The Venice Biennale is a mammoth event. It is the Olympiad of international contemporary art; the Holy Grail of international contemporary art events. It is enormous, ambitious and wide spread throughout the historic and beautiful city of Venice.
The Biennale is lots of adjectives: exciting, inspiring, provocative, beautiful. At the same time, it is overwhelming and exhausting. It is a marathon event and not for the faint hearted. Bring your most comfortable, coolest (am thinking of the season here rather than the art crowd) footwear, a good local map, an open mind and an appetite for some of the most wonderful things life in Italy can offer – art, food, wine and Aperol spritz.
Everyone has suggestions of what is not to be missed, but make a wrong turn down a calle (alleyway) and you miss it, only to come across something else which is equally worthwhile. I imagine no two tours of the Biennale and the many satellite events are the same.
I will ‘fess up’ now – we (myself and Dear Fellow Traveller) didn’t get to everything. We missed pavilions, artworks, performances, catalogues and no doubt nuances and subtleties. But over our four full days of art, we gave it a good go – the best we could in the time we had.
We started at the official premiere venue, I Giardini, the large park at the end of the island with all the purpose-built international pavilions. Our second day was spent in the Arsenale – huge warehouses around what were the original dockyards. The remaining two days, we wandered the streets and canals of Venice, seeking out the satellite exhibitions in various churches, museums and palazzi.
Now for a potted history of the Giardini. It is a park with pavilions – think small museum/house structures – built by various countries which have been invited to do so. It is the original site of the Biennale and, I imagine, the large open parkland was originally seen as sufficient. But as an increasingly successful international event, it is now only one of a series of venues, though in terms of prestige, remains numero uno.
The Biennale began as an exhibition of Italian art in 1894 and developed into an invitational international event fairly soon after. The first pavilion built was by Belgium in 1907, Hungary, Germany and Great Britain followed in 1909, France 1912 and Russian 1914. It makes for an interesting place, as amongst all the newness and nowness of the art, there is a sense of the history of other nations and Italian international relations in the design of the buildings.
I’m not sure who gets the (no doubt) coveted invitation to build a pavilion, but assume it is about politics, prevailing foreign and economic policies and alignments, coupled with endless diplomatic wheelings and dealings. And it seems that each invited country has wholly embraced this invitation as an opportunity to show off their cultural uniqueness, prowess and sophistication.
Australia’s pavilion is relatively new, designed by Philip Cox and built in 1988. I think it may have been the last available plot within the Giardini (?) It reflects an Australian standpoint, reminiscent of the coastal fibro shack, self-effacing, modest in scale, materials and positioning. It is however, soon to be torn down, to be rebuilt in the same spot. Having been there now, I’m not convinced that is necessary. Each of the pavilions marks a point in time and place and no doubt all have their shortcomings when it comes to accommodating contemporary art. All the pavilions would be inadequate; whatever was built 50 years ago by any country will always prove to be problematic. What is intriguing and makes for a successful installation, is how the nominated artist chooses to deal with the physical surrounds. Is it not always a case for the sow’s ear being transformed into the silk purse?
Today the map of pavilions in the Giardini resembles an old world order – that of former key centres of political, economic and cultural power. Global shifts have not really been accommodated. Those issues are addressed more so in the key group curated exhibition associated with the Biennale and other countries pavilions dotted around Venice. Just ask Chile, whose contribution from Alfredo Jaar Venezia Venezia (a 1:60 scale model of the Giardini) was in the Arsenale, the Biennale’s secondary venue.
This is my first Biennale, so I can’t compare with others, or really comment on a few of the articles I’ve read that say it is the best one in a long time. Whatever the success or not of individual works, it was a fantastic inspiring experience looking, thinking, learning and engaging.
Highlights for me in the Giardini:
Susan Sze work in the USA pavilion and her intricate maze installation of flotsam and jetsam sourced in and around Venice for the 3 months prior. She transformed the building, taking the inside out, with an intricate web, which felt like a surreal experimental scientific station, a 3D structure of some biological genome, the boardgame Mouse Trap and a kiddies’ craft room all in one.
The French swapped with the Germans and transformed the interior into 3 rooms for Albanian-born artist/ film maker Anri Sala’s video installation Ravel Ravel Unravel. Room no 2 was an exploration of Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, played by 2 different left hands, not quite in sync and filmed up close and personal. I was mesmerised by the rhythm and elegance of hands playing the piano.
The narrative of the concerto was one thing, but the balletic delight of the left hand mapping out the melody and the quality of the sound was another. I had forgotten how wonderful it is to play the piano with some mastery and how beautiful it is to watch this mastery up close. It was a totally absorbing experience.
The first and third rooms revealed a more contemporary approach to music around elements of the Concerto – a DJ mixing her own unique sound, with as much dexterous elegance and commitment to sound quality.
What made the experience so intense were the acoustics – an engineering and aesthetic masterpiece in their own right. Each room had its own loud unique sound without penetration or distraction from elsewhere. It only made for a better experience.
Anri Sala is also featured in this year’s Auckland Triennale, on till mid August.
The Finish pavilion, the one designed by Alvar Aalto, paid homage to the tree which fell into the main pavilion during the 2011 Biennale. Falling trees is a multimedia installation by Antti Laitinen showcasing his feats of endurance as he tackles the natural world. He builds an island in the middle of a lake, wading out with stone and rock, one at a time. He clears a square of forest, tree by tree. He chops up a frozen lake into cubes and rebuilds an igloo with a modernist twist. He fells five birch trees in his home town Somerniemi, chops them up and brings them to Giardini to fit back together again. His work seems to be a dialogue between himself in the natural landscape; our place and our actions which shape our natural world.
He reminded me of Australian artist Todd McMillan, who similarly puts himself to some pretty tough tests to feel, experience, understand, film and ultimately become the artwork.
The interior of the Korean pavilion was covered with a translucent film which blocked out all views of the Giardini but allowed filtered light through. Curator Seungduk Kim worked with artist Kimsooja to play with the building and deliver an immersive experience, which became To Breathe Bottari. There were no objects, only the translucent film to reflect and refract the shifting outside light and the sound of the artist breathing. The room became a living creature. There was the darkened experience but, as I don’t do small dark closed rooms, I didn’t venture in to those spaces – I already know what that feels like.
And then there was Jeremy Deller in the British and Berlinde De Bruyckere in the Belgium Pavilions.
Deller’s exhibition English Magic centred on a different British experience – not that espoused in Midsomer Murders or Enid Blyton but that found in protest, the determination for reform and change. The Telegraph described it as angry and aggressive; maybe it just told a story which was different from the stereotype.
Deller brings people and thoughts and things together, as he says, “My work is really either things that bother me or things that I like…Sometimes they are the same thing, sometimes separate things.” The Guardian 1.06.2013
Photos from Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust’s (Deller is apparently a huge fan) 70s tour of the UK at the time of The Troubles, and which didn’t include Ireland; a mural of a huge William Morris rising up like a tempestuous Neptune to swamp Abramovich’s yacht – all 377 feet of it – which was moored at the Giardini dock during the 2011 Biennale, blocking everyone else’s view; Deller’s film of people enjoying his inflatable Stonehenge jumping castle (which of course reminded me of Brooke Andrew’s very potent piece at Cockatoo Island for the 2010 17th Biennale of Sydney) and two crushed and cubed Range Rovers, one blue, the other red, being carried off by a large bird of prey, a Hen Harrier. Strange but true. The Range Rovers refer to an incident during which a hen harrier was shot over Sandringham at a time when young Royals were out shooting/ gaming and on investigation, due to the endangered status, no one was able to determine who fired the deadly missive. Nature’s revenge?
And then it was rounded off by a cup of tea taken on the deck, under the Venetian sun, to take the edge off and to offer a calming, much needed restorative to complete a contemporary British experience.
BTW –check out the exhibition in the Blacktown Arts Centre, mentored rather than curated, by Brook Andrew, about The Native Institute. It is a deeply moving, well developed and presented exhibition.
But back to the Giardini: Berlinde De Bruyckere piece was intensely beautiful. Before us was a huge fallen tree, trunk with twisted, gnarled branches. It was crippled and gnarled, bandaged and knotted but it seemed carefully laid out, much like a loved but broken body. Initially we thought it a wax coated tree only to look again and see that it was cast in and was entirely of wax. Kreuplehout-Cripplewood is a work with input from curator J.M. Coetzee, the South African born, Adelaide Hills living, Nobel Prize winning author by way of an exchange of correspondence. This work holds an aching beauty.
De Bruyckere has deeper ties to Australia, having had a show at ACCA in Melbourne in 2012.
We soldiered on in the name of art …..
Where I felt artworks didn’t hold up was in the artist’s response to the scale and ambition of the work. I understand that artists are expected to take on their countries’ whole pavilions, to create a solo exhibition really and, for some, it was too much to ask. The installation/ exhibitions could be bitsy, unresolved and lacking in a sufficiently well-developed concept that could be fleshed out or even sustained over several pieces in dedicated multi-room spaces. I was surprised at times at the lack of depth and quality.
I felt very patriotic and excited to finally check over the Australian pavilion. Everything about it screams modesty, from the photocopied arrow on a board on a stick pointing towards it, to its location between and behind a couple of pavilions, to the scale and the materials from which it is made. But this is not necessarily a detraction. For instance, the German pavilion shrieks Teutonic bombacity but this year, the French (remember the swap) used this architectural dominance to their own advantage. Standing before our Pavilion, I wondered why this challenge could not be met by our Australian contingent. Will the next pavilion we design and build not suffer just the same denoument as this? It will always be problematic, given the diversity of artists it is meant to serve and can never and will never be all things to all artists.
This year I thought our pavilion and contribution very underwhelming. Simryn Gill is Australia’s represented artist – one with a substantial reputation and international exhibition history.
Ok, it was a deliberate act of hers to take off half the roof of the building which is soon to be demolished. Now the ply floor she installed is also lifting, the leaves gather piling in the corners, there is no relief from the Venetian summer sun (and rain), and it seems slightly dilapidated. Yes, this is all deliberate but the witches’ hats to prevent trip hazards and the shift in focus from the artworks to the ‘art’ house is not satisfying. Simryn’s work has this element of ‘gently dismantling’ and looks to challenge our given understandings of landscape, culture and progress but the message here has got lost and the components felt disparate and unresolved.
So to the Arsenale and the headline show – Il Palazzo Enciclopedico. The premis is “an exhibition about the desire to see and know everything, and the point at which this desire becomes an obsession“. Yes, suffice to say there is a lot of OCD in contemporary art – to our good fortune. The deep intense obsession of so many artists results in some equally intense, insightful artworks. But this exhibition is vast, too vast for me to offer a meander through it.
It is assembled around an idea from a self taught Italian American artist Marino Auriti and his idea and model for The Encyclopedic Palace, a museum housing all the world’s knowledge.
You are probably beginning to get the feel that the Biennale requires days, even weeks to view and it is hard to report back with brevity.
Just a few more highlights :
A film by Richard Mosse, The Enclave is in the Irish Pavilion, this year in a palazzo tucked away at the end of a calle, on the Grand Canal. This will knock your socks off. It is a very powerful film about the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. He takes war journalism to an extreme when he and colleagues moved with armed rebel groups in a war zone marked by ambush, massacre and sexual violence. By using old military reconnaissance film, which is based on infrared technology, Mosse takes us on a surreal journey through what is undoubtedly a lush and beautiful landscape, where colour is distorted and the lushness becomes sinister pinks and purples. It is the stuff of nightmares. Curator Anna O’Sullivan asks “what does it mean to make human suffering beautiful?” as silent vistas are filled with glimpses of both violence and beauty at the same time. It is sobering, surreal and compelling.
We loved the Catalonian Pavilion, on the Isola del San Pietro, beyond the Arsenale. It was adjacent to a major solo exhibition presented by Marlborough Gallery of Ahmet Güneştekin – equally fabulous.
The Catalonian Pavilion was a film project titled 25%, which represents the percentage of the Spanish population, currently unemployed. Eight Spanish unemployed people, from very different backgrounds, were interviewed over a period of time, to talk about themselves, their current situation, hopes, disappointments – lay themselves bare when very vulnerable, at a time when it is hard to survive. Each was also asked to lend/give to the project an object, artwork, some personal item which was particularly meaningful to them. Then each was invited to the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art (MACBA) to select an object, to also include in the project, and describe why it was of interest. The result is an insight into the different values people discover in extraordinary times. Here, the impact of dire unemployment made personal and the openness with which art is understood and valued. Not to be missed.
Ahmet Güneştekin is a Kurdish artist whose work speaks of the struggle of the Kurds in Turkey, in particular. For the past decade, Güneştekin has been unable to travel outside of Turkey. Momentum of Memory examines this idea of the rigidity of national identity through a series of thought-provoking and absurd videos. He says “if you come from a people that is oppressed and marginalised, you try that much harder to make yourself heard and understood”. This multi-faceted, multi-media exhibition does that really well. This is a really compelling exhibition.
Then a quick vaporetto ride across the Grand Canal to the Iraqi pavilion/ palazzo – Welcome to Iraq. It was exactly that: a floor in a pavilion which offered a different perspective on this much maligned country. We were warmly welcomed into a peaceful Iraqi salon, with books, videos, cartoons, artworks, furniture, rugs and tea and biscuits – the anathema to what we witness on nightly tv news. Eleven Iraqi artists were selected by Jonathon Watkins (Artistic Director of the 1998 Biennale of Sydney) for their diverse practices which reflect a rich and active cultural life in what must be the most difficult of conditions.
If you are not yet satiated, then Tapies at Palazzo Fortuny is a must. Works by Tapies as well as prized pieces from his personal collection are arranged side by side with works from the Fortuny collection. This crumbling palazzo houses an extraordinary array of ‘stuff’ – from dioramas to antique kimonos to an installation by James Turrell.
The Slovenian Pavilion was great – again, tucked away down a calle. Just follow the stickers on the ground if you are unsure of the way. Beats breadcrumbs…..
And Bill Culbert in the NZ Pavilion, in a palazzo along the lagoon, was memorable. It is a series of sculptural installations throughout which are retro run of the mill furniture and objects, reinvigorated with fluoro.
Rudolf Stingel at Palazzo Grassi left me a little cold. Incredible as it was – over 5,000m2 of floors, and walls covered in a digitally printed oriental style carpet with a few of his own works, hung as single items in a few rooms – it just felt indulgent after the first floor. I think I would have preferred seeing more from the Pinault Collection which I gather is usually exhibited here.
Australian artists Dale Frank, Sally Gabori and Sam Jinks were included in the group exhibition at Palazzo Bembo, curated by Lawrence Wiener and Global Art Affairs Foundation. This was another enormous exhibition which meandered seemingly endlessly through a palazzo. I think the title says it all – Personal Structures Time Space and Existence, that is, life, the universe and everything. The exhibition brought together established and emerging artists who are have a “common dedication to the concepts of time, space and existence.” It was too ambitious for one group, one summer in Venice. A prudent bit of editing would have helped this exhibition. Having said that, Frank and particularly Gabori and Jinks, who were presented in their own rooms, did look wonderful.
Don’t forget Peggy Guggenheim. A beautiful building on the Grand Canal, a fabulous collection of 20th Century art and an extraordinary story. Her biography is one of my favourite books.
And then it was most definitely time to reflect on an inspiring few days, over an Aperol Spritz: 3 parts Aperol, 2 parts Prosecco, 1 part soda, with a couple of olives on toothpick. Don’t forget the ice…
The 2013 Venice Biennale runs until 24 November – you’ve still got time to get there….