Graham Fagen @ Palazzo Fontana, Venice

Review by Rosamund West | 13 May 2015

Entra nel Giardino E dimentica la Guerra. Or, Come into the Garden and Forget about the War. So entreats a green neon sign at the entrance to the Palazzo Fontana, the 2015 home of Scotland's presentation at the Venice Biennale, a solo exhibition by Glasgow's Graham Fagen. The sign's message is both beguiling and duplicitous – you will leave this pavilion pondering little else.

Curated by Hospitalfield House, the exhibition stretches across four rooms on the first floor of the Palazzo, a new location for the Scotland+Venice presentation and one chosen by the artist and curators after an exhaustive search of the city. The context created by these environs is key to the work's evolution and its display here – elements of the show are familiar from Fagen's past exhibitions, but their accumulation in this space, in the grand rooms of Venice's mercantile wealth, creates something very specific.

In the first room Rope Tree, a towering bronze reaches from terrazzo floor to delicate Murano glass chandeliers, its 'branches' winding towards the painted ceiling, grasping in an allusion that is simultaneously organic life and the cold death of metal. Music echoes through the building, an as yet unidentified reggae classical blend which suffuses the space, welcoming and warming the viewer.

The second room, Scheme for Lament, is decorated in framed ink 'self portraits', a series of distorted Rorschach-alike pieces that bleed and melt from the page. Their mask-like rigor appropriates the Venetian mask, the city's signifier playfully undermined in technicolour ink. Some mimic the form of the pansy, a revisiting of a form the artist has previously explored. Many of the faces have teeth, painted – appropriately enough – in enamel.

Teeth are an ongoing concern for Fagen. He began drawing his teeth when he lived in the US, in part due to the status of the tooth as an identifier in the American consciousness. The rotten teeth of the parody Brit, a signifier of the lower economic status of the working class Scot. He draws from touch, depicting the forms as he feels them with his tongue. The tooth becomes indicative of economic status, and a representation of the essential tools of communication. Simultaneously, the tooth represents the great equaliser. Says Fagen, “We've all got teeth."

In room three we step around a set of teeth trees, entitled Scheme for Our Nature. Fagen has cast the interior of his mouth, the dental moulds coated in pewter, brass, terracotta, white enamel pigments. The resulting forms are displayed upon metal skeletons, mimicking the form of Christmas trees. But in place of an angel or a star, here we have a series of distorted self portrait masks, grinning through their white, white teeth, black undercoat splattered in bright bronze and white to form a gruesome death mask. The cast teeth have a steely beauty, resonant of pain and restraint.

The dichotomy of Burns' empathetic Slave's Lament, and his near-passage to become part of the colonial system, is one which echoes through history.

The final room houses four screens playing a new arrangement of Robert Burns' The Slave's Lament. Classical composer Sally Beamish has created a new interpretation of the Bard's 1792 verse, performed here by musicians of the Scottish Ensemble and the reggae singer Ghetto Priest. The performance is highly emotive, the video focussing on the singer's face and eyes, his shiny gold teeth, as he delivers the lament of a Virginia slave of the 18th century.

The burden I must bear, while the cruel scourge I fear,
In the lands of Virginia-ginia, O;
And I think of friends most dear, with the bitter, bitter tear,
And alas I am weary, weary O!

Reggae is a frequent concern for Fagen, and one which has its roots in his upbringing. Raised in Ayrshire, his schooling involved much study of Rabbie Burns, while his own passions led him towards reggae music. These seemingly disparate interests coalesced with the discovery that Burns had booked passage to Jamaica to work as a slave overseer, but cancelled the journey when his writing started to be successful. His economic circumstances drove him to near complicity, and then saved him from participating in one of humanity's worst atrocities.

This coalescence is at the very heart of this piece, this exhibition and, perhaps, Scottish history and identity. A cascade of meaning falls across the rooms, an interplay of elements creating different strands of narrative back and forth. The rope tree coupled with the cast teeth combines to evoke the restraining bite of the slavers. The teeth of the self portraits and those of Ghetto Priest in the video suggest both kinship and complicity. The dichotomy of Burns' empathetic Slave's Lament, and his near-passage to become part of the colonial system, is one which echoes through history. The line between oppressor and oppressed is a remarkably fluid one. The blocks upon which our nation is built are frequently questionable – there is a complicity in atrocities of the past and present that is frequently glossed over, a sort of collective amnesia that allows us to sleep easy at night. The power of this exhibition lies in its gentle unravelling of this amnesia, confronting the viewer with a series of unanswerable questions we normally choose to evade.

The Venetian location adds further layers to this difficult meaning. The glittering palaces built on merchant wealth are complicit, as much of Europe is, in crimes of the past and present. Outside the Palazzo, an African migrant offers a selfie stick up for sale, surreptitiously avoiding the eye of the law. It is a stark reminder that complicity continues today – outwith the Biennale's enclave of privilege lies the country on the front line of today’s desperate migration across the Mediterranean.