The 58th Venice Biennale opens on Saturday May 11th, with Great Britain represented by Irish artist Cathy Wilkes.
The biennial contemporary visual art exhibition consists of two parts, the first a huge central exhibition organised this year by invited curator Ralph Rugoff, the director of the Hayward Gallery in London. This exhibition is titled May You Live in Interesting Times – a reference to the supposed Chinese curse that entered common parlance after Sir Joseph Austen Chamberlain quoted it in the 1930s, alluding to the perils of fascism.
The second aspect is the 90 national pavilions, organised by the individual participating countries, scattered around the city’s public gardens (the Giardini) and its vast former arsenal (the Arsenale). New national pavilions to be inaugurated this year include those of Pakistan, Madagascar and Ghana, and Saudi Arabia returns after a hiatus. Scotland and Wales present their own “collateral events”, this year showing work by Turner prize-winner Charlotte Prodger and Sean Edwards.
Cathy Wilkes, who has not been interviewed or photographed since she was nominated for the Turner prize in 2008, was born in Northern Ireland and now works in Glasgow. Her works at the Biennale include “a room dominated by a low rectangular structure, covered by a gauzy, semi-transparent material, that resembles a tomb. There are scraps of dried flowers and foliage atop it, a little like offerings. As you move through the rooms, lit by soft natural light, there are sculptural figures of children with swollen bellies, and a woman in a green dress, like a figure that is alienated from itself, not a representation of anything that’s real… paintings in pale, smudgy tones; suggestions of domestic interiors with china plates on the walls; a structure that might remind you of a child’s high chair.”
Of the tomblike structure, Wilkes said: “I grieve for things over and over again for a long long time. The work is about repeatedly coming towards something, something you don’t quite understand.”
Wilkes has been quoted as saying she had been “very uncomfortable” with accepting the British Council’s invitation to represent Great Britain at the Biennale. “I’m not into countries – any countries,” she said. “It’s equally a bad idea for everybody, full stop.” She accepted in the end on the grounds that “Great Britain isn’t a worse idea than any other country as a concept … I don’t like borders. I know that from being a wee girl and experiencing that.”
Fiona Bradley, the director of Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket Gallery and one of the expert panel who advised the British Council on Wilkes’s selection, said: “It’s a melancholy, dark work. There is the suggestion that dark things have happened, and might happen. And the membrane between different states – life and death, for instance – might be very thin. There is something both very wintry and very uplifting about it. It is low and quiet. She has given us something extraordinarily laden with potential for meaning, without dictating what that is. You bring your own meaning to it, in the moment that you encounter it.”
Other entries include Brazil’s Bárbara Wagner and Benjamin de Burca presenting Swinguerra (shown top), a two-channel video installation featuring the film commissioned for the occasion and, in the smaller room, a site-specific installation with portraits of the participants of the new work.
The Venice Biennale has been in existence in various forms since 1895, and now brings in around 500,000 visitors. This year it runs until November 24th.