Venice Biennale: The world in their hands

Hayley Tompkins' work is laid next to plastic bottles and generic internet-purchased photographs. Picture: Getty
Hayley Tompkins' work is laid next to plastic bottles and generic internet-purchased photographs. Picture: Getty
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The Venice Biennale opens for business this week. Can three Scots stand out from the crowd in the biggest art fair on the planet? Susan Mansfield travels to Italy to find out – and offers her verdict on the Scottish pavilion

Finding things in Venice can be a challenge. Once in among the maze of medieval streets, squares, canals and bridges, the sense of direction quickly diminishes. Venice may not be large but it is labyrinthine. I wonder whether there are people here who set out to find their hotel in 1985 and are still looking.

This week, the great and good of the art world flock to Venice as this most ancient of cities becomes home to the world’s biggest contemporary art festival, the Venice Biennale. Exhibitions pop up in every street and every square, each one trying to get on the map, wanting to be found.

Palazzo Pisani, home to the Scotland + Venice project for the past three Biennales, is moderately hard to find, in a network of streets and canals just a few minutes from the Rialto bridge. Members of the team still admit to occasionally struggling to locate it.

However, up two flights of marble stairs, the work of Duncan Campbell, Hayley Tompkins and Corin Sworn is ready for its first viewers. Sounds of Campbell’s and Sworn’s film works echo softly in the long entrance hall. Kitty Anderson, one half of the curatorial team from Glasgow-based gallery The Common Guild, has just taken delivery of 85 boxes of press packs, and crates of Fentiman’s soft drinks are stacked in every available corner, waiting for opening night.

Anderson is relieved to see the packs, which were delayed by several days due to acqua alta last week, when the water level rises and the streets flood. It’s unusual this late in the spring, but the water in the canals was so high that delivery boats couldn’t pass under bridges.

This year marks something of a celebration, the tenth anniversary of Scotland + Venice. While Britain has had its own pavilion in the Giardini – the gardens at the Western tip of Venice which is the Biennale’s original home – since the event was founded in 1895, it is only in more recent years that Scotland, Wales and Ireland have joined the burgeoning group of “collateral” shows scattered across the city.

If you would like to see contemporary art from Azerbijan or Tuvalu, Newfoundland or Paraguay, it’s here. The Holy See has its own space. I run into Jeremy Deller (who is occupying the British Pavilion this year) in Palazzo Peckham, where art dealer Hannah Barry has created a laid-back space with painted carpets and trees growing out through skylights.

This week the ancient city, La Serenissima, slowly dons it festival clothes. A demure banner hangs on the Rialto. A version of Marc Quinn’s statue of pregnant disabled woman Alison Lapper has popped up on the island of San Giorgio, bang in the middle of one of the city’s most iconic views, and a Dutch artist has reputedly installed an art piece in the co-op supermarket on Via Garibaldi.

As the weekend approaches, the prosecco is beginning to flow and more art world visitors arrive every day. The talk is of who has an invite to the coolest parties – Deller’s is happening on an island, with boats laid on to transport those lucky enough to have a golden ticket.

Meanwhile, at Palazzo Pisani, the talk is of the arrival of a fridge, in time for their opening today. The other half of the curatorial team, the Common Guild’s Katrina Brown, is in the kitchen, proving that in addition to her considerable curatorial talents, she can also knock up a very fine bowl of gnocchi.

I sit with Duncan Campbell on the roof terrace of Palazzo Pisani, looking out on jumble of red terracotta roofs, hearing, now and again, the slosh of a boat passing by the canal underneath. “It’s a bit surreal,” he says. “This show has been the terminal point in my life for the last year, it’s strange that it’s finished, but I’m getting used to it.

“Maybe I had the slight advantage of a bit of naïvete, I’ve been to the Biennale once before but it was in July when everything was up and running. People have told me about opening week but I don’t really know what to expect, maybe that has taken a little bit of the pressure off.”

Corin Sworn says she’d never been to Venice before being selected for the Biennale. “At the moment it’s all pretty new. At first I was really nervous, thinking ‘is that something I can do?’ but Katrina said to just think about it as an exhibition, and I think the fact that there are three of us has shared some of that pressure.”

“It’s pressure but it’s good pressure,” says Hayley Tompkins. “It felt like the right sort of challenge for me at this time, it’s very exciting to be included in it. It’s nice to spend a bit more time with the work, it’s a very contemplative show, it’s not in-your-face.”

This, in itself, is a sign of the growing confidence of Scotland + Venice, both curatorially and as an organisation. There is a sense that, after ten years, there is less to prove, they can afford to present a show that is more thoughtful. But it has risks attached.

“Film is notoriously dangerous to show in Venice because of the practicalities, the heat, and you need a patient attention span for it,” says Anderson. “Everyone is trying to see so much, there can be a tendency to want to give people something bright and colourful so they can clock it in two minutes and walk out.”

Over ten years, teams from Scotland have pooled a lot of knowledge about putting on a show at the Biennale, from shipping in work (literally) – Martin Boyce’s concrete sculptural blocks were a particular challenge and had to be winched up to the second floor – to how to install Wi-Fi in a 15th century palazzo. Anderson says they are equipped for the summer with “the most discreet fan heaters that we can find and a strategy of opening windows between films”.

Palazzo Pisani is not the most opulent of palazzos. There are marble floors, and some rooms have Murano glass chandeliers (including the bathroom, which is big enough to host an opening party of its own), but it is grand in a slightly down-at-heel fashion, as Tompkins accurately says, “old in a slightly 1970s way, as well as hundreds of years old”.

Each artist who has showed work here must interact with the environment. Whether they choose to fight it, work with it or ignore it, no response is neutral. It created an interesting dissonance, for example, with Martin Boyce’s modernist forms in 2009.

But no-one can doubt the value of the opportunity. Since showing in Venice, artists such as Jim Lambie, Boyce, Cathy Wilkes and Simon Starling have gone on to build international reputations. Wilkes is back this year, with a work in the international curated show at the Giardini. Boyce and Starling have won the Turner Prize. Wilkes, Lucy Skaer and Karla Black have been shortlisted.

Amanda Catto, portfolio manager for visual arts at Creative Scotland, and chairwoman of the Scotland + Venice Partnership, says: “Venice is still the most prestigious of the art events that happen in the world. It’s a place where you can almost guarantee a certain kind of audience, a professionally interested audience of critics and curators and collectors.

“It is an amazing opportunity for those artists. It might be that the next visitor is the curator of the next Istanbul Biennale or the Sydney Biennale, and they are introduced to an artist’s work here, or that an artist sells their work to a major collector.” To put it another way: everything is to play for, and the kick off happens tonight.

• The Venice Biennale continues until 24 November. For more information on Scotland and Venice, visit