No Reflections, Scotland + Venice 2009

The Venice Biennale: the daddy of all Biennales, the Olympics of Art. Rosamund West finds an oasis of calm in the Scottish pavilion

Feature by Rosamund West | 24 Jun 2009

Every two years, dozens of countries of the world congregate in the City of Love to put on their own blockbuster shows and generally try to out-art each other. The already glittering surrounds of the historic centre become markedly more glittering, as palazzos are given over to individual nations and artists to do what they will. In the leafy surrounds of the Giardini, the pavilions of the longer-serving countries, permanent structures that lie empty in the eighteen month periods between exhibitions, host solo shows and bespoke group exhibitions designed to represent the crème de la crème of the nation’s artistic and curatorial talent. With no expense spared, amid a surround near incomparable in its beauty, there surely can be few greater achievements in an artist’s career than to be their country’s chosen competitor. Sorry, representative.

Scotland is one of the newer participants in the extravaganza, with this year’s exhibit representing its fourth incarnation. Occurring outwith the surrounds of the permanent pavilions of the Giardini, in the “collateral events” wing of the Biennale, the nation’s representation has been nomadic and rapidly evolving, with the freedom afforded by its relative youth, without the constraints of a tried and tested formula, creating fresh, disparate exhibitions in various nooks and crannies (for nooks and crannies read lavish palazzos) of the Doge’s city. This year, curated by Judith Winter and Graham Domke at DCA, is No Reflections by Martin Boyce, the first solo artist to be granted a Scottish pavilion.

Up some stairs in a palazzo behind the Rialto, cheerfully signposted by gallery assistants provided by Duncan of Jordanstone, Boyce has created an eerie world where a modernist nature meets the romantic surrounds of the city’s architecture. He has sought to create the impression of an abandoned garden, a pool drained and relocated to skew perceptions of time and space. On entering the space the viewer is confronted by concrete slabs cast in angular forms, transformed into stepping stones with which to traverse the marble floor of the Palazzo Pisani. Littering the floor are meticulously folded wax paper fragments, which at first glance appear to be dried, fallen leaves blown into an abandoned room. From the ceiling, in the place of a chandelier, hangs a black metal structure, its angular form mirroring the shape of the concrete slabs and, on closer inspection, the leaves. The form, it transpires, derives from an image of concrete trees created by Joel and Jan Martel in 1925. To Boyce, this form represents the perfect confluence of oppositional ideas of the natural and the architectural, its appropriation a nod to a modernist nature, at once idealising and undermining the natural world.

The exhibition continues across seven rooms, various items of detritus (bed frame, misshapen bird box, upended and distorted benches) alluding to an unknown history just beyond the grasp of the imagination. Signs of natural and human occupation interact and contradict, with wax paper leaves and modernist tree chandeliers repeated in each room to form a kind of unifying rhythm. Within all forms, even within the shapes of a strange, meandering typeface, are the abstracted influences of the Martel sculptures. In a sort of communion, Boyce has worked and worked on this epitome of his influences to bring forth an array of pieces that are allusive, mysterious and meditative.

After Venice, in December, No Reflections will return to Scotland to be re-presented in the very different surrounds of DCA. The exhibition will necessarily be transformed, without the aesthetically loaded environment of the palazzo and the Biennale as a whole, the re-contextualised sculptures presumably taking on a whole new array of associations and meanings. A fascinating challenge for both artist and curators. For those visiting Venice, No Reflections exists as an oasis of calm in the heart of the madness of both Venice the city and the Venice Biennale art spectacular.