There’s some great art in the Venice Biennale. Mind you, the best isn’t necessarily contemporary.
The main exhibition, ILLUMinations (Central Pavilion of the Giardini and the Arsenale) starts off with three magnificent canvases by the 16th-century painter Jacopo Tintoretto.
This neatly makes the point that art doesn’t really progress, and its raw ingredients -- form, color and light -- are constant. Tintoretto also sets a high standard for the 83 artists of the 21st century exhibiting in the art galleries at the two venues. That said, there are some showstopping items en route.
The Biennale director on this occasion, Bice Curiger from Switzerland, means the title of the main show metaphorically: mental enlightenment that might come from art. The name of the Biennale exhibition is always vague (“Plateau of Humanity” from the 2001 Biennale still wins my prize for lack of meaning).
This time, a few of the more outstanding pieces actually are about light. The U.S. artist James Turrell has contributed one of his Ganzfeld series, where extraordinary spaces in changing light appear to create solid walls and magically alter perceptions.
Halfway down the vast array in the Arsenale, the Swiss artist Urs Fischer displays a brilliant conceit: a full-scale cast of Giovanni Bologna’s 16th-century sculpture, “The Rape of the Sabine Women.” The catch is that this is entirely composed of candle wax. The whole three-figure Mannerist farrago will burn away during the run of the 54th Biennale -- art literally giving light. Already, the lower figure is melting badly at one knee.
Pipilotti Rist, another Swiss, has a witty take on art history. Three framed LED screens showing engravings of 18th-century Venice are overlaid with 21st-century moving images of the sky, the sea and the hands of people at work. You could call this “video collage.”
A feature of this Biennale, which runs through Nov. 27, is art in the form of architecture. Mike Nelson, as I wrote yesterday, has transformed the British Pavilion into a facsimile of a semi-derelict Ottoman building. In the Greek Pavilion by the artist Diohandi, there’s a fine minimalist environment comprising dark water and a column of light in a white space in which a single note is heard.
The Arsenale display starts off with a beguiling structure by the Beijing-based artist Song Dong. It’s a maze of wooden shutters, bamboo roofs and an upstairs gallery that give the effect of wandering in an old Chinese town. This is the best of a series of micro-pavilions commissioned from various artists, art structures for the display of other artists’ work.
Much of the rest of ILLUMinations -- and also the national pavilions -- is filled with messy installation and/or video art. These are the two dominant media of this Biennale. The Dutch, Israeli, Belgian and Swiss pavilions all contain more or less this mixture. The Italian pavilion combines old and new: an installation including numerous, mainly bad, paintings.
Otherwise, painting isn’t much in evidence, and traditional sculpture even less -- though Katharina Fritsch and Rebecca Warren both make an impact in the second category (Fritsch with a characteristically weird and colorful work). Many pavilions seem similar, yet sometimes there’s a striking political message.
In the past, the Egyptian contribution has tended to more conservative types of art. No longer: just as the politics of the country has been transformed, so has its Biennale presence. This time, it’s a video installation, including footage of a performance by the late Ahmed Basiony, “Thirty Days of Running.” “The late” because Basiony was shot dead by sniper fire in Tahrir Square on Jan. 28. Here, contemporary history and contemporary art for once truly, and tragically, come together.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)