Venice… Where to start!
I’ve just got back from my second ever Venice Biennale. For anyone who doesn’t know what this is, it is basically a giant, international contemporary art exhibition that takes place in Venice for about six months, every two years and this year is Venice’s 54th Biennale – so it’s been going a while now. For this biennial art fair numerous different countries stage exhibitions at various locations (pavilions), dotted throughout Venice, although the highest concentration of the pavilions tend to be situated in two areas to the east of the city, the Arsenale and the Giardini (a park where 30 pavilions were all purpose built for the various regularly entering countries, back in the… er… lets just play it safe and say the 20th Century).
Although the Biennale officially opened on Saturday 4th June I managed to secure a pass (with the help of my good friend, the journalist, Holly Howe) that let me go exploring the Giardini and the Arsenale for the three days preceding that date.
If you’re one of those people that aren’t that au fait with sleep then it is technically possible to fit in all the art shows and a good chunk of the opening parties into one week but unfortunately this year I was a bit incapacitated. The weekend before I’d cracked a rib falling off my bike (actually, if the truth be told – I fell over my bike before I even managed to get onto it) and even while being dosed up on some powerful painkillers, I was still walking like a geriatric most of the time. Not that I have anything against geriatrics – I just don’t want to be walking like one just yet. To make matters worse, half way through the week I sneezed and pulled a muscle in my lower back (go on - laugh – I know you want to). The only consolation of this was that the back pain took my mind off the pain in my ribs. The upshot of this being that this time round I only managed to cover the Arsenale, the Giardini and about a sixth of the remaining satellite shows. But even so, considering the amount of late night parties (always a good reason to get to the Biennale a few days before the official opening) we managed to go to, we still saw a hell of a lot of art.
One of the annoying things about the parties and openings is that so many of them happen on the same night or at the same time and it’s not always possible to work out in advance which ones to pick. The grandest one (and the one for which I felt most underdressed) that we went to had to be the party hosted by Marino and Paola Golinelli (of the Marino Golinelli Foundation, founded in 1988 to promote art, science and culture) at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. After the speeches Holly and I got to speak to the very stylish and gracious Paola Golinelli and I gave her one of my mini screen prints. Again I have to thank Holly for arranging my invite to this one. It was a very swanky event that was made even more impressive (well, to me at least) by the giant, four or five stories tall, Bamboo nest structure that the institution had had constructed next door to their building, and connected via a bamboo walkway to their roof-top garden. The structure was definitely one of my main highlights of the week and I went back a few days after the party to walk up its internal spiral walkway to the viewing platform at the top.
On another occasion me and my merry band of Biennaleites unfortunately missed the boat to the island where the Frieze 20th birthday party was being held, due the fact that a nameless someone (Jackson – you swine) texted us the wrong address for the pick up point. Although, to be honest, most of us were still recovering from the amazing party that the Finish pavilion had thrown the night before, on one of the small outlying islands. So instead we all trundled off to massive garden party that the Icelandic pavilion was throwing.
The great thing about the Biennale is that you not only make new friends but that you bump into loads that you already know. As we arrived at the airport I bumped into two people I knew at the baggage collection and a third one on the coach outside. And at the Azerbaijan party I bumped into four people I knew, although I did already know that one of them, Lee Sharrock, would be there as she was the PR person for the show. And if any of you have been following the news items about the Venice Biennale then you probably won’t have missed the recent media attention that the Azerbaijan Pavilion has been receiving. But hey, as they say – all publicity is good publicity.
As you can probably imagine, last week was a week of visual overload so I’m not going to be able to instantly recall all the amazing pieces of artwork that I saw but here’s a few that still seem fresh in my mind. I’ll start with the Giardini cluster because that’s probably the easiest to remember.
I’m a big fan of Mike Nelson’s work and his all invasive installation in the British Pavilion is well worth the long wait in the massive queue outside (oh no, I’ve over hyped it now). I also have a soft spot for the work of Christian Boltanski so I was pleased to see that he hadn’t let us down with his contribution at the French Pavilion.
Opera seemed to be one of the reoccurring themes at the Biennale this year and I felt that the Hungarian Pavilion put it to best use with their Crash – Passive Interview installation/experimental opera, reflecting upon the stories of car crashes in dialogical form (created by Hajnal Németh). The USA Pavilion’s upturned tank (turned into a treadmill), cash machine pipe organ and strange gymnastics performances were also interesting. And Lee Yong-baek put on a fantastic solo show at the Korean Pavilion – my favourite work being either the mirror with the morphing religious icon faces or the slow-moving video piece of almost unperceivable soldiers, clad in flowery camouflaged uniforms, moving amongst a flowery foreground and background.
And here’s a photo of me posing with Lee Yong-baek’s soldiers in front of the US Pavilion’s upturned tank.
My amble through the Arsenale was a bit more of a blur but the main pieces that stuck out for me were the giant burning candles in the shape of a massive full scale renaissance sculpture and a life size man, an anti-mafia installation and the stunningly monumental clay sculptures of Adrián Villar Rojas at the Argentinean Pavilion.
Out of the few pavilions (20 or so) that I managed to see outside of the Arsenale and the Giardini these are some of my favourites:
Ho Tzu Nyen’s strangely hypnotic film, The Cloud of Unknowing, at the Singapore Pavilion. And I’m not just praising it because it was a relief to step out of the blazing hot sun, into a cool spacious hall and watch the film on a full-size cinema screen whilst reclining on enormous white leather bean bags. The mist that billows out from the screen at the end of the film is also a nice touch (oops – spoiler!). Actually, mist and smoke were another theme that kept popping up at the Biennale this year, especially at the Arsenale. And I did hear that Anish Kapoor also installed a smoke piece, Ascension, at a collateral event staged inside the Basilica di san Giorgio but I somehow managed to miss it – gutted!
Another pleasant surprise came in the form of Martine Feipel and Jean Bechameil’s wobbly white interiors at the Luxembourg Pavilion.
And pretty much everything at the Future Pass – From Asia to the World show was amazing but unfortunately I only had a few minutes to rush round it before I had to catch my plane back to London.
So, here are my tips for enjoying the circus that is the Venice Biennale:
1. Get there a few days before it officially opens and enjoy all the parties.
2. Take comfortable footwear.
3. Unless you want to have to leave the parties early to catch the last boat back to your accommodation (10:30pm), book somewhere in Venice itself.
4. (And this is probably the most important one) If you meet a drunken Belarusian artist who wants to party and who wants you to party with him – then it’s virtually impossible to say no.