Kerry Gardner's new book explains, in detail, the goings-on in the Australian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale

The press preview of part of Fiona Hall's installation at the Venice Biennale in 2015. Picture: Getty Images
The press preview of part of Fiona Hall's installation at the Venice Biennale in 2015. Picture: Getty Images
  • Australia at the Venice Biennale: A century of contemporary art, by Kerry Gardner. Melbourne University Publishing, $79.99.

The history of La Biennale di Venezia dates back to 1895 and, in the memorable turn of phrase in Lawrence Alloway's history of its first seven decades, it was transformed "from salon to goldfish bowl".

Unlike other major international biennales and triennials, for example the 'documenta' in Kassel, the Venice Biennale consists primarily of national pavilions. By 1914, there were seven national pavilions, today there are about 90 nations represented. This has meant a competitive spirit amongst nations and their national, political and artistic agendas. Since 1998, the exhibitions of national displays have been supplemented by an international exhibition curated by a Biennale curator who generally selects works from around the world linked by a theme. However, this thematically curated exhibition always plays second fiddle to the clash of nation states and questions about who represents America, Britain, France, Russia or Germany and which was the strongest show.

Australia's participation at the Venice Biennale has a chequered history, and this splendidly produced book is the first comprehensive account of this history with an invaluable appendix that lists and illustrates many of this country's exhibits. It follows in the footsteps of books such as Sophie Bowness and Clive Phillpot's Britain at the Venice Biennale and a number of other national histories. What is not known to many is that between 1907 and 1914, some "Australian" artists were exhibited at Venice under the British flag as they were resident in Britain at the time. These included Grosvenor Thomas, Charles Conder, George Lambert, Arthur Streeton, Albert Henry Fullwood, Harold Parker, Thea Proctor, Tom Roberts, Hayley Lever and Fred Leist. One may question whether they were "representing" Australia or even exhibiting as "Australians", but all had some association with Australia at some time in their lives and were shown in Venice.

Artist Ken Unsworth completes his installation in the Australia Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, June 1978. Picture: Getty Images

Artist Ken Unsworth completes his installation in the Australia Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, June 1978. Picture: Getty Images

Subsequently, there were a number of opportunist inclusions by artists who happened to be in Europe and showed at Venice, including Sidney Nolan, Russell Drysdale, William Dobell and Albert Tucker. However, Australia's official entry into the Venice Biennale was in 1958, when Robert Menzies spearheaded the unveiling of contemporary Australian art on the largest stage for contemporary art in the world. What was shown was the work of Arthur Streeton (who by then had been dead for 15 years) coupled with Arthur Boyd's very "ordinary" Wimmera landscape that the artist privately described as his "gilded chestnuts" that he quickly painted to get some money together to pay for his trip to Europe. Australia's entry was of course, and rightly, ridiculed and the Australian government vowed never to exhibit at Venice again.

The next outburst of activity was linked with another prime minister, Gough Whitlam, who by reconstituting the Australia Council launched Australian art internationally and, by 1978, three years after the Whitlam dismissal, Australia was back at the Venice Biennale. From 1978 onwards, Australia was to remain at the Biennale exhibiting contemporary Australian artists. From 1988, the displays were held in a modest temporary 'shed pavilion' designed by Philip Cox, while after 2015, this was replaced by a mausoleum-like pavilion designed by the Denton Corker Marshall architecture practice.

Unlike the Archibald, where the controversy is front-page news, the controversy over who is chosen to represent Australia at the Venice Biennale is something that regularly rocks the art community but rarely seeps into the popular arena. One could sum up the situation in the following terms. What do these artists have in common - Margaret Preston, Grace Cossington Smith, John Brack, Fred Williams, John Olsen, Brett Whiteley, Joy Hester, Inge King, John Wolseley and Ben Quilty? They are all Australian artists who have never been selected to represent Australia at the Venice Biennale.

Now what do these artists have in common - John Davis, Mike Parr, Tony Coleing, Lyndal Jones, Daniel von Sturmer, Susan Norrie, Claire Healy, Ken Yonetani, Hany Armanious, Simryn Gill and Angelica Mesiti? They are some of the Australian artists who have been chosen to represent Australia at the Venice Biennale.

To defend the selection process and the use of public money to select and promote a few Australian artists at Venice, one should add into the mix names including Arthur Boyd, Peter Booth, Rosalie Gascoigne, Rover Thomas, Bill Henson, Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Judy Watson, Patricia Piccinini, Fiona Hall and Tracey Moffatt who were all exhibited at Venice to acclaim. Nevertheless, the sad truth remains that on too many occasions, Australia has been poorly served in its selection of artists for the world stage. Have we on balance selected the best contemporary Australian artists for the Venice Biennale?

A considerable achievement of this book is that it assembles, for the first time, accurate data as to what really happened at Venice when it came to Australian participation. The scholarly essays by Brooke Babington and Charles Green are exemplary and the archival documentation is outstanding. All of this establishes a foundation on which subsequent discussions concerning the Venice fishbowl can take place.

This story What really happened in Venice? first appeared on The Canberra Times.