Venice Biennale 2007 (3 stars)

Art and mud

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Isla Leaver-Yap is disappointed by the lack of curatorial guidance and the amount of work on show by Scottish artists at Venice Biennale 2007

(Image: Gun Fight of the Mind by Tony Swain)

The Venice Biennale is sinking. The 110-year-old international exhibition is fighting to keep its place as the world’s creative laboratory of artistic endeavour, consequently finding itself swamped with new pavilions, countries and events that threaten to overload the art system and submerge Venice altogether. Scotland is no exception to the rule, presenting the largest number of artists in a single Scottish presentation: Charles Avery, Henry Coombes, Louise Hopkins, Rosalind Nashashibi, Lucy Skaer and Tony Swain.

Selector and curator of Scotland and Venice 2007 Philip Long unconvincingly argues the impossibility of narrowing down the list to any less than six artists, due to the abundance of Scottish creativity. But in the Italian city, already buckling under the mass of 77 countries, thousands of works, and even more coffee-table catalogues, Scotland’s hefty presentation shows a lack of confidence in the ability of any artist to carry the weight of a Venice show on their own, and the number of works on show is overwhelming for a single presentation.

Although Avery and Coombes’ distinctly introverted images attempt to self-consciously grapple with the density of their own numerous works, the other artists provide a sleekly minimal approach, counteracting the largeness of the troupe. Nashashibi centres her presentation on an exceptional new film ‘Batchelor Machines Part 1’; Hopkins presents a characteristically minimal group of small untitled works; Skaer opts for an extraordinary single installation ‘Pith and Kernel’; while Swain’s fantastic paper works are pared down to one work per each of his four walls. Certainly, Swain’s work stands out as one of the show’s greatest strengths. Severing images from newspapers, he carefully reworks them into apocryphal landscapes. The effect is astounding, Swain’s unruly use of perspective threatens to spill out from the simple frame encasements.

This boldness of vision, paired with sensitive process, runs through much of the Scottish presentation, particularly in Skaer’s densely constructed, compressed black panel drawings and Nashashibi’s ‘Batchelor Machines’. The latter’s half-hour film records the activities of a cargo ship travelling from the Mediterranean to the Baltic Sea, and is clearly Nashashibi’s best work to date. It surpasses mere observational documentary, instead becoming a contemplative study of viewing itself: the camera watches the all-male crew’s relation to the mechanical world onboard their industrial boat and echoes its own content formally, as the film physically unfolds through the projection machine inside Nashahibi’s darkened space.

Long insists there is no curating here - this is simply a showcase of Scotland’s talent. But the impulse to find parallels between the artists remains, sometimes to the detriment of each other. The boldness of Swain, Skaer and Nashashibi occasionally unpicks the prissiness or meticulousness of the others.

Scotland and Venice 2007, Palazzo Zenobio, Venice, until Fri 2 Nov.

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