Scotland + Venice @ Venice Biennale

Review by Jac Mantle | 10 Jul 2013

One of the most intellectual shows this year at this year’s Venice Biennale, the Scottish Pavilion requires no small investment of your time.

Corin Sworn’s film attends to our instruction directly, with Sworn as narrator asking the viewer, “What’s going on in this image? And this?” More explicitly discursive than her previous films, it centres around a collection of slides taken by her father, a social anthropologist, on a field trip to Peru in the 70s. The film moves between these images, an audio recording of Sworn and her father viewing the slides, and footage of their recent return visit to the area.

At times we settle into the story the slides tell of a rebellious agricultural community and its land disputes with the local Hacienda, which is interesting in itself. But this is regularly interrupted by Sworn’s critique on the nature of images, and the shifting between time frames. Ultimately the film seems to show that the way we appraise images is much less conscious and organised than is suggested by the instructive voice of the narrator.

No walk in the park, Sworn’s film is immersive and relaxing compared with Duncan Campbell’s, which demands the viewer remain highly conscious and critical throughout. Alongside this, in the room next door, Campbell has installed the major influence for the work, Chris Marker and Alain Resnais’ 1953 essay film Les Statues meurent aussi.

As a reading of Marker and Resnais’ film, Campbell’s is inherently self-reflexive. In the first section an unseen female voice delivers a commentary on the effects of British colonialism on African art objects, taking in Négritude, the Western Gaze and the British Museum. The voice claims to speak “not for myself, but for the objects,” and distinguishes itself from the filmmaker: “We want for everything our gaze falls on to speak to us, and these statues are mute. Against this the filmmaker seeks to return the gaze put on them.”

Adopting this voice is an effective way of presenting what is a heavy and moral discussion. The sections that follow are in diverse styles, including animation and - shot from above - a performance choreographed by Michael Clark in which persons dressed in black enact equations against a white background. Perhaps intended to lighten the tone, these sections might go down better if the film wasn’t already long and heavy going.

By contrast, Hayley Tompkins’ installation is a balm for the mind - though viewing it is certainly not mindless. An arrangement of acrylic paintings in plastic trays and digital images sitting in wooden boxes, the key departure from Tompkins’ previous works is that it’s all on the floor, not the walls. Although the floor assumes the surface of frontal display, one can move among and exist in the same space as the objects. There’s no ‘right way up’ to read it, the orientations of the digital images all facing different directions and influencing the way one reads the abstract colour fields in the trays.

Typically site-specific, the colours of acrylic paint have been picked from the digital images but also straight from the view out the palazzo window: terracotta rooftops, a lush herbaceous green, peach with a swirl of magenta. Get out your Crayolas and you can name them.

With more connections than is initially apparent, the three complementary presentations speak about perspectives and ways of looking. Each could have filled a pavilion by itself, but it’s all here together and is one of the highlights of the Biennale.

Palazzo Pisani, Calle delle Erbe, Cannaregio 6103, Venice, Italy, 1 Jun - 24 Nov 2013