04 Jun, 2009

Steve McQueen film casts new light on Italian city

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

British artist’s film depicts a world of small things amid the wintry rain

“Turner,” said Steve McQueen at yesterday’s opening of the Venice Biennale, “does not own sunsets, and he doesn’t own Venetian sunsets.” And so it is that the London-born artist, who this year represents the UK at the world’s most important and unashamedly flamboyant art event, has dared to make a romantic, lyrical, melancholic film that shows Venice hazed through mists and sunsets, dripped in wintry rain.

It ought to be a cliche, but it is not, for the Venice of McQueen’s minutely observed 40-minute film is not the Venice of St Mark’s Square or humpbacked bridges over picturesque canals. His Venice is the Venice of the Giardini, the city’s municipal gardens. In this park stand the pavilions, each devoted to a different nation, that are filled with art every other year during the Biennale – where, in the summer, art world types air-kiss and gossip. But McQueen’s film was shot in the dim light of February, after the art from the last Biennale had long gone, the pavilions were boarded up and piles of rubbish lay scattered over the lawns and paths.

The plangent film, called Giardini, is already causing a stir at Venice as one of the most talked about of the 77 national offerings for the festival, which opens to the public on Sunday.

The world he depicts – of a beetle wandering over a flowerbud, of a worm slinking through a lamp-lit puddle – is a world of small things barely, if ever, noted during the hustle and bustle of the Biennale. In his debut feature film, Hunger – which opened last year to huge acclaim – the camera had a tendency to linger over the fall of a snowflake on a grazed and bloody fist, or on a fly buzzing against a prison-cell window. The same joy in minute observation fills this new work. “It is about looking,” he said. “What it does is encourages you to look again.” McQueen shot what he found – there is a 92-year-old woman who trundles her shopping trolley through the gardens to feed the cats each day, and a spectacular moment when the sun is blotted out by one of the giant cruise ships that dwarfs the city “like a giant whale”, he said. We hear the sounds of the park – the chanting from the nearby football ground, for instance. “It was like a wonderful male choir,” said McQueen, “monumental, wonderful. And then there were always the church bells, this operatic thing.”

But the film also has a small cast of characters, a fictional layer built on the found material. Two men – actors cast by McQueen – meet in the gardens by night. Their motives are ambiguous. “Is it homoerotic, straight, about friendship? I don’t know,” said McQueen. But the most arresting characters are the dogs who appear like a leitmotif through the work. “They are racing greyhounds that would otherwise be shot but are looked after by a charity,” said McQueen. The point is that they ought to be dead – and are thus a kind of ghostly presence, he added.

Other highlights at this year’s Biennale include the Nordic and Danish pavilions, both curated by artists Elmgreen and Dragset. The pair have lovingly converted the pavilions into replicas of wealthy art collectors’ houses. The Danish pavilion is for sale and visitors must receive a guided tour from “estate agents”, while in the Nordic, naked young men lounge on easy chairs beneath Tom of Finland drawings. The Czech and Slovak pavilion, meanwhile, by artist Roman Ondak, recreates a section of the shrubby, scrubby Giardini so exactly that art lovers have been left wondering where the show is.

The Biennale consists of separate exhibitions from 77 nations as well as a large overarching show, this year organised by the Swedish curator Daniel Birnbaum. “I hope what we are doing is exploring nationality in a good way – it’s not about insisting on the Germanness of the German pavilion, for instance.” (This year the artist representing Germany is in fact Liam Gillick, who is British.) “People in the art world love or hate the Biennale, or complain about it, but even if they hate it they always come. There is some magnetism to this odd, obsolete thing.”

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