Saturday, June 8, 2013

A Tasmanian in Venice

by Stephenie Cahalan

Arriving in Venice for the first time to attend the biennale for the first time, not just as a punter but as part of the press pack and hangers on swarming in for the three day preview prior to the public opening was highly intimidating and quietly thrilling. The Biennale occupies two main venues - the Giardini and Arsenale - which host most of the national pavilions, with more then scattered throughout the city in classic old Venetian buildings in varying states of repair.

Some pavilions, such as France, had queues that stretched for hundreds of metres and with so much art to see it was easy to forego big-ticket items in favour of another country. The British pavilion had a kind of carnival atmosphere complete with a soundtrack of English music classics played by a steel drum collective. 'The Man who sold the world' by David Bowie played in the resonant, metallic Jamaican drum sound constantly rang out over the gardens.
Wim Botha's Self Portrait

If I had to choose just one artist out of the scores of works I saw I would choose the work of Wim Botha from South Africa, exhibiting in the Arsenale. Imagine a small stack of  books, with metal rod skewered through the centre to press them together with vice-like pressure. The artist then used these book-blocks to sculpt busts and whole figures, mostly self portraits, just as other sculptors use slabs of clay or wood. With precise definition Botha gave human forms to stacks of pages, but at the back of the bust left the spines of the books intact so the viewer would get a hint of what the book had once been. As several of these were self portraits ranging over a several years, the subjects of the book lent insight into where the artists was at the time of making the work; bibles and histories of South Africa just name a few.

This is just the first of the artists that grabbed me and it is taking a while to digest the whole experience. Next post I will describe the fantastic Bahamas pavilion that, sweetly and ironically, revolved entirely around a polar theme.

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