The Venice Biennale Art on Steroids
14 June, 2017
Those who think cultural tourism is a 21st-century invention are well off course – Venice invented it long ago. Intent on setting the city under the international spotlight, the first International Art Exhibition ever was held there in 1895. That is, the Venice Biennale, which has continued until this day.
The undisputed artificer of the avant-garde art pulse – Documenta notwithstanding – the Biennale has run into its 57th edition without losing steam. Six months full-out, from 13 May to 26 November, during which the city is invaded by contemporary art, which takes over both land and sea. What with vaporetti, churches and palazzi, we visited the city of canals to soak up the latest trends, soon to descend on museums and art galleries across half the globe. Let the Grand Tour begin!
A cautionary word to all navigators – moving through the Biennale is no mean feat. The key – comfortable footwear, strategically placed accommodation and solid planning. The offerings are boundless and the spaces, gargantuan.
The main facilities are located at the Arsenale and the Giardini di Castello. Those are the sites of the official exhibition, Viva Arte Viva, as well as many of the 85 national pavilions dotting the island. And, as if that weren’t enough, the list is augmented by countless top-notch parallel exhibitions and events that have staked out their territory in the city’s historic buildings.
My advice – keep calm and don’t get flustered. The marathon only comes around every two years. Set aside three days on your agenda and you won’t succumb in the attempt. Take up lodgings in the area of Il Castello, the Biennale’s hard core, thereby avoiding vaporetto tickets. And, have a notebook on you and a camera with fully charged batteries so you can review the sights once you’re back home.
In the Giardini – the Cream of the Crop
Separating the wheat from the chaff can be exhausting. By way of a warm-up, we headed south-east, to the confines of the city. Located there are the Giardini di Castello, Venice’s green lung par excellence and the preserve of the national pavilions (a somewhat archaic idea, a reminder that the current Biennale is an updated version of the classical trade fairs of yesteryear). The fact is that in Venice each state has its own building to showcase to the world the cream of the crop of its contemporary art production, by way of an Art Olympics where the winner manages to show the most muscle.
While the Biennale is all about art, it is in fact also about power and architecture. In terms of the latter, some pavilions shine with a light of their own. Not to be missed are the Finland pavilion, built in timber modules by the luminary, Alvar Aalto, the father of modern Scandinavian architecture; the Austrian pavilion, the work of Josef Hoffmann who, together with Gustav Klimt, founded the Vienna Secession, and that of The Netherlands, its open forms highlighting the minimalist elegance of 1950s neoplasticism.
But, let’s get back to art and to the most talked-about offerings. The Golden Lion for the Best Pavilion was awarded to Germany, where artist Anne Imhof installed a glass floor under which performances displaying the world “as a kennel” take place. France depicts a musical space and recording studio, Studio Venezia, an installation designed by Xavier Veilhan where musicians and artists from all over the world perform. And Austria draws all the camera flashes with a lorry standing on its nose by Erwin Wurm, a playful proposal in a pavilion redolent with sculptures which visitors can interact and have fun with.
The Off Programme
Side shows, parallel exhibitions, talks, dialogues, performances and film cycles – no body is built to withstand Venice. Indeed, the official programme is rivalled by a series of first-rate artistic proposals staged in churches, foundations and museums around the city. Here, then, are the juiciest offerings in the Off-Biennale 2017.
Damien Hirst has hit Venice with a two-fold proposal. At collector François Pinault’s art spaces, the Punta della Dogana and the Palazzo Grassi, he has installed his latest eccentricities,including an 18-metre-high sculpture which rises into the firmament. In keeping with the British artist we are familiar with, his show is pure spectacle, and the perfect excuse to visit two historic buildings overlooking the Grand Canal.
The tiny island of San Giorgio Maggiore surrenders unconditionally to Michelangelo Pistoletto. A key figure of Arte Povera and one of the most prominent Italian artists, Pistoletto presents One and One Makes Three, an exhibition housed in an abbey designed by Palladio where he showcases a selection of his works created between the 60s and the present, also featuring his popular “Venus of the Rags”.
We wind up our marathon tour at the Palazzo Fortuny, a Venetian Gothic gem which rises between the Rialto Bridge and St Mark’s Square. This former home and studio of painter Marià Fortuny houses both the artist’s collection and temporary exhibitions. This time around, it is the turn of Intuition, a collective display dedicated to the evocative power of art and featuring such great names as André Breton, Joan Miró, Vassily Kandinsky, Marina Abramovic and Anish Kapoor.
Thus far our review of the Biennale, a centennial event which reinvents itself each year and showcases art to suit all tastes, interests and theories. We’re off to the canals!
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Text by Núria Gurina
14 June, 2017