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Arts: 2022 Venice Biennale and the RA Summer Exhibition

24 June 2022

Plenty to see here, if not, indeed, too much, says Nicholas Cranfield


Inside the Ukraine Pavilion at the Venice Biennale

Inside the Ukraine Pavilion at the Venice Biennale

IF YOU have difficulty in understanding or defining “contemporary art”, you may not be alone. Two concurrent exhibitions, one in London, the other in Venice, might offer direction.

“Contemporary” is not the first word that comes to mind for the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition, first staged in 1769; but the art at this large selling exhibition with 1465 works on show is, of course, modern.

In past years, recently deceased Royal Academicians have been honoured with a proper space, while, in any year, many exhibitors appear deaf to, or dead to, modern art since the start of our illustrious Sovereign’s reign, or even before — not all of them rank amateurs either.

The exhibition in Piccadilly is national, whereas the Adriatic city hosts international pavilions with some 213 artists, from Ignasi Aballí to Portia Zvavahera.

I was in Venice at the end of the opening week, when some curators, collectors, and artists were still about. Anish Kapoor could be glimpsed in the cafeteria at the Accademia, one of two sites where he was showing his sculptures and recent work coated in what he has patented as the blackest of black pigments: a light-absorbing material that tricks our perception. The other site is his run-down Palazzo Manfrin, off the Grand Canal behind the Church of S. Geremia, where I found the jerry-building and distressed walls more interesting than the work on show.

The American sculptor Lilli Muller, who had set out long refectory tables in the cloister of the Madonna dell’ Orto (The Global Supper, to 15 July), was staying in the same neighbouring conventual house as I, in the heart of what had been Tintoretto’s parish.

In her installation of place settings for every country in the world, each landmass is outlined in embroidery on the napery, with some vital statistics of each, in place of a name-card: population, rate of infant mortality, age expectancy, etc. At the top table, the Vatican City, characterised as “Blessings”, presides between Italy (“Passion”) and Ukraine (“Strength”).

Ukraine is very much centre stage in the Biennale. A whole piazza in the heart of the garden pavilions is ringed with reproductions of works of art from the beleaguered country, displayed on charred wood and attached to sandbags.

For their official pavilion, in the Salle des Armes of the Arsenale, Pavlo Makov, who was born in Leningrad in 1958 and is a Member of the Royal Society of Painters and Graphic Artists of GB, has re-created his Fountain of Exhaustion (1995), with 78 funnels arranged in eight tiers, like a champagne fountain. First made to mark Ukraine’s tiredness after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it now has a quite different resonance. Even getting the materials out after the outbreak of war had been a challenge. An otherwise empty vitrine opposite had a saddening notice: “Archive materials to arrive”.

The Biennale discreetly accords lesser official participations the title of “collateral event”, such as those for Catalonia, Taiwan, Palestine, and Hong Kong (“Arise Hong Kong”, Angela Su) and Scotland: Alberta Whittle, presumably dissociating the North British from the official UK entry by Sonia Boyce, ahead of the First Minister’s new call for a referendum on independence.

Ukraine’s is held in the former Scuola della Misericordia, round the corner from Tintoretto’s parish church. “This is Ukraine: Defending Freedom”. The outer brick walls are folded in blue-and-yellow flags, while the exhibition opens with a pitch-perfect video address by President Zelensky.

Among the exhibits are photographs of a diary kept by a resident of Kyiv in February; a new Damien Hirst with butterflies soaring up against the blue sky above those that have died in a bright-yellow field below; and, added at the last minute, a colourful work by the celebrated folk artist Maria Prymachenko (1909-97), many of whose works were lost in the first days of the firestorm over Kyiv.

Not for the first time, the Dutch manifest their interest in naked flaccid flesh in a somewhat outdated exploration by Melanie Bonajo (“When the body says yes”) in the little church of the Misericordia, north of the Scuola. The Romanian Adina Pintilie has adopted a more full-frontal approach (“You are another me — a cathedral of the body”).

© Royal Academy of Arts, London/David ParryInstallation view of the Summer Exhibition 2022 at the Royal Academy of Arts, showing Cristina Iglesias, Wet Labyrinth (with Spontaneous Landscape)


The Swiss-born sculptor Ugo Rondinone created The Sun II for Versailles back in 2018, but the hoop of gilded bronze branches sits well in the extraordinarily beautiful atrium of the Scuola San Giovanni Evangelista, which is among the finest Renaissance achievements of Pietro Lombardo (1481).

In the Scuola’s less distinguished hall, Rondinone has suspended cobalt blue floating forms; Antony Gormley meets Matisse. Gormley has his own small show of drawings and sculptures in the former Olivetti showroom in the Procuratie Vecchie, but I failed to have time to get back to this intriguing exhibition space.

One epitaph for the seven-month-long show is that of the 35-year-old Russian artist and curator, Kirill Savchenkov, who bravely pulled out of the Biennale, saying: “There is no place for art when civilians are dying under the fire of missiles, when citizens of Ukraine are hiding in shelters, when Russian protesters are getting silenced.”

BACK in London, there seems almost too much art. Without the expanses of the Giardini and the old buildings of the Arsenal, Burlington House necessarily feels cramped at times. Ill-served are the works on paper selected by Grayson Perry (Gallery IV) and hung often seven deep, on bright yellow walls, and the architectural models set out on tables in the large Weston Room.

Rewilding and ecology are much to the fore of an exhibition that has the theme “Climate” and opens with a landscape surrounding a labyrinth in the courtyard (Cristina Iglesias), and the flowers and insects in the first room, curated by Bill Woodrow RA, which holds pencil and watercolour studies of the Grand Canyon (2017) by Tony Foster. Here are rocks brought back from the site, and diary entries recording the hardships of hiking and working en plein air.

You can waste 16 minutes of your life watching trees being felled in a video (Uta Kögelsberger), inexplicably given a room of its own, or graze in the long gallery, where Stephen Chambers RA has selected six of his own recent works (“Midas tree series”) in which trees, painted in 24ct gold, adorn cartridge paper that has been lightly torched at the bottom to suggest the vanity of wealth and the fragility of creation.

He has also chosen several fellow Academicians, among them Joe Tilson’s latest polyptych of The Stones of Venice, a vibrant Ca’ Foscari, a dramatic tower (PC 0711, Tony Bevan), Gary Hume’s charcoal Swans, and Isaac Julien’s endura ultra photograph of paintings in the Museu de Arte de São Paulo, the building designed by Lina Bo Bardi and opened by the Queen in 1968.

Elsewhere, I enjoyed Grayson Perry’s own satirical etched map (Our Town); Patrick Blower’s giclée print of the girl with a pearl earring cycling at night; Tom Phillips’s imagined dialogue between Einstein and Mallarmé, and Martin Baldwin’s woodcut of a pier running out to sea with bleak walkers on the shingle beneath, A Long Way Out.

The 59th Venice Biennale is at The Giardini, Arsenale, and other venues across Venice, until 27 November. www.labiennale.org

The Summer Exhibition is at the Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1, until 21 August. Phone 020 7300 8090. www.royalacademy.org.uk

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