58 national pavilions, seven ‘collateral’ events and 10 exhibitions outside the Biennale. That’s what I saw in just over five days last July.
The made for 5.5 days of full on art with my friend C. We set our alarms for 8am every day, making the most of our stay in la Serenissima.
The Venice Biennale is a major contemporary art event that takes place every two years in Italy. Since 1998 it has operated a dual model, based on (i) national pavilions, each with its own curator and project, showing one or more artists; and (ii) an international exhibition organised by the Venice Biennale curator.
The 2015 Biennale is curated by Okwui Enwezor and shows new commissions along with works from the past, includes 136 artists from 53 countries, 89 National Participations, and 44 Collateral Events scattered in different venues around Venice.
Prizes are awarded to artists and national pavilions on opening day: the Golden Lion, Silver Lion and Special Mentions. La Fée Culturelle awards her own lions, this year to:
Golden Lion: India-Pakistan
In a strong political message, India and Pakistan are sharing a collateral event (technically not a country pavilion): ‘My East is Your West’. At the end, there was no dialogue between Shilpa Gupta from India and Rashid Rana from Pakistan. Gupta worked on borders but between India and Bangladesh, looking for instance at the legal cattle trade in Bangladesh (whereas cows are holy in India), and at codeine based syrup which is illegal in Bangladesh.
Rashid Rana had the most surprising works. If you plan to visit, SPOILER ALERT! Rana had a room with a mirror-like wall with a delayed camera. My friend C. was sitting in the room already and I could see her reflection but not mine. I then realised the projection was delayed and later laughed at my reflection realising the subterfuge. We then entered a second room with an exact replica of the room on the opposite wall. Five men were sitting in the “mirror room”. Five long minutes after I realised they were waving at us. We exchanged a few words about our respective activities and what brought us to Venice. Live from Lahore!
Silver Lion: Azerbaijan Vita Vitale
The Republic of Azerbaijan AGAIN makes it to my top 3 this year with its second pavilion ‘Vita Vitale’ (Vital Life) – and this is not (only) because it shows three prints of Noémie Goudal, who I collect. The exhibition voices the balance between the ecosystem and man’s footprint through works from international contemporary artists. Curator Rachel Armstrong cleverly built a narrative on the planet’s ecosystem and a dialogue between the different artworks. She united artists who didn’t necessarily think of ecosystem protection in their works with artists very much concerned with protecting our environment.
With the exception of ‘Cascade’ (2009) suggesting a waterfall made of white plastic sheets, I don’t think ecosystem is the key preoccupation of Noemie Goudal. On the opposite side of the spectrum, Paul Huxley and Chris Jordan have the most “ecological” works. The latter artist exposes images of plastic waste inside dead baby albatrosses.
Bronze Lion: Belgium (better than a special mention so I had to invent a Bronze Prize)
The Belgian pavilion looks at colonialism, exploring its past but also the contemporary political, historical, cultural and artistic interactions between Europe and Africa, as curator Katerina Gregos invited international artists alongside Vincent Meessen. There was a good link between the several artists shown, linked by colonial modernity as a common theme. French artist Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc, who was also showing at this year’s Art Basel in the Statement section with Marcelle Alix, explored the colonial and post-colonial heritage. Others country pavilions explored colonialism, like Poland.
And La Fée Culturelle’s Special Mentions are…
Canada: Canada recreated a “dépanneur” – a word that my own Canadian Mr BB uses unlike native French speakers – which is a convenience store in Quebec and other French-speaking parts of Canada. The Quebec artists collective BGL recreated all products “on sale” and the pavilion reminded me of artist Robert Gober who replicates real everyday objects.
Other special mentions:
– Japan‘s Chiharu Shiota, whose installation was widely shared on social media but looked even better in reality. Keys connect us to each other, boats carry people and time.
– The South Africa pavilion takes on unresolved sociological issues: Apartheid, post-Apartheid violence, including the 34 miners gunned down by police at Lonmin’s platinum mine Rustenburg.
– Romania‘s all-painting (!) pavilion showing recent works by Adrian Ghenie
I should also mention my Palme for the worst pavilions:
UK: the British pavilion, which could be summarised as “cigarettes & holes” appeared at first sight cool, then reveals as not much more than provocation. Sarah Lucas has unimaginatively repeated her idea of cigarettes in human orifices across her yellow-painted pavilion.
Germany: some movies in the basement not worth showing to a Venice biennale audience.
Do NOT miss the following collateral events: Dansaekhwa (Palazzo Contarini-Polignac, until August 15, 2015), Sean Scully ‘Land Sea’ (Palazzo Falier) and Patricia Cronin’s ‘Shrine for Girls’ (Chiesa di San Gallo).
Outside the Biennale and its collateral events, we saw (by order of preference):
1. PROPORTIO at Palazzo Fortuny
2. CY Twombly Paradise, Ca’ Pesaro (until September 13, 2015)
3. Heartbreak Hotel, Vanhaerents Art Collection, Zuecca Project Space, Giudecca (until September 15, 2015)
4. ‘CHARLES POLLOCK: A Retrospective’ (until September 14, 2015) and ‘JACKSON POLLOCK’S MURAL: Energy Made Visible’ (until November 16, 2015) at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection
5. Slip of the Tongue, Palazzo Grassi (until January 10, 2016)
6. Sebastião Salgado Profumo di Sogno, Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa, Piazza San Marco 71/c (until September 27, 2015)
7. Peter Doig, Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa, Palazzetto Tito (until October 4, 2015)
8. Martial Raysse, Palazzo Grassi (until November 30, 2015)
9. NEW OBJECTIVITY. Modern German art in the Weimar Republic. 1919-1933, Museo Correr (until August 30, 2015)
10. Future Histories Mark Dion Arseny Zhilyaev, V-A-C Foundation, Casa dei Tre Oci, Giudecca (until August 23, 2015)
The Biennale is laid out in the Central Pavilion (Giardini) and in the Arsenale. The established countries with permanent pavilions are in Giardini, alongside the Central Pavilion. Smaller pavilions, except Italy, are in the Arsenale and scattered around the city. Collateral events are spread amongst other venues. We took a guided tour for the Central Pavilion and Arsenale (excluding the national pavilions), which I recommend. Best deal is the two-day pass for 30€, which allow unlimited entry and exit. There is also a (80€) permanent pass valid for the whole duration of the Biennale if you stay longer, like I did. The 56th Venice Biennale runs until November 22nd – as well as collateral events and exhibitions unless otherwise indicated. It is closed on Mondays, open 10 am to 6 pm; the Arsenale is open until 8pm on Fridays and Saturdays until Sept. 26th.
I like to tell my friends that the 2013 Venice Biennale was the time of my life. Then I had a blast again in 2015. This year, I saw 20 more pavilions, four more collateral events and 7 more exhibitions vs. two years ago, when we stayed three and a half days. Still, I saw half of the Biennale. Shall I stay more than a week in 2017?