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The 54th Venice biennale – review

June 5, 2011

From rolling news footage to anti-capitalist slogans and the last work of an artist killed by sniper fire, the medium and the message went hand in hand at this year’s biennale


Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla’s Track and Field at the 2011 Venice Biennale. Photograph: Andrea Pattaro/AFP

A Centurion tank flounders on the lawns of the Giardini, massively overturned, its undercarriage exposed like a giant cockroach beneath the blue Venetian sky. The gun barrel, laid flat, looks no more lethal than a limp proboscis. But as you gingerly approach, the whole machine abruptly starts up into motion, propelled by a runner on a treadmill harnessed to the tracks. Deafening, violent, shocking even in its impotence, the work is called Track and Field.

This is the eye-opener to the US pavilion at the 54th biennale and the loudest and punchiest affront in the place. The Centurion is a British creation, but let that pass, perhaps as further evidence of the special relationship. For this is an art tank, with a strong conceit and a cunning pun of a title, yoking imperialism, mechanisation, personal/political goals and much more, with the overall notion of pounding the world.

By the Cuban-American duo Allora & Calzadilla, it could also stand as an emblem of this biennale. For Venice, this time round, is nothing if not political. It is dense with an art of rapid response. It might have looked quite different in January, for instance, before the Arab Spring and the fleet reactions of international artists from Andorra to Azerbaijan, showing here for the first time along with Bangladesh, India, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe and many others in what seems to be a global scramble to secure the last of the 20-year spaces the city is currently leasing for up to £1.4m in the newly converted outreaches of the Arsenale.

From al-Jazeera to CNN to BBC World, newsreel spools its way through the entire event, almost to the point of becoming a medium in its own right. Obama is in Ireland, then London, then back in the White House. Gaddafi appears and disappears in Tripoli. Strauss-Kahn takes the perp walk in Angel Vergara’s Belgian pavilion, in which TV news flashes across seven screens while a gentle paintbrush dabs away at the luminous glass surfaces, as if trying to make sense of the onslaught of appalling images of lust, violence, greed – the seven deadly sins in grim total – turning television into both the base and the source for a new kind of helplessly beautiful abstract expressionism.

There are dark memorials to the Libyan dead and banners on the facade of the Romanian pavilion decrying western hegemony in global politics and culture (a dig at the “choking-on-money mercantilism” of the biennale itself). Bahrain was forced to pull out, and Lebanon could not make it after its coalition government dissolved in January. At the Welsh pavilion, Tim Davies is showing omni-purpose military ceremonies reduced to the absurd as raw recruits march round and round in ever faster and more meaningless circles.

There came a point, in the long march through the Arsenale, where it even seemed as though one was watching the filmed burial of Bin Laden himself, somehow bootlegged into Venice, as two soldiers solemnly performed the exequies at sea. It turned out to be the remains of the Nazi Adolf Eichmann, secretly ejected as far from land as possible for exactly the same reasons, so there could be no future memorial and no nation could serve as a final resting place, a parallel most piquantly made in Israeli artist Dani Gal’s superb film Night and Fog.

Read more at: The 54th Venice biennale – review

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