Ripples in a very big pond

Getting to the South African Pavilion at this year’s 54th Venice Biennale is a trudge.

Like South Africa, it is geographically situated on the periphery, at the back entrance to the Arsenale — the ancient shipping yards of the once-mighty Venetian navy. Walking there is an option but, if you do, you will get lost. You will find yourself in a dead end and your feet will feel as if they have traversed a continent. The bus is easier.

Bus? Venice is a floating city. There are no cars, not a single one in sight. A tourist trap. Day by day with the tide, thousands of visitors flood into the city on “buses” — water buses known as vaporettos. This is the best way to get around. Yet more spectacularly, they arrive in huge ocean liners that dwarf the Venetian promenades along the Grand Canal. The capacity of the city can be measured by these floating monstrosities, with the swelling masses of human traffic making the midday heat virtually unbearable.

The number of people who live in Venice proper is estimated to be less than 60?000. Most Venetians find it cheaper to live on the surrounding mainland because of rising inflation spurred by tourism. In the Biennale’s first 18 days this year, it hosted 51?000 visitors.

Despite the claustrophobia this caused, heightened by the humidity, the city is an enchanting place. Building began 16 centuries ago on an archipelago in a marshy lagoon alongside the Adriatic Sea by Roman refugees escaping the Visigoth invasions.

In its time Venice was considered the centre of the world. Before the first navigation around the Cape of Good Hope, the strategic trade route from Europe to Asia crossed the Mediterranean through Venice.

Today it is arguably the centre of a different world, with the Biennale representing what’s hot in the international art world.

Lost in translation

Finding the South African Pavilion takes you to a vaporetto stop behind the Arsenale called Baccini. From there it’s a short walk through some old ruins undergoing renovation and then to a busy portside industrial zone. “South Africa?” the man at the boom asks me in broken English, shaking his head. Perhaps only the geographical clues in the name would help him find it on a map of the world. But here he’s got no idea. In fact, maybe only 100m behind him, the work of South African artists Mary Sibande, Lyndi Sales and Siemon Allen is on display in the Torre di Porta Nuova in the Arsenale Nuovissimo.

Work by Lyndi Sales

This beautifully renovated tower is on the other side of the harbour from the main halls of the Arsenale, one of the two major exhibition venues for the Biennale. So close, but somehow so far.

“Not very many people,” the local custodian says. “Taxis are too expensive and it’s far to walk. Confusing,” she adds with a humble smile.

But the venue is spectacular. The screed floors and exposed timbers give the ancient building a contemporary air, and the high ceilings of the tower give the work an air of majesty. Indeed, Allen’s installation, Labels (hundreds of chronologically arranged album covers that create a colourful pattern), seems tailored for the building. The enormous hanging curtain resembles quilted beadwork.

This decorative pattern, which reads as an archive of South African music, provides a backdrop of cosmic pageantry for the work of Sibande, whose now familiar character of Sophie is seen in two installations. Her Lovers in Tango develops the character in an interesting new guise, positioning her autobiographical framework against a post-colonial reference. The little green toy soldiers familiar to many a toy box are now seen life-size, decked in pith helmets, facing Sophie, who seems to be about to start a waltz. The beauty of this moment, intensified by the latent violence it suggests, makes for an interesting reading of South African cultural politics, suggesting its unresolved tensions.

Fighting for attention

Sales’s work, which greets the visitor in the downstairs foyer, is somehow confusing. Her laser-cut montages of SAA boarding passes lack the poignancy of Allen’s archive and therefore appear to be decorative and easy to pass by. The technological craftsmanship seems to mask the content of the work. And, with so much art waiting out there in Venice, it becomes easy to skip what doesn’t command your immediate attention.

Siemon Allen’s artwork

These weren’t the only South Africans here. The South African golden boy of the moment is arguably Nicholas Hlobo, whose sculpture of a monstrous dragon, Impundulu Zonke Ziyandilandela (All the Lightning Birds Are After Me), has a central spot in the main exhibition at the Arsenale. Recently bought by Puma creative curator Mark Coetzee for the German collector and chief executive of Puma, Jochen Zeitz, the sculpture is due to return home after the Biennale, although a tight-lipped Coetzee would not elaborate on this.

Yet what was noticeable about Hlobo was not so much his participation at the Biennale itself but rather the ubiquitous presence of his work elsewhere in the city. The prestigious collection of French collector François Pinault, in the enormous old customs house on the Punta della Dogana, also featured a Hlobo. Here, in the pointed triangular building right in the middle of the Grand Canal, Hlobo was shown alongside contemporary superstars such as Jeff Koons and Paul McCarthy, and appropriately next to a painting by South African painter Marlene Dumas.
If this was not testament enough of Hlobo’s international recognition then his role as an exhibiting finalist of the Future Generation Art Prize seemed to enforce his global appeal.

Mary Sibande’s Lovers in Tango on show at the Biennale.(Kendall Buster)

Hlobo’s work shows an obsessive compulsion for the monstrously ambivalent and exotic. His rubber-clad armatures and the tractor-tube inners, which he uses to construct his ambiguous shapes, seem to defy interpretation — the amorphous structures conjure up serpentine-like shapes.

With the recent controversy surrounding the South African Pavilion — the lack of transparency and the department of arts and culture’s involvement in the tendering — the hope is that this first attempt at official national representation will open the eyes of collectors to new artists from the country and lead them to look further.

Keep the powerful accountable

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