57th Venice Biennale review – the Germans steal the show

By Laura Cumming

Migrant boats, vulnerable teens, a teeming Faustian hell… conscience pervades the Biennale's big pavilions, while the main international exhibition slips into something more comfortable

High in the Caucasian mountains, beneath a canopy of blazing blue sky, a tightrope walker inches between two peaks. Nothing prevents him from plummeting but his own skill – and the curious prop of a picture. For he carries a painting from one peak to the other, placing it in a storage frame before returning for another, and even two at once for extra balance. The paintings are odd enough, from socialist realism to postwar kitsch, but it is the feat that compels in this astonishing film, a whole museum transported mid-air across a fragile rope – art (not Venice) in peril. Or is it art that protects human life?

Taus Makhacheva‘s Tightrope is set in Dagestan, one of the most violent of all Russian republics. Its frightening history is embodied in this film, and in these paintings too. Art can take us anywhere. The 57th Venice Biennale transports you round the globe as never before, from Inuit whaling boats to Brazilian rainforests, from Korean barber shops to Iraqi minefields and Antiguan beaches. I don't believe I will ever get a better sense of Finland's slightly shamefaced progressiveness than through Erkka Nissinen's absurdist satire, featuring animatronic eggs; or nearer to Kosovo than the tragic bakelite phone that never rings in Sislej Xhafa's Lost and Found booth, commemorating the disappeared.

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