The Venice Biennale provides a barometer for contemporary art worldwide. In 2009, the United Kingdom is represented by Steve McQueen’s film Giardini, a comment on an event the artist describes as ‘unique to the art world… where art and nationality come together.’ McQueen has compared the British Pavilion where his film is being shown to ‘a fortress, a very English kind of castle in the middle of the garden’, where the work is set.
The Biennale’s history of nationalism, protest and war is closely intertwined with the wider political and ideological struggles of twentieth century Europe right back to the exhibition’s foundation in 1895 as the world’s first regular international exhibition of contemporary art. Against this backdrop the British Pavilion, since 1938 the responsibility of the British Council, has provided a vital showcase for a wide range of UK artists. Henry Moore (1948), Bridget Riley (1968), Frank Auerbach (1986), Anish Kapoor (1990) and Richard Hamilton (1993) are just a few who have been awarded important prizes such as the Golden Lion.
Last year 27 of the exhibitors gathered to commemorate the British Council’s 75th Anniversary. Alongside a specially-commissioned photograph recording the occasion, this archive exhibition includes letters by Lucian Freud (1954), plans and models by Rachel Whiteread (1997) and Gilbert and George (2005) to reflect the Biennale’s unique mix of politics, celebration and art.