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Venice Biennale Mixes Russian Gold, U.S. Scrapyard

'We Sit Starving Amidst our Gold'
"We Sit Starving Amidst our Gold" (2013) by Jeremy Deller. This wall painting represents the Victorian thinker and designer William Morris returning from the dead to destroy Roman Abramovich's yacht. Source: British Council via Bloomberg

The first impression is that this 55th edition of the Venice Biennale is very political.

Gold coins rain from the roof of the Russian pavilion, so that visitors need an umbrella to walk underneath.

The Spanish exhibition is full of rubble, possibly symbolizing the state in which the nation’s economy finds itself because of the unending euro crisis.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Deller, representing the U.K., offers political commentary in characteristic British manner through wackiness and whimsy.

While it’s not absolutely necessary to be British to understand Deller’s display, entitled ”English Magic,” it would definitely be a help.

Deller, a Turner Prize winner, likes to mix up fragments of the national past and present in an eclectic melange, with a distinctly leftist tinge.

On the entrance wall of the exhibition is a large wall painting of rows of buildings belching smoke. This, we discover, is a snapshot of a riot that has not yet occurred: the demonstration against tax havens held in St. Helier, capital of Jersey... in 2017.

In the next room, a gigantic painted figure of the Victorian writer, designer and social thinker William Morris lifts Roman Abramovich’s yacht out of the Venetian lagoon (and apparently prepares to hurl it away).

Deller’s explanation is that Morris was so outraged by the manner in which this massive black boat dominated the Venetian quayside at the last Art Biennale in 2011 that he returned from the dead specifically to get rid of it.

Prince Harry

Obviously, Deller is that very British thing, a fantasist (for comparison, Lewis Carroll, J.K. Rowling, and Morris himself). He is also a bit of a social radical. Tony Blair and Prince Harry are among his other targets, while he seems to be in favor of prehistory and wildlife.

Harry’s offense was, allegedly, to have shot a rare bird. One of Deller’s best flights of whimsy is a collapsible bouncy castle in the form of Stonehenge (visible in the exhibition only as part of a film, which ties together many of the disparate thoughts and images elsewhere in the show).

Personally, though I started out puzzled, I ended up enjoying the imaginative leaps. But non-Brits may not appreciate the show any more than the refreshment stand halfway through, which offers just one drink: tea.

If the Spanish pavilion is apparently falling down, and the British one is full of anarchic surrealism, ”Triple Point” by Sarah Sze looks as if it is overrunning the U.S. building.

Cat’s Cradle

The normally neat neo-classical facade is overgrown by tendrils of ivy, and festooned with an intricate cat’s cradle of bric-a-brac. Is she suggesting that entropy is engulfing America?

Sze is an artist whose work is made up of unconsidered trifles -- a selection of the ingredients in the works on show includes postcards, cacti, bits of thread, sand castles and energy bars.

The results look like models of the cosmos run up by a handyman, using items culled from garbage bins and the backs of cupboards, all held together with clips and clamps.

In one installation, scraps of detritus flutter in the breeze of a fan. Another is like a Roman arena resembling the Coliseum filled with odds and ends.

The last room you come to seems to be the studio, in which the artist is still busy making the works you see all around.

Her message is perhaps that all human endeavor is rather like a bird’s nest: a temporary arrangement of found materials, destined soon to disappear. That fits the mood of a bleak, recession-era Biennale.

The 55th International Art Exhibition -- La Biennale di Venezia runs June 1 to Nov. 24.


Bloomberg, the parent of Bloomberg News, supports Sarah Sze’s Triple Point at the U.S. Pavilion in Venice.

(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Manuela Hoelterhoff on arts, Martin Gayford on European exhibitions and Jorg von Uthmann on Paris culture.

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