by Laura Cumming
There is some unforgettable art at the 55th Venice Biennale, but most of it is outside the star pavilions of the Giardini
‘Britain puffed up’: Marc Quinn’s inflatable edition of Alison Lapper Pregnant, on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. Photograph: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images
A silk-suited oligarch rides high above the crowds in the Russian pavilion, booted and saddled on a lofty beam, idly tossing peanut shells on the worthless groundlings below. In the next room, cascades of bright coins rain down from the cupola. A sinister middleman draws the money back up from the basement by the bucket-load, returning it by conveyor belt to the roof – where the cycle begins all over again. This is Danaë’s golden shower in perpetual motion: an allegory of power and monstrous greed.
How is anyone to stop it? You could break the system by refusing to put the coins in the middleman’s bucket, but that would bring an end to the spectacle in which all the art-worlders at the biennale have become willing stooges, picking the money from the floor. Vadim Zakharov is a brave and ingenious artist who worked underground in Moscow for decades; his startlingly powerful drama clearly centres on Putin’s regime. But it carries many other levels of metaphor too, some of them piquantly lost on this audience.
Russia is getting it in the neck at the 55th Venice Biennale. In the British pavilion a towering William Morris hurls Roman Abramovich’s superyacht into the lagoon in disgust, though the public quay where such symbols are moored remains cordoned against the riff-raff. Hungary is presenting a drastic visual record of the many tonnes of Soviet shells dropped on the nation during the last war. These linger in the landscape still undiscovered and unexploded: the damage never ends.
The biennale is sombre, provocative and rich in art for anyone prepared to walk the needful treasure-seeking miles across the city. For the usual order has been turned on its head. The official Giardini is dense with dud pavilions, including every one of the so-called Big Three. America has an irritatingly complex “ecosystem” composed of millions of fribbling bits of paper, string and gum by Sarah Sze for which there is simply not world enough and time.
France has swapped pavilions with Germany, but Germany is showing what is conceivably the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s least interesting work, a hanging garden of wooden stools; while the French have selected an almost classically boring three-screen video installation by Anri Sala that attempts to orchestrate images to Ravel’s Piano Concerto in D Major. Sala’s conceit turns upon a hopeless Ravel/Unravel pun; still the music soars undiminished.
Jeremy Deller’s British pavilion is by general consent the main attraction at the Giardini, and a wondrously Reithian experience it is. Here you may hold ice age axes found in the Thames in your palm, with archaeologists in attendance answering your every question, or make prints using the woodblock techniques practised by William Morris. A superb film of a hen harrier on the wing cross-fades into its rapine counterpart, a demolition machine clawing a Range Rover from the scrapheap and crushing it to death (you are sitting on top of the cubed wreckage) to the sound of a steel band performing Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World. Weapons, predators, princes (two rare hen harriers were shot by nameless persons, let us say, on a royal estate), manufacturing, cars, steel: only connect.
Bowie is the soundtrack to a year – 1972 – of political headlines and photographs that take you back into a past that turns out to be anything but another country, as a subsequent gallery devoted to David Kelly, Iraq and WMD reveals. I am missing out here a hundred nuances set up by the juxtaposition of objects, words and images in this 360-degree portrait of Britain, which culminates with the Lord Mayor’s Parade filmed in all its staggering variety, and climaxes with a rush of children bouncing joyfully all over Deller’s blow-up Stonehenge.
The associations are enthralling, lucid and quite remarkably unforced. Deller, whose material is drawn straight from the life around him, from people’s experiences, from writing and history almost as it happens, is an enabler, intermediary, collaborator and all-round enlightenment artist. He has more intelligence and generosity of spirit than many of his predecessors in Venice and entirely deserves this pavilion.
Elsewhere, Britain is puffed up – the banners for Anthony Caro’s solo show dominate St Mark’s Square, which takes some doing – then properly deflated. Marc Quinn’s self-serving gigantism – yet another edition of his nude statue Alison Lapper Pregnant, in mauve and blown up so huge it obscures the façade of San Giorgio Maggiore – turned out to be inflatable and briefly subsided one fine day.
In the Arsenale, the Vatican has filled its first-ever pavilion with quasi-numinous videos in the style of Bill Viola and paintings that appear to weep gelatinous tears. Fellow newcomers the Bahamas have a counterintuitive meditation on the weightless white world of the north pole, beautifully strange with starry bears and smoking columns of ice.
The Italians have crowdfunded their own show for the first time (and filled it with murmuring crowds: all conversation welcome). And Georgia has built a frighteningly perilous plywood edifice up the side of the old munitions factory. Known as a kamikaze loggia back home in Tblisi, this is fast becoming the only kind of shelter most people can afford.
Art can take you anywhere. In Venice, up the Grand Canal, a 14th-century palazzo transformed into an Iraqi home is filled with sharp art. How else would one ever come across the succinct political cartoons of Abdul Rahim Yasser – a man with a gun frisked by a man with a gun – or the film of Iraqis smuggling alcohol over the Kurdistan border by night? Saddle-sore, stinking of horses, exhausted but desperate for a living, one young man holds up a can of Amstel: “For this I am shot at?”
Cross the water and you are in eastern Congo by way of the Irish pavilion and Richard Mosse’s astounding stills and videos of rebel-filled forests made using military surveillance film that turns the world psychedelic cobalt, magenta and puce. A forgotten war, in all its horror, yields a wonderland of cruel and indelible beauty.
Keep on, and you’ll find Wales’s marvellous Bedwyr Williams musing on terrazzo flooring, inspiration for a picaresque film trip through the cosmos from marble chips to moons to broken teeth and home-cooking in a tiny backstreet chapel; James Joyce with added humour. On again, and here is the Sisyphean Finnish artist who puts shattered trees back together, root and branch, producing supernaturally animated glades.
The sense of possessive joy in discovering gold at the end of some remote Venetian labyrinth is a galvanising spur at the biennale – this year more than ever, given the disappointingly weak official pavilions. The most unforgettable sight, for me, came without any of the usual fanfare, not even the customary handout puffing all the numerous curators and sponsors involved.
It was a small white boat drifting slowly across the final harbour of the Arsenale bearing a crew of musicians playing a graceful lament by the Icelandic composer Kjartan Sveinsson. It touched everyone who stopped to listen to the elegiac music, and to witness this haunting vision of sailors crossing the bar. And it will be there still, continuously returning and departing even in the mists of November, long after all the superyachts have gone.