Notes from the Venice Biennale

Part 2 of a series on Venice.

In my previous post, I talked about my time living in Venice this summer and learning about the particular challenges facing Venice as an historic and modern city. In this second post in the series, I want to talk a little about the Venice Biennale.

Every two years, the art world descends on Venice for one of the largest contemporary art exhibitions in the world. Inaugurated in 1895, the Venice Biennale is also one of the oldest events of its kind: today there are numerous biennale exhibitions all over the world.

As someone who does not study contemporary art, the world of the Biennale was almost completely foreign to me. I knew what it was and why it was important, but I had little understanding of how it was organized year to year or what the experience of it would be like. When I accepted the summer internship in Venice, I saw an opportunity to dive into contemporary art at the Biennale.

The Venice Biennale is organized in primarily in two venues in the city, the Giardini (public gardens) and the Arsenale (formerly the shipyards and seat of the Venetian navy). At the Giardini, there are some 30 permanent pavilions owned and maintained by participating nations as exhibition spaces, each with it’s own particular architectural style. For each Biennale, a nation selects an artist to represent them and showcase the best of contemporary art. A curator is appointed director of the Biennale, and he or she sets the theme or tone for the exhibition.

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Logo for the 2017 Venice Biennale.

The 2017 Venice Biennale, titled Viva Arte Viva, marks the 57th International Art Exhibition, and involves 86 national participants, 120 artists from 51 countries, and 23 collateral events. Christine Macel, chief curator of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, was this year’s director. For 2017, she chose to center the Biennale around a focus on artists and artistic practice. As the New York Times put it, the central question the exhibition asks is “what does it mean to be an artist today?” Pushing it further, what does art mean in the world today?

For Macel: “Today, in a world full of conflicts and shocks, art bears witness to the most precious part of what makes us human. Art is the ultimate ground for reflection, individual expression, freedom, and for fundamental questions. Art is the last bastion, a garden to cultivate above and beyond trends and personal interests. It stands as an unequivocal alternative to individualism and indifference.”

“The role, the voice and the responsibility of the artist are more crucial than ever before within the framework of contemporary debates. It is in and through these individual initiatives that the world of tomorrow takes shape, which though surely uncertain, is often best intuited by artists than others.”

Viva Arte Viva is an exclamation, a passionate outcry for art and the state of the artist. Viva Arte Viva is a Biennale designed with artists, by artists and for artists.” (Biennale di Venezia).

Since the opening in May, there have been numerous editorials and responses to this concept and to the content of the exhibition, some critiquing the nebulousness of the statement above and whether it is possible or even responsible in the current climate to divorce art from politics and current events, and attempt to focus solely on art for art’s sake.

For my part, I visited the Giardini and Arsenale several times, as well as some of the pavilions and collateral exhibitions elsewhere in the city, looking to take in as much as possible of this massive exhibition. In both primary venues, one quickly realizes that the number of people and the amount of labor required to successfully pull off this spectacle, as well as the sheer quantity of art and artists, is overwhelming. It is impossible to take it in one sitting, so I focused on a few pavilions at a time.

Out of the wide range of exhibitions and works I saw, I had a few favorites, one of which was the Swiss Pavilion and the exhibition “Women of Venice.” The title is derived from Alberto Giacometti’s sculpture series of the same name, and reflects on the Swiss artist’s absence (and refusal to exhibit in) the Swiss Pavilion during his lifetime. The video piece Flora, by artists Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler, reconstructs the life of the nearly-forgotten woman artist Flora Mayo, who had a relationship with Giacometti that resulted in each artist producing a portrait bust of the other.

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Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler, Photograph of Flora Mayo and Alberto Giacometti, with the bust she made of him, ca. 1927. Swiss Pavilion, Giardini.

Unfortunately, while Giacometti went on to become (and remains) an internationally-renowned artist, Mayo left Paris to return to her native America, having run out of money, and destroyed most of her own work. Her bust of Giacometti has been lost, and Mayo herself faded into obscurity. Flora traces her life and art in a split screen video, one side reenacting her life in Paris, the other a documentary-style interview with her now-elderly son (born years later) as he struggles to reconcile this part of his mother’s story that he never knew.

Other personal favorites included Giorgio Andreotta Calò’s Senza titolo (La fine del mondo) in the Italian Pavilion, in which the artist constructed a black, seemingly-bottomless pool in a wing of the Arsenale, creating a disorienting transformation of the architecture. In the Greek Pavilion, the artist George Drivas created an immersive video installation based on the ancient playwright Aeschylus’s play The Suppliant Women, reimagined as laboratory setting in which scientists struggle with the ethics of intervention between “Foreign” and “Native” cell cultures in a top-secret government experiment.

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Giorgio Andreotta Calò, Senza titolo (la fine del mondo). Italian Pavilion, Arsenale.

There were also sections of the Biennale that I found less compelling in concept, but that contained interesting works. Outside of the individual national pavilions, Macel organized a thematic narrative in 9 chapters in the Central Pavilion at the Giardini and at the Arsenale: the Pavilion of Artists and Books, the Pavilion of Joys and Fears, the Pavilion of the Common, the Pavilion of Earth, the Pavilion of Traditions, the Pavilion of Shamans, the Dionysian Pavilion, the Pavilion of Colors, and the Pavilion of Time and Infinity.

Noting the lofty names for these chapters, one can imagine that the accompanying text was also florid. Approaching the Biennale with little framework for contemporary art, I found the thematic connections Macel sought to establish in several of the pavilions opaque, but chalked that to my own limited knowledge.

Visiting the Biennale was an experience in and of itself. Even as someone who doesn’t study contemporary art, I loved the exposure to so many different works of art and artists from all over the world, the opportunity to explore their individual perspectives and practices, and come away interested in following their work. That concentration of art and artists in one place is certainly one of the advantages of visiting the Biennale, but one does also run the risk of visual and information overload because there is simply too much to take in. If anyone is planning to go to the Venice (or any other) Biennale for the first time, it’s worth planning in advance what you might want to see and reading up on the exhibitions. Visiting the Biennale is a commitment, but I’d say the experience is definitely worth it.

 

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