Fake loos, Baghdad holidays and birdmen

Charlotte Higgins Saturday June 9, 2007

One work of art causing just the teensiest bit of confusion has been Lars Ramberg‘s sculpture Liberté. The work consists of three real French-style public loos, marked Liberté, Fraternité and Equalité. From them can be heard recordings of great speeches by statesmen such as de Gaulle, Roosevelt, and, er, King Haakon VII of Norway. These toilets, alas, are not plumbed in, which caused a certain amount of annoyance among rich American collectors on the Biennale‘s VIP day (the site‘s real loos are a bit of a chore to find). Inspection later in the day revealed that the sculpture had, how shall we say, been soiled. Day two saw the doors of said (in)conveniences firmly locked.

Another work in the Nordic pavilion advertises itself as a real travel agency: Abidin Travels. Wander inside and you can watch a video and hear a voiceover describing Baghdad as a „new and exciting travel destination to add to your itinerary“. You can pick up a tourist guide and book your flights and hire car at a computer terminal, which obligingly prints out your tickets for you. Just don‘t look at that video too closely: the footage is savage. One of the pavilions in the Giardini causing the most excitement is David Altmejd‘s offering for Canada - a polygonal glass structure, with a tree growing through it. „I thought creating a sort of aviary would be perfect,“ says the London and New York-based artist, „but when I started it became something different - weirder.“ No kidding. This is a sort of fantasy forest populated by birds and bird-headed men, and jewel encrusted foliage. Dildo-shaped fungi emerge from corners and a hairy giant lies at one end.

Usually when countries select an artist to represent them they put forward someone in mid-career. Choosing a dead artist is Not Done - except, that is, by the Americans this year. Felix Gonzalez-Torres died in 1996. But his art, says the pavilion‘s curator Nancy Spector, was prescient. „His later work was made at the time the US was engaged in the first Iraq war, and when the conservative right was increasingly becoming a powerful force. The fact that Felix was a Cuban-born naturalised American, who was gay and died of Aids, represents that America is a melting pot. „

As an act of cultural diplomacy the pavilion is a triumph - not that George Bush would agree, we suspect .