If the Venice Biennale is the United Nations of contemporary art, then the Giardini is its Security Council. The park’s stately pavilions belong to the (mostly European) nations that were best situated to claim them in the early- to mid-twentieth century. National pavilions are organized by state entities and can be counted on to present a government-sanctioned view of art, which tends toward the conceptually slick and politically safe. Within this controlled format, the British and Canadian pavilions at the most recent Venice Biennale offered some surprises with respect to both the form and the content of the works on view.
Jeremy Deller at the British Pavilion brings a political approach to history in a series of installations that deal with working-class revolt against the symbols of affluence. A series of large wall murals add polemical humor to the copious photographs, documents, and drawings that Deller has collected—each space centered on a different act of protest. Upon entering, the viewer first encounters a mural of a massive owl in flight with a red Range Rover dangling from one of its claws. On the opposite wall, the banking town of St. Helier in Jersey is depicted in flames. These are mythological scenes in which Deller imagines the twin oppressed collectives of nature and the working class taking their revenge on those who have exploited them for so long.
Farther in, one space is given over to images of working-class riots in Britain that coincided with dates on David Bowie’s 1972–73 Ziggy Stardust tour. As Bowie toured his native country with phenomenal success, coal miners, stevedores, and construction workers across the land were striking over fair wages and labor protections. Deller contrasts documentary photographs of the workers clashing with police and strikebreakers with images of Bowie’s onstage theatrics and his obsessive fans. Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust mythology overtook British youth with its gender-bending, science fiction fantasy while maintaining an element of horror at the crowd’s potential to swiftly turn mob. “When the kids had killed the man, I had to break up the band,” Bowie sings. A similar energy, characterized on one hand by dreams and aspirations and on the other by brutal mob justice, informed the concurrent labor strikes, though these were overwhelmingly gendered male and had little use for the speculative logic of art.
A subsequent space invokes the socialist values of William Morris. Morris, the nineteenth-century artisanal prophet whose theories underpin the contemporary craft revival as well as the emerging genre of social practice, rejected industrial manufacturing and instead sought to produce handmade decorative arts while maintaining a middle-class price point. He is widely recognized as a medievalist who idealized the pre-Renaissance folk culture of Britain. He mined the Arthurian legends and Gothic sources for examples of indigenous archetypes. At the same time, Morris drew heavily on the colonized East for his aesthetics, basing textiles on traditional Indian and Chinese patterns but transferring production from those countries’ indigenous artisans to British ones. The contradictions between Morris’s proletarian leanings and his participation in economic systems of colonization are unexplored in Deller’s work, which turns Morris into a socialist colossus avenging the uncourteousness of the mega-rich. Russian oligarch and art world player Roman Abramovich made headlines in 2011 for blocking access to the Giardini with his oversize yacht. In a mural, Morris lifts the offending boat right out of the water and prepares to plunge it to the depths of the Venice lagoon.
Additional galleries contain a meditation on currency and value; a video of cars being crushed in a junkyard that also features highlights of Deller’s earlier socially activated projects; and a series of drawings by veterans imprisoned for crimes at home. This last group is the most compelling, as the soldier-prisoners articulate the traumas of war and the self-satisfied callousness of politicians who perpetuate it through drawings that range from highly skilled to childlike. At the back of the pavilion is a tea room that is less a social practice project than a simple concession stand. Deller imagined this as a respite from the density of his own work and of the biennale as a whole.
Nearby at the Canada Pavilion, Shary Boyle’s installation approaches similar issues to Deller, though from a feminist perspective. Her sculptures evoke kitsch collectibles but carry an uncanny charge. The dark space of the Canada Pavilion has few objects within it. On the rotating platforms of record players, two porcelain figures spin while holding up globes. One is white, the other black; both are female and contorted and burdened by the weight of the spheres they carry. Above, a video of Boyle in pantomime makeup plays silently. A large installation, The Cave Painter (2013) is the main event. In a serene grotto of white metal and Styrofoam, a plaster mermaid reclines. Her face is haggard, though her body is unlined. The tranquility of this ghostly space is interrupted periodically by a projection that fills the entire void with a montage of appropriated images. The grotto fills with figures culled from history, film, and current events. The effect is similar to a three-dimensional Hannah Höch collage in its combination of media and feminist themes. Teeming with visual information, the illuminated grotto is a surrealist tableau.
High above the Canada Pavilion, on the exterior, another of Boyle’s enigmatic figures is crouched. She is black and wears a veil, though no clothes. Her posture is that of an imp or fairy in an act of mischief. At the same time, she is a sentinel. She surveys all of the Giardini from her perch. She grasps colorful ribbons in her hand that wind around the pavilion’s exterior. Boyle’s sculptures do not easily resolve into meanings or messages. They are monsters of a troubled national psyche that is still wrestling with divisions of class, race, and gender. Nonetheless, the presence of this work—like that of Jeremy Deller—indicates that among the developed and privileged nations, the beginnings of a long-overdue dialogue are under way.