A black and white cow travels in endless circles on a circular track, going nowhere on a carpet of artificial grass. Chinese artist Nabuqi’s bovine installation is far from the most stupid and unnecessary thing you’ll find in this year’s Venice Biennale, which sprawls across the city, from the Giardini to the Arsenale, from the national pavilions to the dockyard warehouses, from the museums and churches to the palaces on the canals.
Dumb art for dumb times, then. Belgium’s pavilion is filled with animatronic figures, folkloric weavers, a baker rolling pastry, a tinkling pianist, a beggar quivering with the cold and other assorted personages going through their dismal mechanical motions. Some are locked behind bars, as though the pavilion, and perhaps the country itself, were a 19th-century asylum. Its German counterpart looks half-finished, a ruin in the making, one huge wall a concrete dam that appears about to break. Echoing Hans Haacke’s memorable 1993 intervention in the pavilion – when he tore up the floor with a jackhammer, referencing both German history and the splintered ice floes in a Caspar David Friedrich painting – the whole thing tells us that we are doomed to repeat ourselves.
Clouds of cornstarch vapour swathe the Central and French pavilions. Laure Prouvost’s fog is better than Lara Favaretto’s mist. Or at least, there is more of it. Prouvost is trying to tunnel her way from the basement of the French pavilion in the Giardini to the British pavilion next door, either to escape the crowds that queued for hours to enter what was already a riotous madhouse, or to rescue the Brits from themselves.
The former Turner prize winner has really gone for it. Sculpted eels and an octopus, broken mobile phones and smashed eggshells and other dreck litter the green glass floor. A hypnotised live dove lies supine and occasionally blinking on the back of a model pigeon that has a cigarette in its mouth. There is a long video and someone scrambling about in a dark corner, while someone else plays a recorder in the bushes outside. The more resources Prouvost has at her disposal, the better her work gets.
There’s a lesson here for the student-level pieties and somnolent offerings elsewhere. I ran away from Russia, and not for the first time, unable to bear the Rembrandtian gloom, the spectre of Christ and the burning soldiers, and all the other paraphernalia in this overcooked mess of a pavilion. The Dutch Pavilion, meanwhile, clung hopelessly to the legacy of Mondrian’s utopianism, and Austria tried to give us some nipple torture. As porn and pain go, it is all a bit anodyne.
Instead, let’s dance. In Moving Backwards, at the Swiss pavilion, Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz dance on film with a number of collaborators. They go fast, they go slow, moving in and out of frame. The moves are studied, balletic and buffoonish. Between us and the screen is a dancefloor. Lights come up, then go down, and a tinselly curtain in front of the screen slides around, doing a furtive dance all on its own. It is all very arch, queer and understated, a dance of lovers and unlovers, going forwards and inexorably moving backwards. I didn’t quite dare to dance myself, nor did anyone else on my visit, but the invitation was there. “We will move backwards,” the artists say, “because strange encounters might be a pleasant starting point for something unforeseen to happen.” If only.
There is a stuffed crow in Greece (always a bad sign), and a real plane has spilled its guts in the Polish pavilion, where Roman Stańczak had notionally turned a private jet inside out, stuffing the wings inside and fixing the seats to the exterior of the fuselage. Is this a symbol of the hollowing out of Poland’s flight to democracy? It feels like one empty gesture among many. Plonking a single big object down on the gallery floor is a familiar gambit. Halfway through the Arsenale, a huge sculpture of a man in the brace position floundered in his plane seat, as if we were all careening towards disaster.
At least nobody died in the making of Stańczak’s sculpture, unlike Christoph Büchel’s Barca Nostra, a shipwrecked fishing boat that sank in the Mediterranean in 2015, drowning hundreds of migrants who were being trafficked to Europe. The Italian navy raised the craft from its resting place between Libya and the Italian island of Lampedusa. It was then ferried to the Arsenale dockside, at enormous expense, where this supposed “monument and memorial to contemporary migration” now stands as both death trap and coffin. I have also heard it spoken of as a readymade, as if it had something to do with Marcel Duchamp, who would have seen the pornography, let alone the vulgarity, of the gesture. It has also been described as a Trojan horse, symbolising the human right to free mobility. I found Buchel’s appropriation of the boat in which so many migrants lost their lives a vile and mawkish spectacle in the context of the biennale.
Artistic director Ralph Rugoff has called his biennale May You Live in Interesting Times. The title may be a cliche, and is not even the old Chinese proverb it is commonly assumed to be, but it signals our moment of crisis. The best one can say of Büchel’s intervention is that it brings us face to face with death. Biennale visitors pause to take selfies in front of it.
We are in the realm of the stupid. Elsewhere in Rugoff’s show, there are motorbikes sawn in half, crocheted coral reefs, black bronze rubbish bags, a giant arrangement of geometric forms bulging behind a glass wall, a numinous virtual reality world of wonder, computer game violences, Ed Atkins’s tearful digital children. My mind is as scrambled as Julie Mehretu’s painted paroxysms, like urgent broadcasts garbled in an abstract ether, their messages irretrievable.
Compared to the dismal biennale main exhibition two years ago, Rugoff’s show has intermittent bursts of urgency and the occasional surprise. Arthur Jafa’s film The White Album looks at black experience and culture through white eyes – implicitly racist denials of racism, redneck refusals, footage of a mass murderer going about his business, a ticker tape of violent news reports, a digitised Iggy Pop, terror, mayhem, fortitude. This weekend, Jafa rightly won the Golden Lion for best artist at the biennale. The White Album pulls no punches. It has a horrible driving exhilaration.
There are a lot of photographic portraits in Rugoff’s show. They stare back at you, posed, caught on the fly, styled, wretched, defiant, blown-up huge and in rows of vignettes. What is troubling about them is the cumulative effect that their black and Asian subjects are seen to be performing their otherness for the camera and for the white gaze. Jafa, on the other hand, never lets the viewer off the hook. He implicates us at every turn, with every pulse and beat, every clip and every word out of the mouth of his subjects.
Nicole Eisenman’s sculpted heads look back at you too, sucking you into their folds and cavernous eye sockets, their twists and bulges and wild deformities. She is best known as a painter (several canvases are in the Central pavilion), but it is these busts in the Arsenale that knock me out: they complicate and resist, entice and surprise at every turn. Sometimes a play of form can say as much as the most technically elaborate or conceptually overthought work. Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s works have to be shown in big vitrines so, presumably, they don’t kill us. A pneumatic hose emerging from a marble armchair modelled on Abraham Lincoln’s Washington monument intermittently flails and whips about, thrashing the air, and a huge servo-powered brush slaps, sweeps, pushes and drags a lake of fake blood around a second closed-off space. These are little more than scary fairground attractions.
In a mordant collaboration with Denmark’s Danh Vō, French artist Cyprien Gaillard projects a flailing, dancing monstrous figure on to a whirring fan. Move to the side and it disappears. Gaillard’s apparition glows in an otherwise semi-darkened room filled with threat and menace. The trouble with such complex works is that they tend to get lost in such vast group shows, where one damn thing comes after another. Rugoff has tried to cut down on the sprawl, along with the numbers of artists in his show, but stuff keeps piling in, all over Venice.
Belgian Luc Tuymans has what amounts to a retrospective at the Palazzo Grassi, the late arte povera artist Jannis Kounellis fills the Fondazione Prada, and Georg Baselitz is – luckily avoidably – at the Academia. Head instead to Scotland, up some back canal, where Charlotte Prodger’s new film SaF05 takes us to Botswana, Utah, the Highlands and Glasgow, in search of both a maned lioness and her own past, marking her territory with anecdotes and diary entries, travelling into the past as well as losing us in the landscape. How captivating it is. I would love to see SaF05 alongside Prodger’s last two films. What a journey that would be.
Instead, we’re off on our holidays, to a beach in a naval warehouse, where the Lithuanian pavilion presents Sun & Sea (Marina). We look down from a minstrel’s gallery on the holiday-makers below, kids building sandcastles, tourists sunning themselves on towels, oiling up and eating ices. An almost hour-long opera – the work of theatre director Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, playwright Vaiva Grainytė, and composer Lina Lapelytė – this seductive performance is beautifully sung by the lounging tourists as we watch from our balcony, our ticket to the end of the world.
Threat slowly seeps in, like sun-tan oil. A lament to the eclipse of the world, as the sky and sea change colour, the reefs bleach and nature dies, this astonishing performance slides into almost unbearable pathos and pain. I can’t stop thinking about this work, which rightly won Lithuania the Golden Lion for best pavilion. Flying in and out, and living the way we do, we are all implicated. Not interesting times, but the last days.
• The Venice Biennale runs until 24 November.