Random Play by Graham Reid

Et al, etcetera etc

I suspect I am in a fairly small minority in this country: I have been to two Venice Biennales and -- here’s the punch line -- I paid my own way both times. More fool me, I like art.

When we went to Europe for two months at the end of last year I had three specific things I wanted to see: the moving painting of Pilgrims Going To Mecca by Leon Belly in the Musee d’Orsay in Paris (it was in storage!); Sir Norman Foster’s bridge at Millau in the south of France (it confirmed my belief that it is the first great piece of 21st century architecture); and a Venice Biennale again.

My first Biennale was in 99 and it was, to use the sophisticated language of the Art World, mind-blowing.

I won’t bore you with details of the genius, humour and provocative nature of the works on display. It’s enough to say that I vowed I’d get back to another, and Venice ain’t cheap.

And so last year I did, the added attraction being that New Zealand had an artistic presence there with et al. And we all know how that particular controversy played out here in the months leading up to the opening.

Without re-litigating the whole argument again let’s just say that the great art critics of our generation -- I refer to Paul Holmes and a few journalists whose round doesn‘t include the arts -- got hold of the wrong end of the stick and, as the metaphor-mixers say, started beating about the bush with it.

The whole “braying dunny” thing became a catch-phrase and it is regrettable to note that in today’s Herald reporter Derek Cheng once again falls into that particular hole. He says the work in Venice was “described by some as a portaloo that brayed like a donkey”.

Well, that would be strange if they did because that wasn’t the work in Venice, that was the previously controversial one which had been exhibited here.

Let us be clear -- again, for hopefully the very last time -- the installation that et al took to Venice had nothing to do with the so-called braying dunny. It was an entirely new work entitled Fundamental Practice.

I’m not a huge fan of et al’s stuff and couldn’t give a damn if the artist prefers to adopt some nom-de-collective and do no publicity. Being wilfully obscure is a career choice I suppose, and frankly I prefer that to those who gad about hoping to get their photos in a Sunday gossip page.

But that public anonymity as much as the “braying dunny” seemed to get many people, who had otherwise shown bugger all interest in the arts, very sweaty under the armpits.

Going to Venice I was curious to see how this new work would shape up in the context of the Biennale which is a fair bit of media hoopla and, I suspect, lots of visitors there on tax-payer funded grants, awards, research assignments and the like.

For those who haven’t been to a Biennale let me put it into some geographical context.

The main exhibition area is in the Giardini Pubblici, a good 20 minute walk from San Marco. Regular ferries can take you there in about five minutes. In the gardens are permanent exhibition spaces -- halls, converted palaces and so on -- and this is where the Big Name Countries hunker down. It takes a couple of days to get around and see everything, giving them all a decent bit of time.

But also scattered around Venice are dozens and dozens of other sites and spaces, and some are damn near impossible to find in the maze of blind alleys, canals and narrow streets. Then there are other art exhibitions which run to take advantage of the crowds for the Biennale. Last year Lucien Freud had a Really Big Show.

So once you add in the glitterati who come for the parties in opening week -- last year Ron Wood flew in with Tracey Emin, Jarvis Cocker was a DJ at a flash magazine’s party -- Venice can become a bit of see’n’be seen scene. Art slips down the agenda.

But that nonsense is all over pretty quickly and by the time I got there -- both in 99 and last year -- Venice had cooled down, both media-wise and literally. You could just wander around and look at the art. If you could find it.

On my return I wrote a piece for the Herald about the et al showing because I figured I might have been one of the few journalists from here who attended who had no discernable agenda: I hadn’t been there on a grant, and I was genuinely curious to see both what et al had shown and -- just as importantly -- where it was.

It was in good place, a rundown palazzo halfway between San Marco and the gardens, and well signposted. Terrific location, a real keeper I would think.

And of the exhibition itself?

Well, I liked it. The damn thing was difficult and demanding with lots of soundbites in the audio and disjointed, sometimes overtly political, snippets of information on a flickering screen, and sections that would suddenly creak to life to make it all even more disconcerting.

Fundamental Practice was never going to be a winner in the way that, say, Gilbert and George from the UK pulled out all the air-kissing and fluttering of hands. But it was something to see alright. Provocative and uneasy. I don’t mind that.

And so I said as much in what I wrote for the Herald. But I did also point out that -- despite what the enthusiastic woman at the desk might have wanted me to believe -- there weren’t too many people there. I also noted a few who arrived at what looked like a construction site saw the sign on entry which read: "All visitors must report to site office on arrival". They turned around and left.

I guess when you are thinking of the Big Picture you don’t notice the obvious: if it looks like a building site and the sign suggests it’s a building site then people will think it’s a building site.

Just something to consider when mounting an installation, I think.

Anyway the et al/Venice thing has come up again because now Creative NZ is considering how successful Fundamental Practice was, and whether we should have a presence at future Biennales in Venice.

For that Herald article last year I asked those questions and I thought the answers I got from commissioner Greg Burke and CNZ chairman Peter Biggs were fair and honest responses: at the time they said they were considering it carefully (it cost around $500,000 for a presence there, and I’d be interested to know how much of that was spent on junkets for arty people and selected media going over) and that it had been a success in terms of international exposure.

Of course there will always be a selective reading of what constitutes “success” -- as we have seen with sending rock bands to South by South West in Texas.

But I think Fundamental Practice -- even without the braying dunny -- was a demanding, problematic but ultimately powerful and affecting work. And by that measure, a success.

Now it seems that CNZ has listened to those who damned et al for her unwillingness to front up to the media and next time out they will be looking for someone more media tolerant. Okay, fair enough. A lesson learned by all perhaps.

According to today’s paper National’s Katherine Rich approves of that, but also says that when she criticised the selection of et al it was because she wanted an artist who would promote New Zealand and whose artwork reflected a Kiwi flavour.

Here is where I part company: that’s politico-speak and the Venice Biennale is not a forum for tourism initiatives. The artists have no obligation to “promote” their country of origin. Art doesn’t do that, people in the travel industry do.

I saw very little art -- actually none that I can recall -- at the Biennale which promoted the artist’s country of origin. Art’s not like that, Katherine.

If you want to get visitor numbers up here or showcase our pretty little country to the world then you already have forums in which to do that. The Venice Biennale is about art, and by definition it is individualistic, possibly even dissenting from prevailing ethics. Our artists at Venice aren’t there to sell some nice concept of New Zealand.

That argument suggests to me that we are still so uncertain of ourselves that we want people to like us. Look at our pretty pictures, aren’t we nice -- and by the way we’re nuclear-free.

Utter nonsense.

We should of course have a presence at the Venice Biennale and I’m a little disappointed there will be no New Zealand artist there in 2007 -- we are having a cup of tea and a lie down to assess the situation and do a value-for-money analysis apparently -- but I hope by then clearer heads with no political or tourism agenda will have prevailed.

And that I'll have saved up enough and be able to go again.