to [year]”.
Most of the presentation is more enthusiastic than good or exciting, like a commendable effort by enthusiastic A Level students. There’s a wobbly video of sugar mill workers making a sound work that initially doesn’t seem related to anything else. Most of the remaining periphery is occupied by what they call ‘Soundscape Taiwan’ or the ‘Sound Library/Bar’, which is essentially an adolescent audiovisual mix tape of Taiwanese indie bands, performance artists, DJs and so forth, with iPads running a slick interface.
Presumably this is all supposed to be very cool and maybe it is by Taiwanese standards, but it all seems rather naïve, a bit shoddy, blithely amateurish and embarrassing… overall not the worst thing you’ll encounter at the Biennale by an extremely long chalk but not very good either.
I suppose Taiwan can at least be praised for trying to be overtly youthful in a superannuated Biennale where any artist under 35 is considered “young” and “emerging” even if they’ve been in exhibitions for ten years, leaving us without a sensible definition for somebody who’s 22, talented and recently graduated. Some of the Biennale’s PR puffs and written material even crow about the fact that there are several people under 35 in the exhibition, as if it’s the curator’s achievement rather than than a triumph for the artists. Taiwan’s pavilion is also admirably upfront about the fact that the Biennale is (and always has been) primarily a kind of advertising market for national identity, even if in practice the Taiwan team’s chosen manner of branding themselves seems a bit ill-judged.
One thing that is truly worth the effort of visiting is Hong-Kai Wang’s video installation ‘Music While We Work’; it’s related to the aforementioned sound recording video but is in an entirely different league to it. The installation is compelling and almost painterly, particularly as projected here onto somewhat light-absorbing stone walls that mute and smear out the HD harshness of digital video. The double screen projection features workers at a sugar processing factory in Wang’s home town, and their erstwhile colleagues occasionally lurking around with recording equipment. It’s not quite a documentary, just poetic, languid, nicely shot and well-edited images of factory workers with no commentary, romanticism or condescension. Wang’s work is the only grown up thing in the whole pavilion.
The Singapore Pavilion’s ‘Cloud of Unknowing’ will probably remain “unknown” forever because the woman was refusing everybody entry on the grounds that there was too much of a cloud in there. Seriously, she said the smoke machine was making excessive smoke. This seems a bit like saying the sun makes excessive heat: true sometimes, but there are ways around such a problem if one applies a little bit of lateral thinking and common sense. All I can conclude based upon the available information is that the cloud, at least, is an actual physical one. I don’t think nobody being allowed in to “know” it was a conceptual act, though. I may be wrong.
I was sitting outside and gathering my hate I mean thoughts for a few minutes; she refused a steady stream of people who had stupidly made the effort to find the place and dared to assume they could actually visit the art work. I wonder if she ever let anybody in at all.
In short, Singapore Pavilion people, you might want to think about capitalising on being at the Biennale in Venice and hundreds or thousands of people being interested in your artist’s work instead of actively wasting their time and throwing it back in their faces. Five minutes more and she closed up entirely, then went flouncing off.
Basically she didn’t want to do any work that day and having visitors come in was annoying her. Gallery people, you’re not doing visitors a favour by deigning to let them see art. They’re supporting you.