From a strong artistic showing from the Middle East to an inventive British pavilion, this year's Venice Biennale dazzles and gives food for thought.
Venice Biennale bests
As the opening days of the Venice Biennale drew to a close, and the pavilions opened to the public, there was time to reflect on this year's event.
The UAE's participation in this year's event follows on from the country's double debut in 2009, which comprised a national pavilion, headed up by the photographer Lamya Gargash, and an Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (Adach) platform, which showcased the cultural development of the country and the work of a number of locally based artists including Sami Al Turki and Hassan Sharif.
For 2011, the UAE's pavilion presents a calm and spacious roundup of three Emirati talents that explored representations of both the organic and man-made realities found across the country.
While not part of the national pavilion, Sharif was in Venice again this time around. The vanguard artist launched a monograph of his work at the Biennale. Works 1979-2011 is an extensive and penetrating look at Sharif's entire career, and comes at a time of his large retrospective showing currently at Qasr Al Hosn in Abu Dhabi.
Sharif studied in Britain, but returned to the UAE in the 1970s to try to build an art consciousness in the country. The publishing of the book reflects Sharif's keen desire for the growth in contemporary art to be connected to a wider discourse on earlier art in the Emirates - a discourse that he helped found and shape, with the likes of fellow artist and protégé Mohamed Kazem.
In launching the book, Sharif referred to his work not as expressions but as "a manifesto" for the way he has tried to redress the disconnect between traditional painting and sculpture.
The book attempts to present an "historical perspective" on art in the UAE, and is published by Adach and HatjeCantz.
Elsewhere at the Biennale, other countries presented their own perspectives on art and identity. The national representations at this year's event have been a markedly diverse cohort.
Visitors to the German pavilion were ushered towards rows of wooden pews in a cobbled-together church. All around them, clips of a strange papal ceremony in an African wasteland are projected on to screens in eerie sepia.
This was announced as the winner of the 54th edition of the Biennale's top Golden Lion award on June 4. The pavilion was a paean to the late artist, film and theatre director Christoph Schlingensief.
Meanwhile, Sweden planted great elms in the centre of its airy modernist pavilion in the Giardini. With lumps of peat and restful-on-the-eye paintings of woodland by Andreas Eriksson dotted around the space, the Swedes offered a well-designed breath of fresh air from the chaotic crowds: very Swedish indeed.
Just around the corner, the United States went for a completely different approach: bombardment. Be it flipped tanks powered by a treadmill, or a gymnast in a star-spangled leotard pirouetting on a wooden reproduction of an American Airlines seat, the pavilion is loud, flashy and a bit shaky. It is an indecipherable curatorial direction only exacerbated by the lacklustre work inside.
The British pavilion often appeared to be a meditation on the existential foibles of queuing. Visitors could expect to wait in the Venice sun for up to two and a half hours, dodging oncoming art-lovers buried in the incomprehensible Biennale map, while contemplating the marvellous British pastime of getting in line. Those who braved this, however, were treated to one of the event's most impressive exhibitions.
The artist Mike Nelson has completely transformed the otherwise sedate rectangle of the original British pavilion. Bringing wood, tools, brick tiles, receipts and detritus across the water from Turkey, Nelson has meticulously recreated from memory a previous exhibition at the Istanbul Biennial in 2003. In three weeks, he has managed to build an entire space-within-a-space - a labyrinth of low ceilings, exposed brickwork and cement staircases. "Nothing of the original building can be seen," said one volunteer, as he led visitors through this dusty, invented warren.
In dim lighting, and to a constant hum of fans, Nelson has recreated a series of industry workrooms, with spinning cotton on the floor, interspersed with developing rooms bathed in red light. Styled as Turkish, right down to the ubiquitous portraits of Kemal Ataturk - the father of modern Turkey and the industrial powerhouse it is becoming - the entire pavilion is a sculpture in itself. There are domed ceilings in some of the rooms, as well as a courtyard in the centre created by removing parts of the roof of the original British pavilion.
But the authenticity of the space is so intoxicating that it's nigh on impossible to step back and assess what it's all about.
Simply, the power of the work lies in its virtuosity. Nelson's painstaking attention to detail, the obsessive documentation of buildings in Turkey (represented by developed photographs that flap from the ceilings in some of the rooms) and the subtle, creeping feeling of menace that lingers throughout. After crossing the threshold, the viewer instantly, wholly steps out of the Biennale.
So how did Germany clinch the Lion d'Or? Anarchic, even for the Germans, someone had decided to alter the original pavilion's header from "Germania" to "Egomania" for this celebration of the work of Christoph Schlingensief, whose work often questioned the assumed benevolent role of the artist.
Schlingensief died in August, 2010, and was one of the most important post-reunification commentators on German society. He was producing films since the early 1980s, in addition to his own installation and performance works and developed an aesthetic of filmmaking that gave nods to the explosive and degraded world of B-movies, but were often excavations of the unspoken conflicts boiling beneath German society.
For the pavilion, the central piece, The Church of Fear vs The Alien Within, is the chapel installation that recreates the exact stage Schlingensief made for his 2008 play Fluxus Oratorio, which reflected on the final stages of his battle with lung cancer by combining performance with accompanying video works and X-rays.
On the left side of the pavilion is Remdoogo, documenting Schlingensief's project to build an "opera village" in the countryside of Burkina Faso in west Africa. And to the right, a cinema screening his film works, such as the crazed vision of a refugee camp in Rassau, Terror 2000.
Schlingensief would have been the principal designer on the German pavilion, for another artist, had he survived. The breadth of this show demonstrates the extensiveness of his vision and his willingness, without fear, to probe where few dare to peek.
Outside of the main Biennale grounds, the Iraq pavilion has been well received, bringing six artists from the Iraqi diaspora to create works in Venice on the theme of "wounded water".
"Every time the artists would go back to Iraq, they would see there's no more water," said Mary Angela Schroth, the curator of the first Iraq pavilion since 1976. Schroth is referring to the stampeding disappearance of the Tigris and Euphrates, the twin arteries of the country.
Ali Assaf, Ahmed Alsoudani, Adel Abidin, Azad Nanakeli, Halim Al Karim and Walid Siti have all contributed to the exhibition. Assaf, also the commissioner on the project, has created an installation that reflects on the changes wrought on Al Basrah, the so-called "Venice of the Orient". "The surviving friends and family were aged," he writes, after 30 years away from the city. "The Shatt Al-Arab river has become saline."
Elsewhere, Abidin has created a video work depicting two suited businessmen battling light-sabre-style with fluorescent lighting tubes. 'The battle for water is fought in the corporate boardroom," Schroth noted.
This return to the Biennale is an important moment for Iraq. Though there are some weaker inclusions in here, this is a national participation, an official representation of the country of Iraq, and Schroth is hopeful this will usher in a regular spot in the Biennale for the country.
All they need now is a space. This year's pavilion has found a home in an abandoned building not far from the Arsenale. Its cracked walls and harsh lighting give the space a haunted feel that carries the works well. Schroth explained that it was perfect for this show, but will not suffice for the future. "When we came with the artists, I knew it was the right space, even if it is rough."
She explained that it was also a matter of working within the limitations of funding the pavilion: "We started this project with nothing - zero. It was just an idea. The Arab Fund for Arts and Culture gave us one of our first grants and that started the ball rolling. But it's been a lot of work to raise the funds for this.
"The pavilion means this might be a permanent platform in Venice. But I think this building is a one-time only," she added. "We need a space that's a little bit less precarious."
The Venice Biennale continues until November 27.