Hilary Robinson visits the Venice Biennale.



Don’t look now

Venice has been the backdrop for biannual gatherings of the international art world. Hilary Robinson was at this year’s launch to see the first independent Scottish showing since 1910 and, standing amidst the giant photographs of tiny bonsai trees, wonders about its future.

It might not have been culture shock, but it was certainly culture daze. Nowhere in Europe is more contrasted to any Scottish city than Venice. Pink brick and white stone, elegant and lightly decorative architecture, light from the lagoon, no beer but an embarrassment of riches in terms of wine and seafood. And then there’s the art.

Venice used to be home to some of the best-known names in European art history. The Bellini family, Tintoretto, Titian, Carpaccio, Tiepolo, Veronese, Giorgione and Canaletto were among those born in the city or nearby, and who spent their working lives there. Their paintings can still be seen in the churches and other buildings for which they were intended, in pallazzi open to the public, or in Venice‘s museums. For the past 95 years. although producing few artists known outside Italy, Venice is still host to some of the most interesting art to be seen, through its international Biennale. This summer, for the first time since the turn of the century, Scottish artists are showing work independently, rather than being included (or neglected) in the British exhibition.

Most of the countries exhibiting at the Biennale have their own purpose-built, permanent pavilion (indeed, the French this year showed work by three architects, rather than artists; plans for the rebuilding of their pavilion which was designed by an Italian). Scotland doesn‘t have a pavilion; but rather than let this be a problem, the Scottish Sculpture Trust (organisers of the Scottish Biennale input) decided to select artists who could make site-specific, outdoors work. They were given a splendid site, central to the Biennale gardens (the Giardini), and selected David Mach, Kate Whiteford and Arthur Watson. Earlier this year, the three made trips to Venice and began planning their work.

David Mach will be best remembered for his recent installation in the Tramway, when he stacked newspapers and magazines to make monumental columns. His work in Venice still plays with paradoxes of scale. This time the

Kate Whitelord with her work In cast concrete and gravel

substance is monumental centimetre-thick plate steel, cut to shape —- but the content is ephemeral. Mach photographed tiny bonsai trees and blew the images up to 20 foot high, then stuck them to the steel and cut them out. With another piece of steel at right-angles behind to give support, the over-all impression is ofgiant farmyard toys, or cut-outs from the backs of cornflake packets. Unfortunately, there was only budget enough for five trees; the idea would have been more successful if 95 had been scattered throughout the.Giardini.

Venetian customs officials were perplexed by the contents of Arthur Watson’s crates: large oil-skins, tarred wood, and lengths of rope. They sat on them, unable to decide if the contents were artistic or industrial, so that Watson couldn‘t finish installing the work until the second day of the three-day press launch. The oilskins are hoisted high, with patterns printed on them in black, orange and yellow, like the ‘path‘ ofa sunset across water. In making this piece, Watson was considering the fishing economies of Venice and Aberdeen, his hometown.

Kate Whiteford’s work is the most successful (if not the most attention-grabbing) of the three.

For people who saw her work on Calton Hill a

couple of years ago or her more recent painting, the forms she has used in Venice will be familiar. She has cast pigmented concrete into stripes about a foot across, bisected by chevrons and shorter cross-ways bars. The concrete has been placed on the ground with pale gravel providing contrast in between the stripes. The elegance and simplicity of this works well under the tall trees of the Giardini, providing a contemplative view for people resting on benches, foot-weary from traipsing round the more formal pavilions.

The question now is: what happens next Biennale? There have been mutterings that the Australian pavilion, launched this year with a huge razzamatazz, will be the last one to be built. There are also rumours that because of lack of funds, the next Biennale won‘t be in two. but three years, thus leading up neatly to a centenary in 1995. This allows time for the Biennale to think creatively about countries like Scotland. Nigeria and Zimbabwe who all showed without separate pavilions this year. More pertinantly. it allows time for the British Council. the Scottish Arts Council and other relevant organisations 1 ho reach agreement about the necessity and nature ofa Scottish showing in this international forum. The Venice Biennale continues until 31) Sept.

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