You know the great painting by Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa? Of course you do. It’s one of the most famous images in art. So you’ll remember that it shows a small wooden raft bobbing about perilously on the high seas while a writhing group of angry survivors struggles and scratches to stay on it. Until last week, I happily believed the painting portrayed a notorious shipwreck off the coast of Algeria in 1816. But I now see Géricault actually had in mind a symbolic representation of the Venice Biennale. The raft is poor old Venice itself, barely managing to stay afloat, while all those half-naked lunatics clambering all over it and eating each other are clearly the inhabitants of the international art world.
The 52nd Venice Biennale is an archipelago of more than 100 shows. Seventy-six countries are represented, from Moldova to Azerbaijan, from Kazakhstan to Kyrgyzstan. And that’s just in the official count. Unofficially, the Welsh have a pavilion. As have the Scots. Even the New Forest has a pavilion. But, as always, the main venue is the Giardini, Venice’s thoroughly inappropriate English gardens, where those countries that were powerful 112 years ago, when the fun started, are based, and where you can always pop into the Uruguayan pavilion if you need to be by yourself for a moment. Sooner or later, however, duty calls, and up the main thoroughfare you must march, past the Russians, the Germans, the French and into the British pavilion. Where our official representative, Tracey Emin, seems to have stage fright.
I count myself among Emin’s fiercest admirers, and recognise fully that the voice she has brought to art – that Topshop guffaw of the violated ladette getting her own back on the bloke wot done it – is a pertinent and precious addition to its choir. But instead of waking up Venice with a rousing rendition of Anarchy in the UK, which is what one might have expected, we get instead the nervous chirpings of a wounded robin. Emin’s show is a dry and delicate arrangement of paintings and drawings, illuminated, here and there, by the cool glow of a neon piece. The opening space features a line of tiny monoprints, in which a scratchy female nude is buzzed by flying penises and buffeted by the destructive angers of modern love. Hades, Hades, Hades, insists a trademark Tracey repetition. Dark, Dark, Dark, goes another. Some shaky wooden sculptures complete a disappointing display. Elsewhere, this would probably have constituted an edgy investigation of a vulnerable female psyche. At the Venice Biennale, it adds up to bottling it.
Next door, in the French pavilion, Sophie Calle shows us what a woman with balls can actually get away with. Calle, who is best known for following complete strangers in the street, photographing them and spookily recording their every movement, chooses on this occasion to get her own back on the boyfriend who dumped her. The cad informed her it was all over in an e-mail, which Calle in turn copied to 107 of her best female friends – ranging from famous actresses to fellow artists, from Jeanne Moreau to Laurie Anderson – asking each to respond to the missive. One friend gave it to her pet cockatoo, which chewed it up and repeated some of its worst lines. Another, a language teacher, cruelly corrected all the grammar. Humiliating a bad boyfriend in the eyes of the whole world: now that’s what I call showing at the Venice Biennale.
There was fun to be had, too, in the Korean pavilion, where a faux anthropologist called Hyungkoo Lee claims to have unearthed the skeletons of Bugs Bunny and Tom and Jerry. I got down on my knees to inspect these mysterious bones, and even from a few centimetres away, they looked authentic. Particularly Bugs Bunny’s teeth. Only marginally more serious was the Nordic contribution, where Lars Ramberg, from Norway, expressed his opinion of contemporary politics with three outdoor toilets, of the kind you see on the streets of Paris, labelled Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. When you put your euro in and popped inside, the toilets played the Marseillaise.
Bitchy political humour was the order of the day in many, perhaps even most, of the pavilions. It’s a very political biennale. In the impressive Russian pavilion, Alexander Ponomarev has a good laugh at George Bush’s attempt to dance like the locals during a state visit to Africa, in a clever video piece that combines absurd scenes from world affairs with a recurring image of the sun setting over Venice. I think the artist’s point is that out there in the real world, a global madness has set in, but in Venice, nothing ever changes. He’s not wrong.
The best pavilion was the Italian one. The first of its exhibitors, Francesco Vezzoli, leads the biennale-wide America-baiting with a hilarious spoof broadcast by a thoroughly convincing presidential candidate called Patrick Hill, aided by his big-haired blonde wife, Patricia. At the climax of their joint broadcast to the American people, Patricia stares us right between the eyes and solemnly intones: “We are not the world’s greatest country for nothing.”
But you’ll have gathered by now that what is missing from this biennale is some art by grown-ups: the signature pieces, the leaps of invention. They exist, but they have to be sniffed out. Back at the Italian pavilion, the veteran arte povera artist Giuseppe Penone, whose career I had assumed had petered out into a well-earned pensioner’s siesta, roars back into contention with a mysterious installation called Lymph Sculptures. The first part consists of what appear to be fallen tree trunks; when you poke them, they turn out to be made of something spongy. Next door, in the installation’s weirdest vista, a large wooden sleeper has had a full-length wound gouged into it, and this wound has filled up with tree sap. All around it, the marble floor has had its white bits removed so the dark veins protrude and hurt your feet. Only when you stand back from these mysterious sights for the ump-teenth time do they finally coalesce into the image of a giant tree.
As always, the biennale includes an ambitious mixed exhibition whose task is to bring us up to date with a particular aspect of contemporary art. The theme this year is Think with the Senses, Feel with the Mind: a seemingly meaningless phrase that, if you switch off 99% of your brain and leave the remaining 1% on instinct, sort of says something and sort of describes what Penone is doing. Unfortunately, the show saddled with this elusive title is, in the main, an underwhelming affair that fails to make good use of its fantastic location – a set of cavernous and becolumned warehouses that used to house the arsenal of the Venetian republic.
The strongest exhibitors at the Arsenale were, once again, Italian. Paolo Canevari contributes a startling video piece in which a scruffy kid on a scruffy bit of wasteland plays keepy-uppy with what seems to be a misshaped football, but turns out to be a human skull. I was also moved by glowing photographs of a bombed-out Beirut by the veteran Gabriele Basilico, who was there in 1991 and whose work records the broken hope of every war zone, everywhere, at any time.
With so much flickering newsreel on show, the biennale as a whole feels as preachy as an Islamic bookstore. It’s short on wow factor, and heavy on words. Now that the whole world seems to have chosen video as its preferred visual language, huge stretches of this display are set in the dark. Interestingly, the finest British contributions are not in the British Pavilion. I walked into the Welsh pavilion, tucked away on the fringes of the biennale on Giudecca island, to be confronted by a fabulous show. The big success here is Richard Deacon, who, like Penone elsewhere, has roused himself from a decade of ordinariness to create a haunting and brilliant installation in which he transforms a gloomy storage hall for beer with an array of fantastical coloured ceramics, held on the wall with an obsessional pattern of nails.
A quick word of praise, too, for the Ukrainian pavilion, whose organisers have somehow managed to claim last year’s excellent Turner-prize candidate Mark Titchner, and the thoroughly British Sam Taylor-Wood, as their son and daughter. As Titchner puts it in his billboard: We Are Ukrainians, What Else Matters? Which is either an astute comment on the international interchangeability of art in the world of the internet, or an outrageous display of Ukrainian cheek.