A dark tank of water sits in the Chilean Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
Every few minutes, from its depths, a scale model of the Biennale gardens, complete with miniature national pavilions, rises up. Then, after a pause, it sinks like some art world Atlantis.
This is part of a striking work by Alfredo Jaar, and also a good metaphor for the Biennale itself, which appears at two yearly intervals only to vanish in between.
Every time, it’s bigger and more packed with ancillary events. This time 88 countries are participating, 10 for the first time, including — another first — the Holy See.
The Vatican exhibition, “In the Beginning,” starts off with a trio of images by Tano Festa derived from Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel.
Apart from demonstrating that the papacy has a longer record than most of commissioning contemporary art, this is appropriate because Michelangelo Buonarroti was in many ways the world’s first artist superstar, hugely celebrated in his own lifetime.
The art game as we know it has its origins in the Renaissance, though Michelangelo might be surprised if he saw some of the stuff on show at the Biennale.
The global reach of the art world, and the homogenization of cultural references, is demonstrated by Miao Xiaochun, one of the outstanding artists in the Chinese Pavilion. He is showing spectacular digital animations, one of which is based on Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment.”
If a Chinese artist can take Michelangelo as a starting point, it’s not so surprising to find that Tavares Strachan from the Bahamas (one of the countries taking part for the first time in 2013) has produced a series of intriguing works on the theme of the North Pole.
The frozen wastes of the Arctic might not seem high on the agenda for an artist from the Caribbean. Still, environmental concerns, like other cultural and intellectual trends, are global. One of the more piquant sights of the Biennale is a photograph of Strachan planting his own flag in the northern ice.
The worldwide worries about the environment may explain why trees are a leitmotif in this Biennale.
For the Republic of Kosovo, Petrit Halilaj has created a sort of primitive cave made of mud and tree roots, smelling of earth, which you can enter and peer out of. There are birches diced and reassembled outside the Finnish exhibition, and an upside-down tree twirls from the roof of the Latvian section.
The Belgian Berlinde De Bruyckere has created one of the strongest works of 2013 in “Cripplewood,” a fallen forest giant filling much of the space, its truncated and severed branches swathed in bandages.
It pulls together the image of a crutch such as a beggar might have used in a painting by Brueghel, with a sense that nature itself is wounded.
The ailing economy is another worry, of course.
From the roof of the Russian Pavilion gold rains down, and on its walls the artist Vadim Zakharov has inscribed an indictment: “The time has come to confess our Rudeness, Lust, Narcissism, Demagoguery, Falsehood, Banality, and Greed, Cynicism, Robbery, Speculation, Wastefulness, Gluttony, Seduction, Envy and Stupidity.”
Most of those sins were on display at the lavish parties in Venice this week. Nonetheless, this feels like a chastened, recession Biennale.
Perhaps that’s why the Austrian Pavilion features 1930s slump-era escapism, in the form of a pastiche Disney-style cartoon about singing birds and animals. The work is produced with elan and polish by Mathias Paledna. It’s the perfect antidote to everything.
First published on Bloomberg Businessweek