It is a truth universally acknowledged but rarely articulated that there is a lot of very bad art at the Venice Biennale. With the thousands of works on show in this sprawling mega-exhibition, it stands to reason that it would be statistically impossible for all of them to be good.
The dreadfulness comes in various guises. First there are the lazy: those artists who just can’t be bothered. Most important contemporary art show in the world? Who cares! In this category a special shout out goes to the Austrians who have opted to leave their pavilion in the Giardini completely empty bar the installation of a new floor and ceiling. “How can a meaningful contribution be made in an environment… in which each voice competes for the most attention?” they ask in the typically ponderous literature accompanying this non-display. It’s hard to make your mark here, so why try? Let’s just do some home improvement instead.
This conceptual gesture comes courtesy of artist Heimo Zobernig who, we are told, “often succeeds in involving the observer both intellectually and sensually.” Not this time.
To be fair, the Austrian pavilion does have one redeeming feature. Who doesn’t feel a slight rush of gratitude to Zobernig when entering this building and realising that there is nothing to see except blank walls? In the midst of so much art, it is a palate-cleansing experience, the sorbet of national pavilions.
More typically, the badness of the art in Venice seems to be directly proportional to the difficulty we have in finding it. We’ve all been on the pilgrimage to reach a far-flung pavilion or collateral show while desperately clutching our maps and cursing the lack of 4G coverage, all the time wondering if we really need to see this exhibition by an artist we didn’t even know existed until five minutes ago or if our time would be better spent reflecting on what we’ve already seen—“consolidating our knowledge” is the preferred phrase—whilst knocking back cocktails in Harry’s Bar.
This year, however, the prize for the worst art on display must go to an exhibition in a very prominent venue indeed: the sprawling career survey of the veteran French artist Martial Raysse at Palazzo Grassi. The works from the 1960s, highly derivative of Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol but not as good, do at least have some historic value. But what to make of the paintings in washed out blues, greys, and purples made in more recent decades? Here’s an apocalyptic beach scene at least 15 feet long complete with pink, yellow, green and turquoise girls in bikinis. Over there a mammoth canvas devoted to a circus troupe wandering lost and confused. And then over there, look, more girls in bikinis. How original. The problem with Raysse? Not enough imagination and not enough talent. And, no, in art scale does not give you gravitas.
But perhaps a bigger problem for an artist is not a lack of talent but churning out product and putting it on public show just because you can. And in this category, nothing on display this year comes close to an exhibition held during the 2013 biennale. Devoted to the British artist Marc Quinn, this Hindenburg of a show included underwater scenes of stultifying blandness, sculptures of young men wearing hoodies (so edgy!) and, best of all, the marble bust of a creature part man, part feline, seemingly modelled on the Bride of Wildenstein. Many visitors concluded the whole thing was some sort of post-Modern joke—a meditation on irony in contemporary culture. But seeing as Quinn and many others like him show no signs of stopping the relentless stream of expensive, apparently meaningless work, the joke it would seem is on all of us.