A Letter from Venice – Part One: Orientation

Truman Capote described Venice as ‘like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go’. That counts double when you’re trying to absorb a lot of art as well as admire the place. This is the third time I’ve visited the Biennale and the first time I’ve done so outside of Press Week. Frankly it was a relief to spend time looking at the work and not searching for free food and/or Prosecco.

Over four blogposts, I’ll be reflecting on some of the work I saw. This post is by way of orientation for those of you who might thinking of visiting the biggest art show on Earth. In other posts I’ll be writing about Phyllida Barlow’s Folly, installed in the British Pavilion, before reflecting on the impression I got from seeing lots of work. In the last post I’ll write in more depth about two works that contributed to that impression.

Lisa Reihana – Emissaries – New Zealand Pavilion

At heart, the Biennale is a trade show and a great place to see what’s current, but it is more than just trade. When Christine Macel was named as the curator for 2017, the Biennale’s President Paola Baratta said:

in the wake of the 2015 Biennale directed by Okwui Enwezor, centred on the theme of the rifts and divisions that pervade the world, and aware that we are currently living in an age of anxiety, La Biennale has selected Christine Macel as a curator committed to emphasising the important role artists play in inventing their own universes and injecting generous vitality into the world we live in.

According to the text in the 256pp ‘short guide’ to the Biennale, the chosen theme — VIVA ARTE VIVA — is an exclamation, a passionate outcry for art and the state of the artist’.

The Biennale is found throughout Venice, but it can be broadly split into four:

The Giardini: This is where you’ll see the British Pavilion and Phyllida Barlow’s work long with many other country’s shows. Each pavilion is curated by the country concerned and may or may not have anything to do with the Biennale’s over-arching theme. Some show retrospectives of major artists and others provide a platform for new, site-specific work. I particularly enjoyed the Romanian pavilion which housed a retrospective of 91 year old Geta Brătescu’s work and for anyone interested in how drawing can drive a practice for years and years is well worth a look.

Sheila Hicks – Escalade Beyond Chromatic Lands

The Arsenale: This is Venice’s former boatyard and the work in it is curated along the lines of the theme chosen for the year. Within this large linear space is a string of temporary national pavilions not represented in the Giardini. It’s also where you’ll find the Italian pavilion.

Many countries (and institutes and foundations) that do not have pavilions in the Giardini (and some who do) rent spaces throughout Venice to show work. It’s here that you’ll find the Scottish and Welsh pavilions as well as the ‘Diaspora Pavilion’ where the work of Khadija Saye — killed in the Grenfell Tower fire — is on show. Entrance to these is generally free.

There are also shows, like Damien Hirst’s Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable or the Philip Guston — Philip Guston and the Poets — that are outside the national pavilion structure and you’ll have to check these for admission prices and times on a case by case basis.

The Biennale is on now and runs until November 26th. The Giardini and Arsenale are closed on Mondays, so be careful if you’re planning a long weekend. To get into these two sites you need to buy a ticket. A two-day pass is €31.50 (€23.50 for students) You can get one day tickets, but trust me, you’ll need at least two days. You can buy tickets in advance here: http://www.labiennale.org/en/art/tickets/

Ernesto Neto – Um Sagrado Lugar (A Sacred Place)

Most of the work I saw — I focussed on the Giardini and the Arsenale as my time was limited — falls broadly into the category of ‘installation art’ which is perhaps inevitable, but perhaps a shame. There is a dearth of painting, which is a shame. However if you are interested in textiles it’s a great show as many artists have used cloth / thread / weaving / pattern to explore national and pre-national identity.

As I’ll write about in future posts, much of the significant work specifically reflects Baratta’s characterisation of an ‘age of anxiety’, being concerned with migration, displacement and what that means for those at the mercy of global forces in terms of loss and identity. That’s not surprising as it is probably the major political issue in the world today and for all its faults the Biennale does give voice to parts of the world that are often overlooked.

Also published on Medium.

1 Comment

  1. Matt 8 July 2017 at 7:11 pm

    Hello Bryan

    Thanks for the interesting and informative article. I was in Venice for the first time just a few weeks ago – the place captured my imagination unlike anywhere else. If you get a chance do visit the Taiwan Pavilion; and ​Tehching Hsieh’s ​Doing Time. I found his work and his attempt to push his body to the limit for art to be quite phenomnal. I’d be interested in hearing you opinion on it all.



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