Friday, 23 August 2013

The Gym of Despondency

If you can't be good, you should at least be memorably bad.

We've seen some fantastic work at the Biennale : Bedwyr Williams, Bill Culbert, the Andorrans, a video work by Daniel Pesta on Giudecca that was so good you wanted to collar passers-by and drag them in to see it immediately.

And then, there's the stuff that's not so good. Not bad, just a bit unmemorable. Luxembourg? I have a vague memory of electric guitars hanging from the ceiling but little more. Angola? Not bad as such  but given it was competing for space with works by, amongst others, Piero della Francesca, I've got no particularly strong memories of it. Montenegro? Have we even been to Montenegro? Things are starting to blur, and we've not even touched the Giardini yet.

Which is why, if you can't make fantastic work, you should go all out to make something properly bad. In this respect the Biennale has much in common with the Edinburgh Festival : I must have seen hundreds of well-meant but unexciting "well made plays" over the years. I can't remember the title of a single one of them. But Murder in the Heart, the Latin opera about the life of the Yorkshire Ripper? Over ten years later I can record almost every single minute of the twenty that we managed to stick it out.

What this Biennale has lacked so far is the pleasure of seeing something memorably awful. So step forward, please, Lithuania and Cyprus.

It starts well enough, by virtue of the fact it's held in one of the strangest buildings in Venice. Hidden away behind the naval museum near the Arsenale is the Palasport, a piece of 1970s brutalist architecture. It looks so out of place that the mind almost refuses to acknowledge it. You've walked halfway along its length before suddenly thinking "hang on, what did I just see there?".

The interior is even stranger. Venice has a graffiti problem, but at least this is usually confined to the outside of buildings. Here, it's the inside that's been vandalised, which gives the interior spaces a slightly threatening feel, akin to the underpass scenes in A Clockwork Orange.

We were actually expecting two separate pavilions, but it seems that Lithuania and Cyprus (not, geographically at least, the most obvious partners) have a co-venture this year. And the art itself...?

Well, as we wind our way up the stairs and through the intimidating corridors, we encounter some photographs of 1970s Soviet athletes which have a certain kitsch appeal if nothing else. We come across some precisely arranged stacks of paper which turn out to be a deconstructed exhibition catalogue. And then we emerge at the top of the basketball court.

Various pieces are arranged in the stands, and others down on the court itself. An IKEA style cabinet blocks the spectators' entrance; its unique point being, apparently, its lack of 90 degree angles. Fragments of wall are dotted around the court. In the midst of these is something resembling a large room divider or bookcase, helpfully described as "a multipurpose room installation". Bits of tree are piled up at one end of the court, although we're unable to determine if the plastic wrapping behind it is part of the piece or if they just haven't finished unwrapping it all yet. The scoreboards at each end flash up the numbers 0 - 15 in binary; which may be of possible interest to those who have encountered neither the binary system nor, indeed, the electric light.

I try to keep an open mind. OK, the art might not be up to much, but the space is quite interesting. Then again, you're on to a loser if the best you can say about an exhibition is "the art wasn't great, but at least the space felt slightly threatening". I read and reread the guide but my eyes just keep sliding off it. And then it hits me : this is Rubbish. No, not just Rubbish. We have left the Zone of Rubbish and have entered the Arena of the Pitiful.

We stand in silence and survey the bits of wall, and the bits of tree, and the room divider. The scoreboards continue to count from zero to fifteen, in silent admonishment.

"This is bollocks isn't it?", says Caroline.

I nod, happily. It most certainly is.


  1. Thank goodness it was free! I take it you didn't have to queue for ages to get in here.

    So, now can we expect the Slough of Despair?

    1. It was free, and no queue at all. There were only couple of other people - it made it quite spooky walking through the empty corridors.


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