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The top five national pavilions at the Venice Biennale

Visual Arts

The top five national pavilions at the Venice Biennale

From Russia to the Philippines, here are the highlights of this year’s event

US: Martin Puryear, ‘Liberty/Libertà’

Puryear’s curving yellow pine-and-rope “Swallowed Sun” fronting the US’s rigidly classical pavilion should stay in situ in the Giardini forever, ringing out notes of hope, inclusion and tolerance. Puryear, 77, is an African-American sculptor of large-scale, mainly wooden pieces — formally stunning, minimalist-derived — that subtly unfold political-cultural references. His signature painted red cedar “Big Phrygian” (pictured above) commemorates the French revolutionary cap of liberty; “New Voortrekker” is an exquisite ash, cypress and maple wagon, symbolising escape/exile. Every object is texturally ravishing; the balance of craft aesthetic and serene display is a riposte to everything slick and loud in today’s America. How intriguing that the US and Russia this year share a nostalgic mood.

Russia: ‘Lc 15: 11-32’

Curated by St Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, this is a cavern of art history brought enchantingly alive. The title refers to Luke’s gospel recounting the parable of the Prodigal Son, depicted in the Rembrandt painting at the Hermitage. Upstairs, film-maker Alexander Sokurov reconstructs a Hermitage hall dominated by images of the painting and replicas of the museum’s granite Atlantes — columns in human form — crossed with an artist’s studio, with loud, fiery video footage of war projected on the wall. Downstairs, theatre director Alexander Shishkin-Hokusai’s mechanical ballet of life-size wooden figures delights. Cultural memory and pride rule here.

The Philippines: ‘Island Weather’

The outlier: Mark Justiniani distils his country’s complex past and present in the magnificently immersive “Arkipelago”, which is also a dizzying meditation on perception, visual and historical. In an Aladdin’s cave hung with replicas of Renaissance lighthouse lanterns (a Spanish colonial legacy), you are invited to climb up and walk across the glass surfaces of three monumental cylindrical vitrines filled with beguiling and everyday objects — lamps, minerals, bamboo sticks, furnishings, industrial relics — seen through mirrored interiors. You feel as if you are gazing towards the bottom of the sea, to excavated treasures arranged in wondrous, strange patterns. Vertigo-inducing, intoxicating. Bring it to Tate Modern.

India: ‘Our Time for a Future Caring’

Back after an eight-year lapse and now funded through a private-public partnership, India’s compelling group presentation addresses Gandhi’s legacy, beginning with Nandalal Bose’s posters for the 1938 Haripura Congress. Installed under the Arsenale arches and from a distance seeming to move in a collective Gandhi-esque march are GR Iranna’s hundreds of wooden sandals, “Naavu (We Together)”, 2019 (pictured above); close up, each is individualised, denoting the wearer’s craft. Jitish Kallat’s “Covering Letter”, projecting a plea for peace sent by Gandhi to Hitler on a curtain of descending mist through which audiences walk, simultaneously inhabiting and dissipating the text, is exceptional.

Ghana: ‘Ghana Freedom’

terrific inaugural pavilion, designed by David Adjaye as a labyrinth of cellular spaces built in ochre Ghanaian soil, still smelling of the earth, in which dialogues buzz between different generations, media, diaspora and Ghana-based artists. El Anatsui’s new yellow/silver bottle-top cascade “The Earth Shedding its Skin” is the star exhibit. Implying destruction of the land as we dig for profit, it connects to the bright images of swaying wheat in John Akomfrah’s new film staged in the adjacent room, and centred on the survival of elephants.

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