Iceland’s representative, Ragnar Kjartansson, has built an off-site painting studio, where he keeps painting the same Speedo-wearing male model. It sounds trite, and as a critique of painting it’s silly, but Kjartansson told me he really wants to learn how to paint, and his combination of classic relational aesthetics and classic painting bears fruit. Speaking of which, at the tip of the Dogana is Charles Ray’s extraordinary Boy With Frog. Seeing this boy coming to grips with otherness, life outside himself, and the world as he stands naked before us, frog in hand, is as uncanny and moving as it is revelatory. Ray seems to be saying, “Modern art is over, so I’m retrieving familiar forms and techniques to make something old new again.”
The most moving moment I had at the Biennale, however, came in the last minutes of my last day at the show. Just before closing time, as guards herded stragglers toward the entrance from the far end of the Arsenal where I was, three marvelous-looking vessels cobbled together from urban detritus motored past Mike Boucher’s wonderful sunken suburban house, and into the small lagoon. A band played a haunting song, a woman sang, a girl swung on a swing. The boats are the work of the artist Swoon, who was profiled in this magazine’s pages a couple of weeks ago. I’m told that Swoon wasn’t even invited to the show. She and her gypsy friends simply entered of their own accord and did what they wanted to do. Like the best work here, Swoon’s work doesn’t come out of academic critique; it comes from necessity and vision. These are the perfect tools for making things as old as time new again—including an art world turned dangerously into itself.