Lorenzo Quinn’s installation, Support, at the Ca’Sagredo hotel, Venice. Photograph: Zsolt Czegledi/EPA
High in the Caucasian mountains, beneath a canopy of blazing blue sky, a tightrope walker inches between two peaks. Nothing prevents him from plummeting but his own skill – and the curious prop of a picture. For he carries a painting from one peak to the other, placing it in a storage frame before returning for another, and even two at once for extra balance. The paintings are odd enough, from socialist realism to postwar kitsch, but it is the feat that compels in this astonishing film, a whole museum transported mid-air across a fragile rope – art (not Venice) in peril. Or is it art that protects human life?
Taus Makhacheva’s Tightrope is set in Dagestan, one of the most violent of all Russian republics. Its frightening history is embodied in this film, and in these paintings too. Art can take us anywhere. The 57th Venice Biennale transports you round the globe as never before, from Inuit whaling boats to Brazilian rainforests, from Korean barber shops to Iraqi minefields and Antiguan beaches. I don’t believe I will ever get a better sense of Finland’s slightly shamefaced progressiveness than through Erkka Nissinen’s absurdist satire, featuring animatronic eggs; or nearer to Kosovo than the tragic bakelite phone that never rings in Sislej Xhafa’s Lost and Found booth, commemorating the disappeared.
But the balance between art and life is heavily weighted, at least in the Giardini, towards the latter. The big pavilions are all about conscience. America’s Mark Bradford – black, gay, liberal, wondering how he could represent a government that no longer represented him – has turned the rotunda of the White House, as the neoclassical US pavilion is nicknamed, into a barely convincing ruin. Far stronger is the colossal hull of claggy paint you have to duck beneath on entering; look closely and you see it’s a mass of immigration documents and ab-ex brushstrokes.
Poland has borrowed America’s Sharon Lockhart (these national distinctions have been over for years) to work with disturbed Warsaw teenagers. It may have helped them, but I could make little of their robotic film. Australia’s Tracey Moffattalternates stills of shocked film stars with shots of boats sinking beneath the weight of desperate migrants. Olafur Eliasson, Biennale staple, goes further by actually employing Venice’s migrants in a workshop-cum-studio, where they appeared to be constructing green geodesic forms when I arrived. A lot of art is live this year, from the Chinese artist who chats while mending your clothes – both with silken flourish – to the man apparently sweeping up a rectangle of white light while releasing clouds of iridescent dust in Belgian artist Edith Dekyndt’s spellbinding installation. Most riveting of all, though, is the German pavilion.
This was the sensation of an overcast vernissage, where art worlders’ de rigueur platform trainers helped them over the puddles. Outside, barking dobermans patrolled the precinct; inside, you had to walk – literally – on glass. The disturbing sensation of having nothing beneath your feet was exponentially increased by the sight of young people apparently trapped in a kind of inferno below, crawling or lying in foetal positions among dog bowls, sinister sinks and cakes of soap.
Anne Imhof, rising star of the German scene, has choreographed such an epic performance – reports vary between five and seven hours – that one sees only a fraction. For me it was the horrifying experience of looking down on your fellow beings as if in some Nazi experiment, though a sense of mutiny was building as one boy escaped and began to break into a black metal dance. For others it was a chilling encounter with dancers who shot back menacing stares and chanted over the top of a screaming soundtrack. Figures ascend to the ceiling, and fall back down to hell. The work’s title, tellingly, is Faust.
The British pavilion next door looks almost quaint by comparison, Phyllida Barlow appearing to be an old-world sculptor. Except that she has undermined the pavilion’s terrible teahouse architecture with her buoyant plaster burlesques. Huge elephant-grey clods jostle like so many brains on sticks by the steps; the inner space is crammed fit to burst. Gigantic columns lean at alarming angles, enormous pebbles are balanced in teetering piles and you have to bow low to miss sharp stone wedges jutting from the walls.
Made out of plaster-soaked scrim, however, their hollowness is exposed through strategic openings. Barlow always shows her workings, so that everything one sees – from the clunky baroque balcony to the heaps of stage flats supporting a muckle marble head (we’re in Venice, after all) – appears both heavy and yet light, clumsy but humorous. The approximation to reality is, for me, overstated, particularly since there is no discernible relationship between these pieces and the more abstract forms (two dozen characters in search of an author). Despite their scale, however, there is something modest here; one senses that Barlow could reach the cupola with these foolish things – she calls the work Folly – but doesn’t want to block the magnificent views outside.
Interfering with the pavilion has been traditional since German artist Hans Haacke hacked up the floor in 1993. But nobody has gone quite so far as Geoffrey Farmer, who has taken the roof and several walls off the Canadian pavilion. From its shattered remains, a high-plumed fountain jets into the air – gleeful, exhilarating, a breaking free from the past. Inside, water pours like time through an old grandfather clock as leaks burst through the walls. It is the most liberating sight.
The main international exhibition, curated by Christine Macel, director of the Pompidou Centre, steers clear of the political propaganda that dominated the last Biennale; indeed you could be forgiven for thinking it’s all rather comfortable and picturesque. Artists hang about, making music, chatting, sleeping (real and depicted beds predominate). There are tapestries, embroideries and quilted hangings everywhere; you can stitch mementoes into David Medalla’s sail or run your fingers through cascading gold mesh. So many threads can only lead straight to Ernesto Neto, another Biennale fixture, and sure enough here is another of his voluminous dangling nets. Inside sit actual members of the Brazilian rainforest tribe to which his installation is dedicated. This shocks somewhat – art as ethnographic zoo?
The 57th Biennale is noticeably lacking in selfconscious wit, with the exception of Iceland’s riotous trolls seen tweaking Damien Hirst’s Punta della Dogana sculptures and generally messing with Venice in Instagram snaps. Tunisia has a kiosk where a smiling official in a blue fez stamps your free visa, granting citizenship anywhere in the world (unless you’re a Tunisian migrant in Venice, of course). Advance brouhaha for Rachel Maclean’s Scottish pavilion promised a brilliant post-truth skit, usually her strength. But this repugnant film, featuring a contemporary Pinocchio with an ever-growing phallic nose, landed so far from satire as to found a new category of grotesque. The nose commits a savagely explicit rape.
No two people see the same Biennale, given the several thousand exhibits. Venice is momentary, fragmentary, a hope of chance sights that will hold fast in memory. For me it is Georgia’s old wooden house through which the rain pours, a Chekhovian tragedy glimpsed through a grimy window. It is Francis Alÿs, embedded with Kurdish troops in Iraq, rapidly painting the red and ochre land for which people fight before the next bomb explodes. It’s crowds of Chinese performers manipulating shadow puppets at breakneck speed to keep up with today’s computerised watercolour scenarios.
And at the very end of the long march through the Arsenale comes a bewitching spectacle in the Italian pavilion. Groping your way through something like a maze in the pitch black, you reach steps leading up to a viewing platform hanging halfway up the immense shipyard. Spreading below you – somehow – are the wooden struts and arches of the medieval roof, momentarily visible in the darkness. Then this mirror-bright vision glimmers, ever so slightly. It’s a reflection in a great sheet of water, revealing what’s generally unnoticed – the simplest of magic.
Venice 2017: Laura Cumming’s five best pavilions
Germany Anne Imhof’s disturbing durational performance, evolving over several hours and featuring many sinister figures, is somewhere between opera, ballet and protest art, with overtones of Goethe’s Faust set to black metal music. Currently drawing the biggest crowds.
Slovenia Nika Autor’s superbly original film, centring on trains as symbols of hope and despair, collages undercarriages from Buster Keaton to today’s stowaway immigrants, footage of the old Belgrade-Ljubljana line and contemporary images of people scavenging railway planks for fuel in winter. Autor is the new John Grierson.
Malta Sardonic, hilarious, Malta’s tongue-in-cheek portrait of itself through films, paintings and sculptures as a set of nearly insurmountable cliches – Maltese knights, falcons, rabbits, votives, Maltesers (who knew?). An island so riven by politics that even appearing at the Biennale is controversial: is it a vote-catcher?
Romania Glorious Geta Brătescu, at 91, finally gets the pavilion she deserves. Filled with caustic ink sketches, thriftily inventive self-portraits and the wonderful series Women, drawn blindfold (she knows the female condition inside out). Best of all, her highchrome collages and droll take on Brecht’s Mother Courage.
Russia Spectacular as ever, Russia’s pavilion opens with a dramatic double-headed eagle rising out of a ghostly wheat field composed of a million tiny workers, and ends with bodies literally and metaphorically blocked in stone for the crime of hacking. Acute visions of Soviet past and Putin’s present.