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Last Updated: Monday, 20 June, 2005, 13:02 GMT 14:02 UK
European angst explored in Venice
By Charis Dunn-Chan
Venice, Italy

Tampon chandelier called The Bride
A chandelier made of tampons, by Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos

Is the Venice Biennale a purely European love affair with art?

The answer has to be no, because a record number of over 70 countries from all continents are represented at this year's Biennale.

But Europe does dominate that figure and European curators traditionally steer the event.

This year's 51st Venice Biennale sees two Spanish women in charge: Maria de Corral and Rosa Martinez. The international press has thus made much of the "feminisation" of the Biennale.

It is not hard to see why. At the Arsenale venue, curated by Martinez, the first thing the visitor sees are bright billboards giving statistics on the woefully small, but growing presence of women artists at the Biennale. The posters, made by the feminist artist's collective the Guerrilla Girls, are a witty take on porn-meets-pop art.

Then after the posters you see the glowing giant chandelier called The Bride, by the Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos. And this chandelier turns out to be made out of 14,000 shiny wrapped tampons.

Defining identity

I asked Maria de Corral whether there was any angle or politics in her choice of artists for Venice. Her answer was a clear "no".

UK artists Gilbert and George with self images
Gilbert and George present a multi-panel work called Ginkgo Pictures
De Corral said she had chosen artists and their work with her "mind, heart and stomach".

Away from politics and gender, much in this Biennale is about identity.

For some artists, their own identity is the work.

UK artists Gilbert and George are often the work itself. This year their self-images, set in a tracery of gingko leaves, would not look out of place as cathedral windows.

The Lebanese-Canadian artist Marya Kazoun is the art too. In Personal Living Space, Kazoun had an installation of stitched satins and resin sculptures in which she sat singing to her handiwork. Sometimes humming, sometimes chanting in Arabic, her catalogue told of her anxieties and childhood in war-torn Lebanon.

Personal identity was very strong for the Irish, Icelandic and Ukrainian artists on show in Venice.

The Irish artist Stephen Brandes had created large fantasy map landscapes. These were inner illustrations of the journey his grandmother had made as a Romanian immigrant to Irish shores. Next to his work were art-mutilated rabbits by Mark Garry. These seemed to suggest disturbed childhood imaginings.

Babak doll photographed in a field
Mykola Babak from Ukraine is inspired by his native landscape
The Ukrainian artist Mykola Babak also has a very strong take on identity and revolution. His work entitled Your Children, Ukraine! had traditional childhood dolls arranged around old photographic portraits of people from his home village in the Chornobayivskyi region.

He also presented photographs of the dolls arranged in his native landscape of fields and reedy ponds.

In the adjoining room, Babak had a three-screen installation of videos taken at the time of the Orange Revolution. Here you were in the Kiev of November and December 2004, as people power changed politics.

Personal exploration

Artist Gabriela Fridriksdottir shows work which uses myth and epic saga in an exploration of identity and her Icelandic ancestors.

Fridriksdottir presented you with a haystack. There in its midst was a screen showing a video of the Icelandic pop star Bjork as an earth mother giving birth to a demonic figure covered in white slime. The figure writhed and snarled at the camera.

The Turkish venue showed art by the Cypriot-born and London-based fashion designer and artist Hussein Chalayan. Absent Presence was a 13-minute futuristic video accompanied by three sculptures. The split-screen video, beautiful and mysterious, showed actress Tilda Swinton clad in laboratory white coat in search of the identities of three women through their clothes and the DNA in their fibres.

The Estonian exhibition was deeply personal. The artist and fashion model Mark Raidpere offered an intimate insight into personal and national trauma. The interview-based video works explored tensions in family life in a cold and chilling light.

But identity in art had lighter moments.

And for that it was a group of Russian artists who stole the show. The Russian Blue Noses came up with a series of half-open empty cardboard boxes left in a circle. Curious, you peered inside and saw within the projected mini-images of men in underwear and naked women romping and playing.

The Venice Biennale runs from12 June until 6 November.

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