Under the red sky: Chiharu Shiota’s installation The Key in the Hand. Photo: AWAKENING/GETTY IMAGES
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In a Venice Biennale full of moving stories, the British appear to have nothing to say

With her monstrous phallus and pendulous balls, Britain's Sarah Lucas has sunk to the occasion. 

As I made my way round one of the two main sites that form the core of the Venice Biennale, I watched a man (topknot, statement specs, head to toe in black – he was born to be there) take out a bottle of eye drops and refresh his exhausted peepers. By the time I had finished, I rather wished I had a gallon or two of the drops myself. The first thought the biennale prompts is: “Gawd, how much stuff is produced.” The second is: “And how much of it is landfill art.” Seeing so many exhibits in quick succession defocuses the mind just as it does the eyes.

For the 56th incarnation of the world’s pre-eminent contemporary art jamboree, there are 84 national pavilions, each supposedly showcasing the best that their nations have to offer – although Kenya withdrew when its Italian curator decided to show mostly Chinese artists (a sign of where that country now looks for its money) and Costa Rica was left with little work of its own to exhibit when it tried to charge its artists $5,000 each for the privilege.

Most of the pavilions are at the Giardini, where many of the old art nations put up their exhibition buildings (in every style, from Greek temple to Scandinavian minimalist) in the biennale’s early years. The bulk of the others are among the vast spaces of the Arsenale, the naval factories and warehouses that for centuries kept Venice’s military-industrial complex functioning. There are also 44 “collateral events” (sanctioned by this year’s guest curator, the Nigerian critic-poet Okwui Enwezor) and a further 80 associated displays scattered throughout the city’s churches and palazzi.

The acreage is huge and it is all filled. As is necessarily the case, some of the ­filling is much better than others. There is a vast amount of generic, high-concept art – video works in which nothing much happens, very slowly, and that no one watches; rooms with enigmatic empty boxes; vaguely humanoid figures composed of random objects; vitrines full of sheaves of paper; piles of coloured concrete and rubble; agitprop; and, regardless of the irony (the biennale likes to critique capitalism while being powered by money), a live reading of all three volumes of Marx’s Das Kapital, which will continue unabated for the festival’s seven-month duration. God help the performers.

There is a lot more overt political and social comment. Photographs of chain gangs of Brazilian prisoners and visually lumpen reproductions of Nigerian newspaper reports on emigration jostle with images of Chilean transvestite prostitutes and, in the Ukrainian pavilion, a touching multi-screen piece showing the empty table settings for soldiers fighting the separatists, laid out in the hope that they will return home. There’s work about pollution, industrial production, armaments and the environment (in the Tuvalu pavilion, visitors must cross large pools of water on walkways centimetres above the surface, a literal but effective symbol of the islands’ fragility in the face of rising sea levels).

Among the welter of artists trying to say something, it is disappointing to find Britain’s representative, Sarah Lucas, saying nothing. She has sunk to the occasion. Her plaster casts, moulded from the lower torsos of various friends and with cigarettes inserted into vaginas and anuses, may have raised an eyebrow 20 years ago but now they are simply trite and dated, devoid of both content and impact. Lucas is 52. She has also adapted her early method of stuffing tights to form mannequins, here cast as solid rather than soft, Dalí-esque sculptures. Black cats and a giant, yellow, priapic figure with a monstrous phallus and pendulous balls (so good in her opinion that there’s one version inside the pavilion and one outside) make thin gags at the best of times and, displayed here, are simply puerile and show an artist who has failed to develop. She can do better.

There is infinitely more wit in the Canadian pavilion next door, where the BGL art collective has set up a series of Heath Robinson inventions that turns the most basic of items – massed paint tins, each dripping numerous colours; a room-size game of Mouse Trap in which coins roll down ramshackle tracks to form delicate patterns on a Perspex grid – into surprising and visually interesting installations. They have the lightness of touch that so palpably evades Lucas.

Among the painters, very much in the minority here, Peter Doig’s colour-saturated almost-folk-tales in which a Rastafarian Lion of Judah features prominently (a nice nod to the lion of St Mark) stand out. A less familiar painter is the Romanian Adrian Ghenie. His series of pictures Darwin’s Room uses staid portraits of Victorian worthies as a basis and then deliquesces them. By smudging and dabbing, thinning and patterning, he turns them into pieces that are neither representational nor abstract but use the possibilities of paint with imagination.

The American sculptor Melvin Edwards does something similar with solid metal, taking axes, horseshoes, scissors, chains and machine parts and crushing them together into tight lumps. As a series displayed on the wall, they look as though they should be portrait busts but, seen from close up, they become fetish objects – dark, weighty and sinister. The Algerian artist Adel Abdes­semed repurposes metal in a more pointed way. Nymphéas assembles clusters of machetes into clumps that resemble a twisted version of Monet’s Water Lilies.

The two most affecting works come from Turkey and Japan. Kutlug Ataman is one of the most significant figures currently at work and with his Portrait of Sakip Sabanci he pays homage to a Turkish philanthropist. It takes the form of a floating sheet com­prising 9,216 LED panels, each showing a passport-sized photograph of someone whose life was touched by Sabanci. Every face is a pixel in the whole and, as you watch, they flicker and change into someone else’s. The effect is touching and mesmeric.

To my mind, the most purely beautiful work among those on show is Chiharu Shiota’s The Key in the Hand, an infinitely complex cat’s cradle of red threads from which hang thousands of rusted keys, all emerging (or falling) like a cloud from two wooden boats. The installation is as delicate as a traditional patterned kimono. It carries a hint of Hokusai and the strangeness of manga; and the keys represent an infinite number of memories. It is simply a lovely thing. Such works show that in this artistic Babel, it is still possible for the most clearly enunciated voices to stand out.

The Venice Biennale runs until 22 November

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory triumph

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Moving on up: why Ira Sachs is king of the "Rightmovie"

Little Men reminds us that Sachs is the the cinematic poet laureate of the gentrification drama.

There’s a nauseating moment at the end of the 1986 film Stand By Me when the narrator reflects on his childhood. “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12,” he sighs. “Jesus, does anyone?” That sort of retroactive idealism is a temptation for any coming-of-age movie, but the writer-director Ira Sachs resists it in Little Men. His film charts the blossoming friendship between two 13-year-old boys, Jake (Theo Taplitz) and Tony (Michael Barbieri), without stooping to suggest that what they have is somehow purer than anything in the adult world. It isn’t – it’s just subject to different forces. Sachs captures the concentrated joy of youthful larks and loyalty but he is as wise as Fassbinder ever was to the impact of economic and social pressures on our emotional choices.

It’s clear that the film will be discreet from the way the cinematographer, Óscar Durán, shoots Jake and Tony from behind during their first meeting, as though permitting the boys a modicum of privacy away from our prying eyes. Sachs has a knack for finding those pockets of quiet in the hubbub. The opening shot puts the reserved, feminine-faced Jake at his school desk; he’s the still point in the midst of chaos. He takes whatever life – or, in this case, his classmates – can throw at him.

Then Jake gets a bombshell: his grand­father has died. His father, Brian (Greg Kinnear), and mother, Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), move with him into the old man’s building in Brooklyn. Downstairs is a cluttered dress shop that was being leased to Tony’s mother, Leonor (Paulina García), at a cut-price rate that failed to take into account the property boom. Jake’s father considers himself a sensitive man – he is an actor – ­preparing for a production of The Seagull but his life has just become The Cherry Orchard. Family members advise him to jack up the rent or boot out Leonor.

Kinnear conveys the honest terror of a kind man staring into the depths of his conscience and not liking what he finds. García, the star of the superb Gloria, is brave enough to make her character actively disagreeable at times. In her most complex scene, she sacrifices the moral high ground and overplays her hand with a single rash remark.

Yet Little Men belongs to the little men. Sensing the tremors of discord between their families, Jake and Tony stick together. They skate through the streets in a blur as the camera struggles to keep sight of them behind trees and parked cars while the propulsive score by Dickon Hinchliffe of Tindersticks urges them on.

As Tony, Barbieri is the find of the film. He’s twitchy and gangly, his voice a scratchy drawl that belongs to a bourbon-soaked barfly. No one has swaggered through Brooklyn with such aplomb since John Travolta at the beginning of Saturday Night Fever. Then he’ll do something impulsive, such as hugging his sobbing mother by wrapping his long arms all the way around her and clutching her head to his chest, and suddenly he’s a baby again.

With this and Love Is Strange – about a middle-aged gay couple forced to live separately due to financial difficulties – Sachs has appointed himself the cinematic poet laureate of gentrification-based drama. (Call it the dawn of the Rightmovie.) But he isn’t a tub-thumper. He and his co-writer, Mauricio Zacharias, show simply and plainly how money alters everything. Durán shoots the Brooklyn locations in a crisp, summery light that mirrors this straightforwardness. Any poetry springs from the everyday, such as the night-time shot in which blurred blobs of colour from streetlights and headlamps suggest dabs of paint on a palette.

Even the editing (by Mollie Goldstein) speaks volumes. The sudden cut from the gaudy clamour of a disco, where Tony wears a glow band around his neck like a fallen halo, to the chill calm of the subway platform evokes acutely that plunging feeling when the fun is over. As the boys wait for the train, their faces are framed in unsmiling repose in a shot that calls to mind Simon and Garfunkel on the cover of Bookends. And we all know what happened to them. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times