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Rising above it all at the Venice Biennale

Paul Finch
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The British Pavilion’s ‘island’ theme may be inspired by Brexit, but the biennale’s internationalism shows fears of cultural isolation are misplaced, says Paul Finch 

Paul finch view

Paul finch view

The image is a view from the temporary roof terrace that constitutes the key feature of this year’s British pavilion at the Venice Biennale, designed by Caruso St John. Manuelle Gautrand, the French architect who designed the brilliant Citroën showroom on the Champs Elysees (sadly about to be demolished), is a fan. She likes the fact that you are removed from the general hubbub; that it is a place to be reflective.

You are certainly above it all, and I had a slight feeling of British superiority looking down on the slight hill that leads up to the pavilion, whose site was no doubt chosen for precisely that reason. Judging by the queues to climb the neatly designed scaffold staircase, plenty of others are keen to see what it is like. There is one good view of the lagoon, another of the said arrival route, and the rest is trees. For visitors this summer, please note: it is hot and pretty unshaded up there.

Peter St John, Adam Caruso and their co-curator, artist Marcus Taylor are anxious to stress that the pavilion should not be regarded as two spaces – the terrace and the interior – but as a single concept. The pavilion interior is being used for discussions, while the terrace is being offered to other pavilions as a place to hold events, in addition to its role as a magnet for visitors. The reality, of course, is that it is indeed two spaces: you can visit one without having any relationship with the other, but no matter.

The ‘Free space’ theme is loose enough to stimulate some beautiful and thought-provoking work

The inspiration for the design, ‘Island’, was of course prompted by Brexit. The beautifully produced catalogue includes the entire script of The Tempest, evoking memories of Elizabeth Welch singing Stormy Weather at the end of Derek Jarman’s wonderful film version. Reference is made to the island as a place of exile and refuge, with overtones of the Remainer claim that Brexit means introverted, narrow, exclusionist attitudes, typified by the old joke headline (actually it was real): ‘Fog in channel, Continent cut off’. The pavilion also reminded me of the Samuel Beckett apercu, that John Donne’s phrase, ‘No man is an island’, by excision of a few letters, becomes ‘No mans land’ …

I do understand the distress that Brexit has caused some people, but they need to accept that their distress (or opinions) are not more important than anyone else’s, especially when those others number 17.4 million. Happily, there is plenty of evidence that people in general are taking a robust view of what a UK outside the EU will look like. There has been a big net inward migration from other EU countries since the referendum; applications for university places from EU students have risen, and most of the Project Fear predictions about the economy collapsing, emergency budgets and so on have turned out to be rubbish – the desperate effort of a PR prime minister trying to spin himself out of a self-made trap. Hey ho.

Of course the Venice Biennale is an excellent example of why we shouldn’t worry too much about the cultural implications of Brexit. It is a truly international event and most of the countries taking part are not in the EU. As ever, the language of architecture and of ideas bypasses all nations and continents, despite the continuation and increase in the number of national pavilions. The biennale theme of ‘Free space’ is loose enough (I have no real idea what it means, other than perhaps ‘generous space’) to stimulate some beautiful and thought-provoking work inside the Arsenale and Giardini, and in the fringe locations scatted across Venice.

On my first morning I enjoyed the Lithuanian and Estonian exhibitions, both held in adapted local buildings. The former was an intriguing show about swamps, and it was tempting to think about the whole preview event as a version of it: there is what you see and there is what is going on under the surface. The Estonian exhibition, ‘Weak Monument’, explores the spectrum between the monument (generally representing power) and another sort of surface, the pavement. ‘Where does the monument stop and the pavement begin’?

A good question in Venice.

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