Review: The UK Pavilions featuring Sarah Lucas at the 65th Venice Biennale 2015

Every two years the Venice Biennale draws throngs of visitors enthusiastic to experience what the next edition of this contemporary art extravaganza has to offer.  Showcasing the latest trends and research within the field of contemporary art, Venice is an important and career-defining platform for artists and curators. It is also the forum for countries to showcase their home grown talent, with numerous national pavilions comprising a large proportion of the festival.

Britain has been showcasing its artistic talent at the Venice Biennale since the festival’s first edition in 1895 and in the British Pavilion after its acquisition in 1909.  This year, the pavilion presents a new body of work by Sarah Lucas set in a sea of Crème Anglaise, dismissing the traditional white walls for bright custard yellow.  Upon sighting the pavilion across the Giardini, the proud upright form of Lucas’s Gold Cup Maradona announces her arrival; the sculpture’s smooth yellow gold surface beckoning visitors into the building.  Proceeding past a new series of jet black Tit Cats with their drooping orb like breasts and Margot’s neatly cast plaster legs draped on a newly purchased refrigerator top, the professional, clean finish of the pieces deviates from Lucas’s early work, constructed using dirty mattresses and inappropriate vegetables. The real disappointment is that Lucas’s trademark cheeky charm seems to have been lost in translation.

On the other side of the island, Scotland + Venice have taken over an elaborate Venetian palace where artist Graham Fagan has developed a carefully choreographed display which leads visitors through opulent rooms of Murano glass chandeliers and views over the Grand Canal, culminating in a multi-channel video installation entitled The Slaves Lament.  Taking lyrics from Robert Burns’ 1792 poem of the same title, the work is a collaborative blend of music traditions – Scottish folk song, classical music and Reggae – whose soothing lyrics empathise with the displaced and enslaved, and have real contemporary relevance given the current tragedies unfolding on our borders. This is a deep and thoughtful body of work which is bound to be a highlight for many visitors.

The first female artist to be commissioned for a solo show at Wales in Venice, Helen Sear’s solo presentation …the rest is smoke explores the ideas of mortality and temporality by playing with the audience’s senses.  Housed in the Santa Maria Austiliatrice, a church and former convent, Sears has taken note of the historical setting while examining issues closer to her home in rural Wales.  Exploring agricultural landscapes marked for consumption, Sears uses the medium of photography and video to document these spaces before combining the mediums to create absorbing and provocative works highlighting the plight of many of the UK’s natural landscapes.

This year’s alternative offer comes in the form of the East Midlands Pavilion (EM15), a mini golf course adhering  to the curatorial theme of The Leisure Principle.  Curated by artist Doug Fishbone, several artists where invited to collaborate by creating their own mini golf hole exploring the current global economic complexities of tourism; a particularly pertinent topic given that Venice welcomes around 22 million visitors each year.  Fun and interactive, the course guides visitors around  Doug Fishbone’s Costa Concordia, over Eyal and Ines Weizman’s Bridges of Kӧnigsberg and until they finally make the treacherous crossing over the canal to Ellie Harrison’s scale map of the UK; a good example of the importance of inclusion within the UK’s art scene.

The Scottish, Welsh and East Midlands pavilions transmit honest representations of what is currently taking place within the UK’s independent arts spaces and amongst its emerging practitioners. The British Pavilion fails to achieve this, instead speaking more to the elite part of the UK’s art world. However, this is Venice – the perfect platform from which to boastfully blow one’s national art trumpet.

East Midlands until 26 July 2015, Britain, Scotland and Wales until 22 November 2015, 65th Venice Biennale, at locations across the city until 22 November.

Emma Sumner

Follow us on Twitter @AestheticaMag for the latest news in contemporary art and culture.

1. Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, British Council Commission. Installation View, British Pavilion 2015. Courtesy of Cristiano Corte © British Council.