Arsenale and elsewhere






Gerard Byrne



Gerard Byrne
Recalling aesthetics of Conceptual Art, Land Art documentation and archival practices, Gerard Byrne explores the myth of the Loch Ness Monster, and the conventions and contexts of exhibition. Byrne’s installation at the Arsenale comprises an audio text, 16mm projection, analogue photography and objects in a vitrine.
From the early 1930s, the tabloid media began publishing reports of Loch Ness sightings in a bid to increase newspaper sales. Byrne begins with this idea of (mis)use of images, and creates an installation that provokes conflict between belief and disbelief.
The installation is appealing because of its earnest concentration on what appears to be spurious and a subject of ridicule – a monster in a lake – but of course, one we view it through the contexts of historical media and a contemporary engagement in questioning images, then Byrne’s choice makes more sense. Nevertheless, there is a charm in viewing the work superficially, and a reading of this kind is part of the process of engaging with, disengaging with, and ultimately questioning, images’ reliability. 



Gerard Byrne



Future Generation Art Prize – Ziad Antar
Lebanese photographer Ziad Antar’s film and photographic installation currently on show at The Future Generation Art Prize in Palazzo Papadopoli invites layers of interpretation in a similar way to Byrne’s. Terres de pomme de terre is an investigation of the potato industry in the Lebanon. Read simply as this, the subject matter appears pleasingly bathetic in comparison with the delicate 16mm projection and stills displayed in the Palazzo’s piano nobile. However, as with Byrne, there is a far more political investigation running through the work. Antar presents the images with little information, and it is exactly this understatement that encourages us to think of context – the global food industry, employment and the effects of war.



Ziad Antar



Fernando Prats



Fernando Prats






Chile Pavilion – Fernando Prats
For the Chilean pavilion at the Arsenale, Fernando Prats also employs a variety of media to present his investigations into three places and events: the Chaiten volcano in Chile, its earthquake in 2010, and the explorer Ernest Shackleton’s time in the Antarctic. Prats is interested in the inhospitable and sublime affects of these places on both people, the built and natural environment, and material itself (he creates ‘paintings’ by letting smoke or ash from the volcano mark paper and fabric). On the pavilion’s exterior gable Prats has hung a neon sign previously installed in the Antarctic region visited by Shackleton, which reads:

"Wanted: Men for a dangerous journey. Low wages, extreme cold, long months of total darkness, constant danger, safe return not guaranteed. Honour and recognition in case of success.”

This message was written by Shackleton, but here it reads as an equally effective introduction to the pavilion. In the first room we see a digital video of the Antarctic, shot from the air, and three maps that echo the video’s aerial perspective. The maps are smoke damaged and markings that indicate the locations of the earth’s plates and fractures. In the second room are two films projected simultaneously side-by-side, documenting Chile in the aftermaths of the volcano and earthquake. Houses are warped into uncanny shapes or floating amidst debris. Opposite the projections is a wall of smoke and ash paintings, and to their right, two large vitrines containing further examples of paper and cloth damaged by the elements, and the names of the victims of the disasters. The most poignant objects are the cloth ones, dresses and pillowcases are hung neatly on a line in one of the vitrines. The cloth is now smoky-white and not quite corpse-like, suspended in a tragic archaeological stasis contrasting the motion and residual life seen in the adjacent projections.



Fernando Prats


Instituto Italo-Latino Americano – Cuba – Reynier Leyva Novo
If Prats’ pavilion might be read as a large-scale vanitas, then the work of Cuban artist Reynier Leyva Novo for the Instituto Italo-Latino Americano produces a similar condensation of time and loss, here in a literal and alchemical process. Novo has collaborated with a historian and a perfume maker to create three scents that derive from Cuban battle sites in the 19th century. The three battles were for the country’s independence, and Novo has chosen plants, soil specimens and water from their sites to recreate a sense of place and history. How far he succeeds in this is questionable however, in that the perfumes we smell (on sample cards placed before the bottles, which are themselves in vitrines) are delicious haute-parfums whose associations are more Harrods than battleground. While smell is one of the most evocative senses, the descriptions of the battles that hang above their respective perfumes are at odds with their smells and presentation. If the irony here is intentional, then Novo invites a debate around the commodification of history and glorification of war, but this is not wholly obvious and so the work feels somewhat unresolved.





Reynier Leyva Novo


Instituto Italo-Latino Americano – Chile – Sebastían Preece
Archaeology of the earthy and subterranean is Chilean artist Sebastían Preece’s subject for his contribution to the Instituto Italo-Latino Americano pavilion. Preece dug under the foundations of an adobe house in Southern Chile, hoping to find items that would inform him of the family history of its inhabitants. What he found, however, was a collection of books pertaining to the government and territorial policies of the country between the 1950s and 1970s, opening his investigation to a far broader and more political scale. The books are in various degrees of decay, and are displayed in a table vitrine like relics from the distant past.


Sebastían Preece


Dayanita Singh


 Dayanita Singh
Indian artist Dayanita Singh also uses books and the archive as a subject, in her case in large format, square black and white photographs on display in the Arsenale. The series, entitled File Room, recalls Alain Resnais’ film Tout la Mémoire du Monde in its scenes inside the vast and Babel-like Bibliothèque nationale in Paris. Singh’s photographs depict an overwhelming accumulation of now decaying papers, the entropic process evoking a passage of W G Sebald’s novel Austerlitz in which the new and much sanitised Bibliothèque nationale is contrasted with its former building (more like Singh’s file rooms), and also with a depot of goods taken from Parisian Jews by the Nazis that was formerly on the site of the new library. By describing the new library in terms of what it is not, and what its forebears were, Sebald creates a double portrait of 19th century collection and mid-20th century tabula-rasa architecture and organization. Singh only shows us the former version, towers of amassed and forgotten information. Like Sebald, however, she implies obsolescence in this form of collection through the lack of people in the file rooms. Moreover, though the images appear to be full of information, we can make nothing out of what the files may contain, who may work there, or even how large the complex of rooms may be. There is a suggestion that, although it may still exist in India, this sort of archive is under-visited and moribund in the face of the country’s rapidly advancing Internet and organization prowess.





Elisabetta Benassi





Elisabetta Benassi ­
Archaic archives also underpin Elisabetta Benassi’s installation of nine microfiche readers in the Arsenale. The readers show the reverse sides of iconic newspaper photographs from the 20th century, including The Beatles, Gandhi, and JFK. All we see, of course, is the captions or shorthand details used by the press. The captions are often tantalising – often evoking in us a memory the photograph we feel sure is on the other side of the screen. Each reader is married to a motor that automatically changes its slide, so that the viewer has no control over what is seen or for how long. At certain points, the motors accelerate so that all the readers swish through their slides in a fury of incomprehensible whiteness. The effect of this is tantalising too, because if we were mid-way through reading a clipping it is highly unlikely we will see it again. A feeling of panic at the infinite amount of information is thus created, although the Internet is more overwhelmingly large in this respect. The installation is certainly mannered in a mid-20th century style, both in its content and its microfiche readers. It would be interesting to have had a second installation, perhaps in an adjacent room, with contemporary images and data projectors because this would have explored the acceleration of images circulated today, and the radical change in their form – the collection might include twitter feeds during the Iraq war, images of Egyptian protests or English looting uploaded from mobile-phones, and actually very little photography of the traditional press kind, as is displayed on the microfiches.









Nicolae Mircea



Future Generation Art Prize – Nicolae Mircea
Nicolae Mircea combines old and contemporary photographs and footage from his family and Romanian television to create his film on display at The Future Generation Art Prize in Palazzo Papadopoli. Romanian Kiosk Company mixes the personal with the political, weaving together the story of Romania’s turbulent history with Mircea’s own. Mircea’s father manufactured kiosks for use as bus stops, storage and vending. Their utilitarian structures and function don’t prevent them from being monumental, however, and it is by viewing them in this light that Mircea accesses his father’s past and the wider history of his country’s attempted self-sufficiency, modernist architecture, poverty and hardship. Mircea has built several replica kiosks, one of which is on display in a room adjacent to the film projection. The kiosk is a dalek-type construction of grey and blue, comically out of place in the ornate surroundings of Palazzo Papadopoli. This contrast is very clever, though, because it echoes Romania’s history: crumbling wealth and poor modernist construction sit together as evidence of the nation’s failed economic policy and collapse. Palazzo Papadopoli evokes both pre-Ceausescu culture and that which he imposed himself, built to extraordinary scale in his Palace in Bucharest. The rooms that Mircea occupies in the Palazzo are somewhat battered, reflecting Romania’s own architectural state; and the kiosk – awkwardly geometric in comparison to the plaster and carvings around it – stands for the strange forms of late-Ceausescu block architecture constructed and still visible in Romania. The central motif used in the film is a shot that looks straight down at a Romanian carpet, quite close up, upon which is laid photographs that are described by the voice over. We see Mircea’s hand place each photograph down in turn, and from these ‘headings’, the film moves into sequences of archive news video (including that of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu’s execution), architectural photographs and scenes of the father’s kiosks standing today in their post-Socialist context.

Yto Barrada
French artist Yto Barrada lives and works in Morocco, and has created an exhibition that performs in a way not dissimilar to Mircea’s, in terms of its combination of personal and political history, family and ‘outsiders’. My Family and Other Animals has two parts, one film based, and the other photographic. Barrada studied political science, and began taking photographs as a way of documenting people she met on field trips. Here though, she has turned to her own family roots in Morocco. There are large-format photographs of an old recipe book used by Barrada’s illiterate grandmother to record the telephone numbers of relatives (she had twelve children). We see the tally-style notation of numbers and zeros, arranged vertically down each page and corresponding to a scrawled image – usually a stick figure ­– representing the family member. The technique, using systems of mnemonic portraiture and tally in a recycled book, is fascinating when we are so accustomed nowadays – and in developed nations – to speed-dials and more importantly, literacy. The film exhibited is a collection of sixteen family myths narrated alternately in English and French, entitled Hand-Me-Downs. To accompany the myths, Barrada uses footage from many different home-movies belonging to families across Morocco, thus widening our focus to a more general and national investigation of oral history, tradition and inheritance. The voice-over and blurred original 16mm transferred to digital film lend it an intimate and nostalgic quality, as do the telephone book images. However, what rescues the exhibition from being merely nostalgic is its concentration on the duality of positive and negative aspects of Moroccan life – on the one hand, we see a powerful and dynamic oral history at work, but on the other, a percentage of its populace at disadvantage through under-education, when it comes to modern communication technology and globalisation.











Yto Barrada



 Instituto Italo-Latino Americano – El Salvador – Walterio Iraheta
Representing a slice of everyday life in another culture through photography is also what Walterio Iraheta does in his project Faraway Brother Style at the Arsenale’s Instituto Italo-Latino Americano pavilion.  The title is a parody of Taschen architectural books with titles such as Paris Style or New York Style. Faraway Brother is the euphemistic term for a relative who has moved from El Salvador to the USA to find work and to send money back to his relatives. The photographs depict houses built in the rural and developing areas of El Salvador, houses that have borrowed influences from American penthouses (themselves often strange hybrids of French chateau, English manor and Greek temple architecture). As much as question the taste and location of the architecture depicted, the photographs provoke a debate around why we find it kitsch or ridiculous. Iraheta’s piece reveals a phenomenon in aspiration and architecture but also invites us to wonder how long developing countries such as El Salvador will continue to look towards the West when Eastern and South American nations are developing so rapidly and ‘old’ empires are declining. The piece also invites a comparison between Faraway Brother Style and the Giardini’s pavilions – even in Venice we see the technique of pastiche, collage and exotic pick-and-mix, and so eclecticism is not to be thought of as primitive or only occurring in a poor nation.









Walterio Iraheta





Instituto Italo-Latino Americano – Colombia – Juan Fernando Herrán
Juan Fernando Herrán’s photographic quartet Escalas hangs opposite Iraheta’s images, and also documents architecture from a developing nation, this time Colombia. Herrán photographs staircases of all pitch and material, which are constructed ad hoc in favelas/ villas/ barrios across South America. He uses them as a metaphor for Colombian people’s aspirations and the its cities’ expansion, similar in this respect to Song Dong’s para-pavilions, also at the Arsenale.









Juan Fernando Herrán





Song Dong


Song Dong
Song Dong has recreated labyrinthine constructions from his native Beijing, entitled Intelligence of the Poor. The first para-pavilion is made from salvaged wardrobes that are often to be found on the streets in Beijing, where people store possessions once they have run out of space inside their homes. The idea of bringing interior furniture and possessions outside of the home, turning the homely inside out, is unheimlich to our unaccustomed eyes, and the installation is thus a fascinating insight into another way of thinking about space and intimacy. However, there are no possessions or shelves present (apart from a Ryan Gander vitrine) and the idea is only fully expressed in the explanatory Biennale text. The second para-pavilion is a far larger and more conceptually satisfying piece that echoes Herrán’s concentration on staircases as symptoms of expansion, this time in its towering upstairs extensions. In Beijing, residents are not allowed to build themselves upstairs extensions apart from if the extension is only for carrier pigeons. As a result of this rule, many households proceed to buy pigeons and build them lofts in order to gain that space for themselves. Dong’s family home is an example of this ingenuity, and here he has rebuilt it for us. We are not told of what substitute Dong has provided for his parents or the neighbourhood while the house is a pavilion in Venice, nor whether he will return it or has built a more modern version in its place. It would be an interesting sequel to the project to see this.






Birdhead


Birdhead
A few rooms further into the Arsenale’s main exhibition, moving on from Song Dong’s constructions, is an exhibition of photographs by the Chinese collective Birdhead, which is based in Shanghai and known for its photographic documentation of popular culture and contemporary urban life. The photographs are divided into colour and black and white ones, and a variety of portrait and landscape format, all unframed and pinned to the wall. The aesthetic of makeshift spontaneity runs throughout the work, the camera’s time code left on some of the many seemingly mundane or kitsch images. There are bars, strange ornaments, rainy pavements and football matches, as well as Chinese characters from street signs, arranged to form a classical poem from the Song Dynasty era that, like the photographs of everyday life, is largely familiar to the Chinese population. It is interesting to see what feels like a largely untranslated or Western-mediated depiction of contemporary Shanghai, different from images produced by the government around the time of the Beijing Olympics, and different to films or fashion-shoots that use China as a scenic background. Relating an alternative history of the contemporary or very recent is a valuable move in the context of the Biennale and such a global audience, and this is also what makes filmmakers Emily Wardill and Nick Relph’s pieces in the Arsenale so interesting.




Emily Wardill



Nick Relph

Emily Wardill
Emily Wardill is interested in obscure narratives and histories, juxtapositions of over-acting, voice-over and historically weighty material, and the material potential of film. In Sick Serena and Dregs and Wreck and Wreck, itself a peculiar and lyrical title, Wardill combines shots of stained glass (with their historical role of narrating religious stories to the illiterate) with readings from Ruskin on Gothicism, repetitious colloquial phrases spoken hesitantly, and anachronism (a Yellow Pages is consulted in place of a medieval bible). The film is on 16mm and seems to skid precariously on its tracks, the audio blurry, sometimes madly skipping, and the image jumps one-third of the way off the projection screen. This material precariousness complements the conceptual ambiguity of the film – we are left unsure exactly what has been shown us, but feeling somehow transfixed by it. 

Nick Relph
Nick Relph’s film in the Arsenale has a similarly strange structure, as well as title. Thre Stryppis Quhite Upon ane Blak Field is a collage that combines three projections of documentaries about Ellsworth Kelly, the history of tartan, and a profile of the founder of Comme des Garçons. The audio flits between all three documentaries, and each ‘channel’ has its respective colour, blue, green and red. Interested in creating ‘alternative’ documentaries inspired by Patrick Keiller and Ian Sinclair’s investigations into neglected aspects of British life, Relph documents subcultures from skateboarding to farming. The results are appealingly awkward and unexpected.

Elad Lassry
Israeli artist Elad Lassry’s film Untitled (Ghost) is also a peculiar and engaging film that locates its 1970s aesthetic in what appears to be a dance studio or theatre. The backdrop is a plain mustard-coloured wall with a blind looking blocked window and elegant wainscots. A troop of dancers stands for the camera, poses, relaxes, and poses again. Because the film is silent we hear neither the instructions given them or the music to which they then dance. This silence has an eerie and distancing effect only increased by the technique of superimposing one of the figures in a semi-transparent state so that she appears like a ghost. Lassry invites a contemplation of cinema’s theatricality through this, as well as through the dancers’ posing and fake smiles. The cinema and photography show us what their maker wanted us to see, and had he edited out the dancers’ relaxed poses and frowns, we would be fooled into believing their ‘staged’ presence. Likewise, viewed as a fictional film, the ghostly dancer who joins the troop could be taken as an uncanny double come to haunt the rest. But with Lassry, we know it is exposing the trickery and artificial in is media that is his aim. Outside the projection room is a selection of his colour photographs, and they offer further insight into his practice. Some studio portraits and still lives of kitsch objects such as a scarlet toadstool illustrate his exploration of the artificial, taste and convention. One photograph shows a young man, his form doubled in the reflection on the table upon which he leans. His form doubles and parodies itself, a ghost bending before him.



Elad Lassry









Elad Lassry



Annette Kelm



Annette Kelm





Annette Kelm
Annette Kelm’s photographs, also in the Arsenale, are similar to Lassry’s in their doubling and exploration of taste. A wooden lampshade is photographed against a stark white ground, surgically sharp in detail and coldness. It is depicted again and again in identical scale and frames, each time at a different and precarious tilt as if it occupies a zero-space devoid of gravity or context. Other domestic objects are also made strange, potted plants forced up against synthetically lurid patterned fabric, like Matisses on acid. All looks uncanny and as if it smells of plastic.