Art, pure and simple

Special to The Times

If there’s a common quality among the finest national pavilions at the Venice Biennale, it is simplicity.

A perfect example is Canada’s lone offering: a witty, elegant tribute to the 400th anniversary of Champlain’s New France explorations. Spanning six screens, Jana Sterbak’s video work, titled “From Here to There,” is a sweet epic chronicling contemporary explorations along the banks of the St. Lawrence River and the Venetian waterways, all from the point of view of Stanley, a mini-camera-equipped terrier.

Equally simple ideas generate experiences you can lose yourself in at sites such as Olafur Eliasson’s Danish Pavilion, which houses an amazing ensemble of works offering variations upon reflection, luminosity, transparency, tint and shadow, all anchored by a walk-in sculpture constructed of 250 mirror-polished hexagonal stainless steel cones. Inside, it’s like a cross between a hall of mirrors and a kaleidoscope, with its faceted surfaces generating endless reflections, enveloping you in a sense of simultaneous fragmentation and wholeness.

At the Israeli Pavilion, meanwhile, Michal Rovner’s video depictions of human hordes falling in and out of step are comical yet haunting variations on the theme of humanity’s struggles with unity, conformity, order, individualism, freedom and chaos.


But none of the above took the Golden Lion for best pavilion at the 50th edition of this mega-exhibit, nor did anything displayed at the Giardini, the favorite haunt of Biennale award juries -- even though it contains roughly half the pavilions. Surprise flooded the Doge’s Palace when attendees, many of whom hadn’t yet visited the hard-to-find space sponsored by Luxembourg, heard the award announced for Su-Mei Tse, an emerging artist from that tiny nation. Just 30 years old, three years out of school and counting the pavilion project as only her third solo exhibition, Tse herself seemed unconvinced until the statuette was in her hands.

Earlier that day, you could have had the Luxembourg Pavilion to yourself. By the next day, visitors were waiting in line, having heard not only of the award but also of the experience Tse offers. Worthy of being counted among the Biennale’s best pavilions, hers shares with the others a sense of economy that allows viewers to lose themselves in a distilled poetic moment.

Tse’s pavilion is a five-room meditation on time, space, image and sound -- and the potential of their combinations to transcend conventional interpretations.

The musical quality of the pavilion should come as no surprise. “I’m interested in how languages cross boundaries,” notes Tse, who speaks English, French, German and Letzeburgesch and is studying Chinese. Her mother, an English pianist, and her father, a Chinese violinist, met while performing in Belgium, then settled in neighboring Luxembourg.


“My father knew German, and my mother learned German so they could communicate,” says Tse. “Everyone thought it was funny that my family spoke German, but it always felt more like music was the common language in our home.”

Tse trained for years as a classical cellist before studying textile design and then sculpture at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

“Music is still my language,” she says, “but I prefer working as an artist. Art is more free. I can use whatever medium I choose, and I can make music part of it.”

There is plenty of music in Tse’s exhibition, which bears the title “Air Conditioned,” but the experience begins with silence and minimalism.

“I wanted first to make people aware of silence and of their own sounds and rhythms,” says the artist, who lined the entry room with foam rubber, converting the space into an acoustically dead cave that strips away sound like a palate cleanser. Two other rooms have a similar effect on a visitor’s sense of time. The first offers a simple seating area, a ball of yarn and a textual fragment alluding to Penelope’s long wait for Ulysses. The second displays hourglasses that measure odd durations, eliminating any sense of standard pace or measure. Time blurs.

But these stark rooms are also preparation for the lush offerings in the two remaining rooms. Each contains a projected video. The first, “Echo,” presents a cellist (Tse herself) playing against her own echo in an alpine meadow tucked between mountains. The second, “Les Balayeurs du desert” (The Desert Sweepers) shows uniformed men fanned out across a vast desert, alternating between sweeping the sand with brooms and taking breathers. The soundtrack was assembled from recordings of Parisian municipal street sweepers, whose rhythmic, repetitive activity inspired the piece, and whom the artist recalls as having provided a background track for her daily life when she lived in Paris.

Presented in adjacent rooms, the two video pieces, with their respectively lyrical and rhythmic audio backgrounds, provide symbiotic accompaniments for each other.

While showing an obvious flair for the romantic and poetic, Tse also employs humor and play. She signals that the work need not be taken too seriously with such touches as the obvious artifice of her sweepers’ digital insertion into the desert and the Technicolor green of her alpine grass.


In the Biennale environment, where nationalisms converge in a quasi-international frenzy, she also prefers to avoid interpreting her work politically -- indeed, to avoid interpreting it at all. She’d rather let the poetry do its thing for each viewer.

“The award is great,” she says. “But the best part is watching how different people react and hearing what they think.”