I t is fair to say that in every year the approach taken by each national pavilion varies wildly and they rarely form a coherent statement and that is part of the Biennale’s pleasure and strength. This year is no different.
1. The Australian Pavilion – the newest pavilion in the Giardini – sticks out like something from The Avengers, all shiny black slate and sleek straight lines. This year, inside, there is something that is also slick but also rather moving. The latest work from Angelica Mesiti is a video installation that opens with footage of the The Senate Chamber at Old Parliament House in Canberra where a stenographer transposes David Malouf’s poem To Be Written in Another Tongue.
The stenographer’s keystrokes and notations are used as the basis for musical notation which is played on the viola, clarinet and piano (whose keys so resemble the keys of the stenographic machine). Sitting in the circular auditorium, covered in a carpet that is just the red of the Australian Parliament’s leather chairs, it is a thrilling meditation on the power of language, the language of power and the art of what curator Juliana Engberg calls “deep listening”. The moment the drums kick in it becomes something else.
2. The American Pavilion contains works of sculpture by Martin Puryear. His show for the Biennale is called Liberty/Libertà and is striking for both its intelligence and its beauty. Most of the rooms of the pavilion contain a single sculpture; each one is the expression of a different technique.
The cart or wagon pulling a trailer balanced on a wooden see-saw that makes up New Voortrekker is foremost an immensely pleasing object. Yet it is an object that is freighted with ideas of escape and making a new life, while the Dutch-language title conjures the fraught history of South Africa. Is this wagon in flight or conquest? Or is it just a question of balance and perception? It is emblematic of the questions asked by Puryear in a display of exceptionally subtle work.
3. The French Pavilion has been overcome and taken over by what curator Martha Kirszenbaum calls “a liquid and tentacular environment”, the effect of Laure Prouvost’s Deep See Blue Surrounding You. This is apparent from the approach to the pavilion’s grand entrance which is lost to a mist sprayed from above.
And besides, there’s no way in through the front. Instead, you enter at the back of a building through a dilapidated and earthy staircase into a small room covered in some ectoplasmic ooze. There is detritus is all around. Through the many suggestive curtains is a larger chamber where washed up car seats offer a perch to watch the centrepiece of the pavilion, a film that takes you on a lo-fi journey of imagination from the suburbs of Paris to the heart of nature, a meditation on travelling, being trapped and dissolving separations. It even includes footage of filmmaker Agnès Varda – what more could you want?
4. The Ghana Pavilion in the Arsenale is one of the most exciting and most-talked about pavilions in the Biennale. It is the first time Ghana have taken part in the Biennale and the result is stunning. They have managed to include a number of artists from installations by El Anatsui and Ibrahim Mahama, an exceptional chamber of paintings by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, photography by Felicia Abban, film from John Akomfrah and a video installation from Selasi Awusi Sosu.
The work is connected by its nationality and energy which is brought together in a space of interlocking ovals designed by Sir David Adjaye. The show is called Ghana Freedom after a song by E.T. Mensah composed on the eve of the independence of the new nation in 1957 and the pavilion is an invocation and exploration of what that freedom means.
5. In the heart of San Marco at the Fondazione Ugo e Olga Levi Onlus, the Portugal Pavilion presents the work of Leonor Antunes in a seam, a surface, a hinge or a knot.
The work continues Antunes practice of using everyday objects and transforming them into sculptures. The interior in which she plays with form and material is a stunning historical interior. Antunes’ interventions – a series of white aluminium profiles – reconfigure the space as well as sheltering surprisingly delicate sculptures of grids of wood and metal as well as glass lamps blown on the island of Murano. At first glance the exhibition seems simple but the influence each sculpture exerts upon both the viewer and the space is increasingly dramatic.
WATCH: Tim Marlow's Must-See Museum Shows: The Venice Biennale's Best Installations, from America to Ghana