Biennale Photo A quick Review of my Venice favourites of 2019

The catalogue of the Venice Biennale costs 85 Euro and is the size and weight of a Smart Car. This is light for a car but heavy for a catalogue. Eight trees died to make each one of those mothers, which you cannot, as far as I can tell, buy as a PDF. Hence I was not the only one snapping smartphone aides-memoire as I walked through the exhibition.

I came to the Biennale looking for answers, but it was only afterwards that I realised what question I was asking. Now I can see that I wanted vindication and guidance in my own directions in photography, and I found it, but not in the way I had expected.

I wanted to see famous photographers asking themselves the same questions that fascinated me. That would mean I was on the right track. Yes?

I did see that - a bit - but what I really saw was a bunch of very different and absorbing work. I saw diverse work by artists who cared deeply about what they were doing.

If the tone of this piece this seems abrupt and staccato, it’s because I’m writing after three days of solid immersion in the Biennale, surfacing only briefly and occasionally for Campari. I’ve also written a general reaction to the Venice Biennale in another essay here. If you find my style in this piece a little blunt, the first piece will explain why this is so.

Even with the distance of just one day I am finding some of the things I’m saying brash. But this is a reaction to the Biennale so I will leave it as it stands in the hope that this will convey what it was like to be there.

I will very briefly critique the five photographic artists that I thought were best. Counting down from five to one - but the order is based on my own interests and prejudices.

Soam Gupta - colour series in the Arsenale

5: Soam Gupta

This is not exceptional work, which is not to damn it with faint praise, but it is a cohesive visual sequence of people in great difficulty. It is sympathetic and empathetic work by an artist who is himself an outsider. The work uses similar compositions, lighting and colour to tie the series together. The photographs themselves are nothing out of the ordinary, they are a means to present their subjects without the distraction of difference. If everything else about the photos is the same, then it is only the people - the subjects - who are different and they become the focus.

Why is this art not photojournalism? Why are the black and white photos in Giardini so much stronger than the colour photos in Arsenale? These are genuine questions that I will enjoy chewing over.

Mari Katayama

4: Mari Katayama

Sumptuous C prints. Self-Portraits by a Japanese photographer who has no feet. Not surprisingly, body image plays a big role here. The prints are exquisitely detailed, and serve to present her body and the soft sculptures she makes in a calm, reverential way. The frames are decorated and that’s part of it too.

Here photography is used as a means to present what is real, with exact detail. We are being shown a beautiful print of the beauty of a human body that is conventionally incomplete. We are invited to share the artist’s fascination with herself and her world.

3: Zanele Muholi

An extensive series in which the mural sized prints, described as Wallpaper, are the most successful. Of an institutional scale, there is no need to approach at salon proximity to see the detail. The work features an exceptional human form and have the look of a fashion page, subverted by odd props just enough to let us know they weren’t lifted from Vogue. Zanele is famous, an activist, an LGBTI icon. Who? The photographer or the model? If you ask this then you missed the point.

Martine Gutierrez

2: Martine Gutierrez

Successful large scale impact photography like a Helmut Newton spread with the fetishism replaced by responsible preaching. The message is simple and worthy; there’s a flip where the man becomes an object (literally a manikin) and the woman is the only thing that is real.

After looking at them I read her notes and when I found out she made a complete faux magazine “Indigenous Woman” and these images are lifted these from it, I loved them unreservedly. They are too large to be ignored and the message is loud, clear and sells itself using sex. It’s an advertising shoot where the target demographic is your psyche.

1: Anthony Hernandez

This was the series that nailed it for me. It’s a very personal choice as I have been playing with many of the same ideas myself. The breaking down of an image into quanta, reprographic processes, the screen as visual element. And they just - work. This is (as I understand it) straight photography shot through the screens on bus shelters in the US, and it also examines the nature of observer and observed. (Pet peeve warning - I’m hypersuspicious of hobbyist street photography.) No one else needs to like these, but if I had spent 60 hours out and back to Venice just to see them I would be very tired but not disappointed.

Anthony Hernandez
Anthony Hernandez
Anthony Hernandez

Final thoughts?

I guess I was a bit surprised that the photography part of the biennale was so straight. It was pretty much all straight photography for social change. That fits in with the theme: “May you live in interesting times” but even so, the other types of art didn’t seem to be so obviously literal about it all. It was really only my fave Anthony who nudged the nature of photography question. Make of that what you will.

And that’s a wrap.

Honourable mentions? Well, there was so much good stuff there. I’m not going to list any more. My thoughts here are just a quick jumble, and I’m already aware of many faults, but I did want to record my impressions and try to capture something of the experience and atmosphere of spending time at the Venice Biennale. I wonder what I’ll think of all this when I read over it in a month or so.

This essay will also make more sense if you read my general thoughts on the Biennale in another essay I wrote here