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Death in Venice

There is a body floating face down in the pool and as I try to push my way through the crowd to rescue him, trying to remember my BLS training, I realise that all is not quite as it seems…

There is a body floating face down in the pool and as I try to push my way through the crowd to rescue him, trying to remember my BLS training, I realise that all is not quite as it seems…

I'm in Venice for the Vernissage of the Biennale, it's summer, the sun is out and recovering from my first espresso of the day, my first glass of Prosecco is just around the corner.

For over a century the Bienalle ( has taken over the city of Venice showcasing leading artists from 77 countries. These works are spread over two fixed sites, the Giardini (or Gardens) and the Arsenale (old ship building yards) and across an ever increasing number of private 'palazzi', churches, gardens, canals and other public spaces.

The vast group exhibitions, housed in the cavernous Arsenale buildings and the Palazzo delle Esposizioni (in the Giardini), comprise work by 90 international artists under the title 'Making Worlds'. Curated by the Swedish director Daniel Birnbaum, his starting point was to offer inspiration to younger artists through the selection of a number of key established names including Britain's Richard Wentworth and Germany's Hans Peter Feldmann, juxtaposed with emerging or younger artists including Toba Kheedori and Spencer Finch

So what about the body floating in the pool? The centrepiece of a work entitled Death of the Collector, the body is a hyper-realist sculpture in the Danish & Nordic Pavilion.

There is much of medical interest here; across the way in the Russian Pavilion, Andrei Molodkin uses a fountain of human blood within his glass sculptures, filming the piece and projecting the work onto the surrounding walls.

Next door in Japan the Old Girls' Troup by Miwa Yanagi displayed large canvases of, at first glance, bare breasted warrior women. But on closer inspection these young 'Amazons' have aged, sagging breasts and the older individuals, disturbingly young ones. Maybe it's a reflection on how society views beauty?

Representing Great Britain is film-maker Steve McQueen, whose video piece ‘Giardini' explores the public gardens in the winter when the international fairs are closed.

Twin screens show the familiar pavilions and promenades boarded up and surrounded by piles of rubbish and rubble. Suitably elegant stray dogs (well, we were in Italy) explore the site while two shadowy figures meet and embrace in the night. This absorbing piece forces visitors to take their seats and focus on the beautifully shot piece of work, no knowledge of contemporary art required, but an opportunity to reflect on life in the city away from the tourists and the bustle.

Next door in the German Pavillion, Liam Gillick (also a Brit but representing the country where he is currently residing) has constructed a stylised fitted kitchen structure from simple pine. Can a fitted kitchen be art? Well you'll have to make up your own mind on that one, but let's just say there is a beauty in flatpack.

Another highlight was Poland and an intriguing installation work by Krzysztof Wodiczko called Guests. Looking at the subject of immigration, characters appeared as shadows working behind frosted windows repairing the pavilion and discussing problems with work visas and how ‘guests' are treated.

Australia is represented by four artists this year; in the main pavilion Shaun Gladwell shows elegant, silent videos of a figure balanced on a car driving through the outback (imagine a cross between Mad Max and the Stig). Don't miss the off-site pavilion with a stunning piece made from a lifetime of video cassettes by Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro.

Spread around Venice are some striking works housed in fantastic Palazzi and other hidden buildings off the beaten track. My recommendations would include:

  • Scotland: Martin Boyce, minimal sculptures, in the most amazing setting, after a climb of 61 steps (you have been warned!)
  • Ireland: Sarah Browne and Gareth Kennedy working with Donegal carpets, buskers and Chinese whispers.
  • Wales: John Cale (yes the John Cale) doing what he does best.
  • New Zealand: Francis Upritchard, beguiling figurines overlooking the Grand Canal
  • East-West Divan: Group show highlighting fantastic contemporary art from Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan
  • Distortion: Another group show looking at the use of distortion in art, with works by Gavin Turk, Janet Cardiff and Georges Bures Miller among others.
  • ArtSway's New Forest Pavilion: Beautiful Acrylic and latex landscapes by Hannah Maybank

The 53rd Venice Biennale runs until 22 November 2009. For further details go to There is so much to see that the week didn't seem long enough, however in a long weekend you could easily visit a number of the highlights as well as some of Venice's hidden treasures. More with a few espressos and a glass or two of prosecco…

Dr Will Norman is a GP in Cirencester, with an interest in contemporary art. If you're a GP interested in writing a similar article about an off-duty passion or hobby, email PulseToday editor Steve Nowottny at

The Death of the Collector, curated by Elmgreen and Dragset The Death of the Collector, curated by Elmgreen and Dragset More photos from Biennale

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