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