THE 55th International Art Exhibition (the Biennale) in Venice – from which I have just returned – is perhaps the world’s largest contemporary art event, containing a great number and diversity of exhibits. It is a unique platform and opportunity. It is therefore disappointing to report that the Scotland exhibition is flawed fundamentally – lacking imagination, coherence and quality.
The show comprises the work of three artists – Hayley Tompkins, Corin Sworn and Duncan Campbell. Tompkins’ work, a series of floor-based photographs juxtaposed with arrangements of paint colour, might be seen as a competent degree show, while Sworn’s is based around a glorified home movie of her father’s experiences (as an anthropologist) in rural Peru – coming across as benign and pointless.
But it is Campbell’s effort that is the most ridiculous and baffling. It comprises the re-issue of a French film on African art in the 1950s – in French (with no subtitles) – followed by the artist’s own film response to this containing his musings on art, value, exchange and commercialisation. The subject matter is obscure and ponderous – not helped by the lack of subtitles in the first film (the only film in the whole Biennale without these). And the form – the films run sequentially and last 84 minutes in total – mean that, in the context of the Biennale, where visitors wish to move quickly from one exhibition to another, very (very) few stay for the films’ duration. Inaccessible and inappropriate, the Campbell contribution sums up the show as a whole.
The Scotland exhibition is among the weakest shows in the whole Biennale. It is a deeply disappointing performance which casts a damaging light on the country’s contemporary art talent and, by extension, the country. Furthermore, as the recipient of a reported £0.5m of public money, this begs fundamental questions about why Scotland should have its own show and, if it should, how decisions are made on its purpose, form and content.
Noticeably, this is a show that makes no attempt to reflect on any of the current developments in Scottish society – which one might have thought would be important for an exhibition which bears a national label. Referendum? – zilch. Identity? – nothing. Place in the world? – never. And so we are left with a space that artists have been allowed to fill with whatever they want – and that, frankly, is precious, self-indulgent bilge.
Alan Gibson, Durham