Venice Biennale review: Scotland + Venice 2013

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AFTER ten years of taking work to the Venice Biennale, Scotland has established a certain reputation as a producer of contemporary art. This show, curated by Katrina Brown and Kitty Anderson of the Common Guild, presents the work of three Glasgow-based artists, acclaimed in their work but still on the cusp of international recognition.

Scotland + Venice 2013: Duncan Campbell, Corin Sworn, Hayley Tompkins - Palazzo Pisani

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Every two years, the chief dilemma facing the curatorial team is whether to give the show to a single artist, as was the case with Martin Boyce in 2009 and Karla Black in 2011, or to select a group. The Common Guild has done neither. The team is clear that they are curating three solo shows, and have divided Palazzo Pisani accordingly.

But, diverse as they are, the three share much in common: each approaches their work with a spirit of engaged thoughtfulness. All are interested, to some extent, in found material. The work doesn’t shout about its importance or its quality, but will repay time spent. It engages with serious questions, be they aesthetic or ideological.

But this is a bold proposition to take to Venice, where curators and critics are typically trying to see as much as possible in a short space of time. Will people give the show the time and patience it needs? It’s too early to tell.

Hayley Tompkins may be the artist who has to do the most in terms of tackling the Venetian context. The ornate plasterwork and chandelier of her first room may be the reason that she opted to have her work occupy the floor space. Her “paintings” – acrylic paint left to dry in clear plastic trays and carefully layered – are laid next to plastic bottles and generic internet-purchased photographs: stars in a night sky, a flotilla of yachts, a motorway in mist, a box full of oranges.

But what appears random is a work of careful composition. Colours and forms echo from painting to photograph and back. In the plainer second room, the colours are more muted, seemingly responding to the quieter walls and speckled marble floor. It’s a new direction for Tompkins and – in the artistic microclimate of Venice, at least – works well.

Corin Sworn is interested in memories, and her work here is an exploration of her father’s work as a social anthropologist before she was born, in the remote village of Huasicancha in Peru. The major work is The Foxes, an accomplished 19-minute film made when she returned with him to Peru, which manages to investigate factual history, while affirming the impossibility of arriving at a single narrative about the past.

The point is made again, equally effectively, in her reshooting of his photographs, and superimposing old and new images using colour separations. They have a slightly eerie dissonance: in a street scene, ghostly figures from different time periods cross each other’s paths. We don’t know if the dog in the yard exists in our time or 40 years ago.

Duncan Campbell’s film It for others is the most ambitious and most difficult work of the three, and places the most demands on the viewer. It is a response to Chris Marker and Alain Resnais’ 1953 essay film Les statues meurent aussi, which explores how African tribal artefacts are turned into objèts d’art, losing their meaning as they are removed from their original context. With the Marker and Resnais film playing in sequence with his own, it ideally requires nearly 90 minutes of solid viewing, a challenge for any audience, let alone a Venice one.

That said, It for others is a substantial and intriguing piece of work which matches the Marker/Resnais work in its powerful visual qualities. It echoes its arguments – which have not diminished in relevance over 60 years – and moves them forward. Part of it is formed by a collaboration with Michael Clark Dance Company, filming the dancers from above in stark black and white, focusing on the abstract shapes their bodies create.

The episodic nature of Campbell’s film, collaging footage and text, means it resists easy conclusions, though it raises all manner of questions, from repatriation of artefacts to the concept of value in the art market, finally opening up pertinent questions about the nature of the economy itself.

• Until 24 November. The exhibition will also be shown at the Common Guild in Glasgow next year. www.thecommonguild.org.uk