Venice Biennale: How the artists revolt against their pavilions

The war between artists and the built structures they occupy makes for a fascinating spectator sport, and many pitched battles are being waged in the Giardini over at the Venice Biennale this year. Nothing ever quite remains the same from one biennale to the next, of course.

Chris Ofili, in collaboration with the architect David Adjaye, gave the space a hot, tropical feel when he represented Britain in 2003. You almost had one ear cocked for the screech of a parrot. Tracey Emin pretty well left the interior alone in 2007, and the sober, squared up presentation of her paintings that summer was one of the best exhibitions she has ever staged, free of the fuss of her ego for a change. Santiago Sierra, Spain’s artist of choice in 2003, decided to brick up the entrance to his national pavilion. That was the extent of the show. The point was political, something to do with the shameful gagging of mouths. What fun we all had puzzling over why we couldn’t get in! At least it was memorable. 

This year it is Phyllida Barlow who is tussling with the fabric of the British Pavilion, bending it to her will, bursting it open, crowding it out. Giant, roughly fabricated columns, capped by slabs, crowd the central space. Everywhere we walk we come upon ungainly outjuttings, wayward angles. The heavy is in fact light – all this stone and rock is entirely illusory, of course, skimmings of concrete over hessian.   

The sculptor Phyllida Barlow’s British Council commission for the British Pavilion, ‘folly’, is at the Venice Biennale from 13 May to 26 November. (Ruth Clark/ )

Next door sits the Canadian Pavilion where Geoffrey Farmer’s revolt is even more radical than Phyllida’s. A ferocious jet of water from a Moorish fountain has blasted three quarters of the roof away, exposing the girders. Doorways have no doors any more. Is this how art re-imagines the world? Is it inclined to cause this much mayhem? 

Just over the way the French Pavilion has been transformed into a recording studio, a wooden sound box for music which will change by the day, by the sculptor Xavier Veilhan. The irregular walls seem to be tumbling forward in anticipation of all the exotic instruments which threaten to go on display. Today’s is a baschot. It’s made from glass crystal and you wet your fingers to make the music – just like playing a wine glass, in fact.

The Russian Pavilion has been transformed into a dark-lit, cinematic site for global drama. Strange gods, part mechanised, part ancient, are raised up on plinths. Shadowy figures flicker across the walls. Global mayhem is threatened. The masses are on the march. 

The Australian Pavilion has been taken over by Tracey Moffatt’s photographs in her solo exhibition My Horizon

The Korean Pavilion has flung a brash display of neon across its facade which shouts about the corrupting influence of the fleshpots of the West. Indoors, Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’ has been re-made in an…

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