Managed to catch the Venice Biennal on its last legs, when I was in the Serenissima last week. It proved to be an exhilarating surprise. Usually, it is a slog mitigated by perhaps a handful of interesting work and, if you are lucky, a standout or two. Circumnavigating the national pavilions especially tends to be tedious, with individual curators either playing it safe by banking on established names or simply shooting in the dark and serving up uninspiring up-and-comings. Figuring out who is the next hot thing has always been something of a crapshoot, and spotting real quality even harder, so the odds are obviously stacked against the good or interesting outweighing the less so.

Reluctant to draw too rash, generalist conclusions as to the general state of the visual arts now as opposed to then, I can therefore only attribute the relative high quality of the national exhibitions this year to fortuity. It is not like anything was fundamentally different from previous years, just that there were more quality showings in the pavilions. To me there were a couple of real standouts this year, as well as several more notable national exhibitions. I will try to touch upon the ones that made the biggest impressions here, while in the name of relative brevity entirely leaving out all the chaff.

Much has been written about Sophie Calle’s interpretation ad absurdum of a break-up email from her (fictional?) boyfriend, Prenez soin de vous (“Take Care of Yourself”) exhibited in the French pavilion (take a video-assisted tour here), as well as the video recording, in the International exhibition hall, of her mother’s silent death only months prior to the opening of the Biennial, Pas pu saisir la mort (“Couldn’t Capture Death”). And let it be said immediately, they are spectacular. The unique blend of humour, verve, glamour and grandness of conception that Calle musters make them the natural centrepiece of the Biennial.

The 104 women, alighting from multitudinous walks of life : actress, opera singer, sexologist, sociologist, crossword-maker, clown, police officer, Talmudic exegete, parrot, etc. : to interpret the breakup letter in video recording, as well as in many cases some kind of written form, is a grand conceit. High concept of the sort we have come to expect from Calle. There is something dubious about the work’s implicit assertion of the incommunicability of emotion and distance between people, because it is taken to such heights of artifice and such a show is made of it. However, one cannot help but indulge, embrace, and be entertained by the charm, intelligence and sheer creative ebullience on display.

Calle’s mother, who was one of the readers of the break-up letter was diagnosed with a terminal disease in its last stage the same day as Calle was invited to exhibit at the Biennial, we are told. With her consent Calle set up a camera to capture her last time, which turned out to be simply impossible. An evanescent end. Or that is the story, but perhaps we should not trust it. As far as I could tell, the woman seen on the camera is dead from the start of the recording. She is not breathing, not moving in the slightest. I do not know whether this is merely due lack of perceptiveness on my part, or actually the point of the video : ie. she passed away off-screen. I am at a loss, but suspect the latter. My own (limited) experience tells me that you can tell exactly the moment when life takes its leave, no matter how peaceful the situation. The sudden, repeated incursions of the people around her, testing whether she is dead, again and again as if they simply cannot tell, seem almost demonstrative. In other words an unconvincing, or perhaps merely intentionally confounding, piece of work. The unmoving image is however nonetheless quietly moving.

altmejd_1.jpgUtterly different in scope and concept, David Altmejd’s installation, The Index, in the Canadian pavilion also conveys ambiguous signals about its own intent. At once a variation of the ubiquitous and slightly tedious funhouse approach to site-specific installation (I counted three of them in the pavilions this year) and what seems to be a tongue-in-cheek parody of the ecological themes Canadian art in general, and especially that exhibited at the Biennial lately, is often associated with, it is a bravura display of inventiveness that transcends those slightly tedious connotations.

It inserts creatures of mythology, animal men (in suits), in a strangely phoney biotope consisting of mirrored glass cut to resemble mountain crystal and patches of shrubbery and foliage dotted with stuffed birds and small mammals. The aesthetic seems to take off that of the over-conceived panoramic fashion design displays seen on the glitzy avenues and high streets of our major metropoli. At the same time, however, there is a genuine sense of anarchy to it, of nature uncaringly claiming its due : and what better than alertly perched birds, innocuously unmindful of what they are sitting : and often shitting, though not here : on, to convey this mood? Following this logic, the set piece of the installation is a giant, lifelessly slumped against a mirrored wall, shot through with crystal, and with moles burrowing through his chest, squirrels scampering about, and an owl nested in the cavity of his blown-up skull. A grandly conceived and imaginatively executed sculpture in a show that at once embraces and subverts the kitschification of nature so common in our Society of the Spectacle.

Unsurprisingly, considering how it has come to permeate visual entertainment, 3D-animation seems increasingly to have arrived in contemporary video art these days, and two remarkable works at the Biennale stand out as confirmation of this. One is Joshua Mosley’s short film dread, on display in the International exhibition, which inserts eerily doughy 3D characters : Pascal and Rousseau, accompanied by various animals : into pixilated landscape film captured in beautiful black-and-white. A silent take on the two philosopher’s views on nature and man’s place in it, it is a haunting visual poem.

The other was AES+F’s bombastic meditation on humanity’s state of perpetual war transposed into a virtual environment, Last Riot (view extract here), exhibited in the generally interesting Russian pavilion. Alternating between digitally rotoscoped images of barechested youngsters in military fatigues enacting a dance of domination and submission wielding swords and sticks in an arctic landscape, and various 3D-rendered engines of displacement and destruction shooting through an artificial environment recalling the vintage videogame Myst, by way of Cold War imagery and anxiety, with throbbing industrial beats and Wagner’s Götterdämmerung blasting on the soundtrack, the panoramically projected film was an arresting spectacle. One could easily accuse the filmmakers of overplaying their cards here, going as they are for an aesthetic of excess. Operation Enduring Freedom as filtered through the oppressive ethos of effortless repetition so familiar from our console-facilitated immersive mirrors of the world. But the sheer image-making prowess on display here was enough to win over this spectator.

hyungkoo_lee_2.jpg Much less haughty and self-impressed, but no less impressive is Hyungkoo Lee’s exhibition “The Homo Species” in the Korean Pavilion. Combining optically distortional medical-looking paraphernalia to make Asian men, stuck by feelings of inadequacy in the meeting with the generally more hefty Occidentals, appear bigger with faux-paleontological examinations and displays of the genealogy of cartoon characters, the show is ultimately an ironically sincere exercise in the lengths to which we go to make others laugh and wonder. The video showing the aforementioned equipment in action : ie. fitted to people who thereby achieve a gratifying bloating of relevant parts of their anatomy : was unfortunately out of order, but seeing the gear on display in a mock-up operating theatre, like so many hollow cartoon men laid out for our contemplation, is in itself a weirdly, amusingly absurd spectacle.

Following the same logic, the display cases showing the exhumed skeletons of what appears to be our cartoon predecessors on this Earth, along with paleontologist’s notes and sketches, speculating as to their original appearance and full anatomy, are an utter delight. The showstopper is a natural-history diorama showing the skeletons of Tom and Jerry in iconic mid-chase. This painstaking emulation of real fossils and skeletons catering to cartoon anatomies could be seen as an affirmation of how these archetypes reflect our inner selves as a species, but carries as much payoff as pure, unadulterated fun. Just like a good cartoon.

The Venice Biennal runs until 21 November. Visit the mentioned artists on the web: Sophie Calle, David Altmejd, Joshua Mosley, AES Group, Hyungkoo Lee.Part two of the review, looking at the centrally curated exhibition at the Arsenal and in the International Pavilion, will be up early next week.