5 of the best pavilions at the Venice Art Biennale 2015

Tackling Venice’s art Biennale could be a bit daunting. With 89 participating countries, work from 136 artists spread out around the city and 189 days dedicated to art it is difficult to know where to start! And certainly there is far too much to see in a city break weekend so I have done some of the legwork for you and picked out some favourites from the national pavilions clustered in the Biennale Gardens, east of St Mark’s Square. Let’s go – Andiamo!

Entrance to the Venice Art Biennale Gardens

Entrance to the Venice Art Biennale Gardens

Often nick-named the art olympics as countries send their bright and their best artists and because its held every two years, the 56th Venice art biennale kicked off in early May 2015. Curated by Okwui Enwezor, the biennale’s first African, the theme “All the Worlds Futures” (with no apostrophes) permeates through the art, although if I’m honest sometimes the link seems tenuous at best. But then I’m no art critic! And so to the art, in no particular order of preference!

Map of the Biennale Gardens where you can find numerous national pavilions participating in Venice's 56th art biennale

Map of the Biennale Gardens where you can find numerous national pavilions participating in Venice’s 56th art biennale

  1. Russia – The Green Pavilion by Irina Nakhova

If I’d read the Russian blurb talking of postmodernism, conceptualism and socio-formalism, before entering the Russian pavilion rather than afterwards I might have been be put off but don’t be! Nakhova’s work covers 5 rooms with each offering something very different but it’s the first that is most striking.

Russia's Irina Nakhova challenges our view of life with her oversized pilot's head

Russia’s Irina Nakhova challenges our view of life with her oversized pilot’s head

The helmeted, masked and be-goggled (is that a word?!) head dominates the room and is arresting on its own merit until you see the eyes.

Is the pilot in Irina Nakhova's piece in control or being controlled? The eyes have it.....

Is the pilot in Irina Nakhova’s piece in control or being controlled? The eyes have it…..

At first closed as if dead, the eyes suddenly blink open, starring out in fear and anxiety. And gradually you realise that the seemingly formidable pilot is actually trapped and totally dependent on the outer world. It is sinister and unsettling to watch the pilot’s emotions flicker across the eyes in increasing panic, but totally and utterly captivating.

At 60 Nakhova, a previously suppressed conceptualist artist, is the first woman to represent Russia at the Venice Biennale and she doesn’t disappoint.

2. Japan’s – The Key in the Hand by Chiharu Siota

Chiharu Siota’s work is this year’s hands-down favourite amongst both the critics and the public with an exquisite piece called The Key in the Hand.

Japan's pavilion at the Venice Art Biennale 2015

Japan’s pavilion at the Venice Art Biennale 2015

On the ground floor of the pavilion 3 video screens play children’s vox pop conversations about their how they were born or their earliest memories. But climb the short stone staircase through the garden up to the first floor for the main attraction.

A Key in the Hand - Japan's exquisite offering for the Venice Art Biennale 2015

A Key in the Hand – Japan’s exquisite offering for the Venice Art Biennale 2015

On entering you see the prow of an old, wooden boat, its paint flaking off. But as you become accustomed to the red glow you start to see the detail – thousands of keys cascade down from the ceiling on a tangled web of blood red threads. Each one represents a memory of a car, a house, a home, a garden gate, a shed, a boat even.

The exquisite Japanese exhibition by Chiharu Shiota at the Venice Art Biennale - A Key in the Hand

The exquisite Japanese exhibition by Chiharu Shiota at the Venice Art Biennale – A Key in the Hand

The artist includes keys she found, was given or was sent and links the keys, or memories together with red yarn – maybe representing blood ties or relationships or journeys?

A Key in the Hand at the Japanese Pavilion of the Venice Art Biennale 2015

A Key in the Hand at the Japanese Pavilion of the Venice Art Biennale 2015

The work is simple, peaceful and beautiful with a special poignancy on the day I visited as several hundred refugees had died in the Mediterranean that day after their wooden boats sank. I cannot recommend this pavilion highly enough!

  1. Korea – The Ways of Folding Space & Flying by Moon Kyungwon and Jeon Joonho

Right next door to Japan’s pavilion is Korea’s futuristic video walled space projecting a continuously looping video of the artists’ vision of Groundhog Day in the future.

Part hymn, part automaton, Korea's looped video installation for the Venice Biennale paints a rather one dimensional future

Part hymn, part automaton, Korea’s looped video installation for the Venice Biennale paints a rather one dimensional future

We don’t quite know if the central character is an antennae-controlled human or a robot or a bit of both but either way her day begins in exactly the same way – with a glass of water, a jog on her treadmill and then to work. Sound familiar?

Forever on life's treadmill at Korea's pavilion at the Venice Art Biennale

Forever on life’s treadmill at Korea’s pavilion at the Venice Art Biennale

The video loops across at least 4 different screens inside and outside the pavilion offering different stages of the girl’s day until finally there is a change in her routine. But I’ll let you find out what that is for yourself!!

Korea's video installation at the Venice Biennale 2015

Korea’s video installation at the Venice Biennale 2015

Again, it’s a simple idea but I found the videos struck at some eternal questions – what are we doing with our lives and are we just sleep-walking through it all. I loved it!

  1. France – Rêvolutions by artist Céleste Boursier-Mougenot

So far the pavilions I’ve suggested have all been pretty accessible and approachable – there’s not been anything too arty-fatty! But trust the French to ruin that with their spotless white, and at first glance empty pavilion!

Again the blurb is enough to put a weaker person off with talk of “trees metamorphosing into transhuman creatures” but just ignore that!

France's folly pavilion with its pirouetting motorised christmas tree!

France’s folly pavilion with its pirouetting motorised christmas tree!

Think old garden follies – buildings with no function – and you can’t go far wrong on this one as this work is all about gardens, trees and the control we exercise over the living environment. At least that’s what I got!

After a long hot afternoon browsing Venice Biennale's modern art its great to have a soothing lie down in the French pavilion!

After a long hot afternoon browsing Venice Biennale’s modern art its great to have a soothing lie down in the French pavilion!

And the best bit about this pavilion is that you get a lovely lie down on bouncy foam embankments as soothing background music washes over you whilst a tree does a little ballet round the central room! The living tree is “driven” by signals picked up by sapflow sensors in it that are then converted into movement of the robotic platform. The same sapflow sensors also generate the music that lulls you off into a meditative state.

France's open to the sky folly pavilion at the Venice Biennale Gardens

France’s open to the sky folly pavilion at the Venice Biennale Gardens

Sounds a bit mad, well a lot mad, doesn’t it but it’s actually very relaxing after a long hot afternoon walking around the Biennale Gardens! Add to that the two more motorized, living trees pirouetting around outside the pavilion in time with their metabolism and you have a lovely eccentric little garden or even open-air theatre! And of course, I’m assured that no trees were hurt in the making of this piece!

  1. Netherlands – All Ways to Be by Herman de Vries

Continuing the biological theme the Dutch pavilion brings the outdoors indoors with giant grasses, shells, stones and found objects from the lagoon framed in simple wooden boxes.

Found items from around the lagoon form a biological montage at the Netherlands pavilion

Found items from around the lagoon form a biological montage at the Netherlands pavilion

Apparently the artist was educated as a horticulturist and scientist and it definitely shows as he displays the wonder and diversity of the natural world around us in Venice.

Giant grasses collected from around the Venice lagoon form beautiful pictures at the Dutch pavilion

Giant grasses collected from around the Venice lagoon form beautiful pictures at the Dutch pavilion

He also presents a beautifully earthy mosaic, each frame of which contains streaks of soil from around the world and you’d be amazed at the variety of different hues that he found from clay yellows through ochre to jet black. It makes for a gorgeous global montage encompassing earth from Palestine to Poland and Chile to the Canaries.

Who knew that soil could be so colourful? De Vries' beautiful earthy mosaic at the Venice Biennale

Who knew that soil could be so colourful? De Vries’ beautiful earthy mosaic at the Venice Biennale

Don’t miss either the rosebud carpet in the centre of the pavilion giving it a wonderful perfume and heightening the experience. We wanted to walk across it to stir up the scent but thought better of it when the gallery attendant gave us a bit of a glare!!

De Vries brings perfume into the Dutch pavilion with a rosebud carpet

De Vries brings perfume into the Dutch pavilion with a rosebud carpet

Personally this pavilion is the most straight-forward and accessible of them all, but no less beautiful an experience.

And finally……

And finally, I would have recommended a sixth pavilion but unfortunately the Venice Comune closed it down after just a few short weeks.

Nestled in a quiet corner of the northern district of Cannaregio, the Icelandic exhibition had converted a deconsecrated 10th century church, out of use since the late 1960s, into an artistic experience as a mosque.

Iceland-based, Swiss-born artist Christoph Büchel had sensitively created a serene space within the old church complete with a beautiful prayer carpet, a mihrab indicating the direction of Mecca and a few calligraphic decorations.

Iceland's conversion of a church to a mosque caused a right hullabaloo and was consequently closed after just 2 months. Let's hope it re-opens soon!

Iceland’s conversion of a church to a mosque caused a right hullabaloo and was consequently closed after just 2 months. Let’s hope it re-opens soon!

But unfortunately, despite Venice’s long history of trading with the east and the fact that the first print version of the Qur’an was produced here in the 16th century, The Mosque proved a controversial step too far for the Biennale and the city council. And sadly the first mosque, albeit a temporary artistic one, to ever open its doors in Venice was closed down within 2 months for “contravention of city regulations”.

The artist is contesting the closure still but its unknown whether the pavilion will re-open before the end of the Biennale which is a real shame. I think Venice missed a trick on this one and the Biennale is poorer for the mosque’s closure.

Japan's A Key in the Hand exhibition - a definite must-see at the Biennale

Japan’s A Key in the Hand exhibition – a definite must-see at the Biennale

And so, there you have it, my 5 Venice Biennale favourites for your delight! If you’re planning on visiting Venice before 22nd November 2015 make sure to check out the Biennale – you can’t miss it as its all over town! And whether you call in to one of the free exhibitions, in to the Biennale Gardens where these 5 pavilions are located or the Arsenale shipyard where even more artists are showcased, please leave a comment letting me know what you thought. In the meantime, pop over to my DreamDiscoverItalia Instagram page for more photos and inspiration from the Biennale – we’re only halfway through so there is plenty of time to plan a visit! Venice is waiting for you!

Useful information

The 56th International Art Biennale will run 9th May to 22nd November 2015.

The exhibition takes place at the Giardini, the Arsenale shipyard and in various locations across the city of Venice.

More information can be found via the official website here

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5 Responses to 5 of the best pavilions at the Venice Art Biennale 2015

  1. Very interesting description of the different exhibitions. Especially like the biological montage from the Netherlands…

  2. We have very similar tastes! Japan, Netherlands, and France were at the top of my list, though I would add Australia too.

    • We do! And I nearly added Australia as one of my friends liked it the best but I didn’t really get it myself. I liked the different bits – the clocks, the knitted faces and the knick knacks – but I just didn’t quite understand how it all fitted together! I haven’t found anyone yet who hasn’t liked Japan’s pavilion though – its just beautiful isn’t it!! Thanks for popping by!! BTW I’ve just got your new book and its next on the list to read……I’m excited to get started!!! :o)

  3. Pingback: Venice Biennale 2015: Giardini Highlights | Create • Curate • Consume

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