What to see in Venice – our ultimate Venice Biennale 2017 guide
On 13 May, the Venice Biennale opened its doors to the public. One of the most important events in the art world, the city-wide exhibition runs from 13 May through 26 November, leaving you plenty of time to visit.
This is our longest journal post so far – it might actually be too long. But there is so much to see, and introducing you to the web of pavilions scattered across the greeneries of Il Giardini, the medieval dockyard Arsenale and the countless exhibitions, palazzo’s, little streets and bridges making up Venice takes a while. If you’re not an avid scroller and like shorter, more digestible pieces: we’ve also broken up this long-read in three separate posts elsewhere on our journal.
PART I: IL GIARDINI
Let’s start of with our favourite National Pavilions around Il Giardini. These gardens in the east of Venice have been the traditional venue for the International Art Exhibition since 1895. They were laid out during the Napoleonic era, on land that had once been occupied by a district that included four churches and three convents. The area hosts the Central Pavilion and a further 29 national pavilions, built at various periods by the participating countries themselves.
Carole Bove & Teresa Hubbard / Alexander Birchler at the Swiss Pavilion
Central to this year’s exhibition at the Swiss Pavilion is an absence – that of the great Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti. It’s a little-known fact that during his lifetime he refused to represent his native country by exhibiting at the Swiss Pavilion, that had been build by his brother Bruno in 1952. Living in Paris, Giacometti considered himself an international or transnational artist and rejected being monopolised by one nation. This late modernist, post-national utopian vision formed the starting point of this year’s exhibition Women of Venice – for which both Carole Bove and Teresa Hubbard / Alexander Birchler produced new, autonomous works.
Carole Bove takes Giacometti’s constellations of figures and late figurative work (Femmes de Venise) as a starting point for a new sculptural group taking over the pavilion’s courtyard and sculpture hall. The Swiss-American Teresa Hubbard / Alexander Birchler present Flora, a new film installation focussing on Giacometti’s love affair with the American artist Flora Mayo, with whom he studied in Paris in the 1920s. The film allows a key figure from Giacometti’s early life – long eliminated by art history – to move from the perifery to the center.
Anne Imhof at the German Pavilion
The German pavilion was probably the most anticipated one of this year’s Biennale. Anne Imhof, this year’s representative for Germany, shot to popular acclaim after winning the Preis der Nationalgalerie in 2015 and presenting her three part opera Angst in Basel, Berlin and Montréal the following year. It comes as no surprise the German pavilion drew the longest cues during the opening preview, and Anne Imhof was widely expected to win this year’s Golden Lion for Best National Participation – which she did.
In a sculptural setting designed specifically for the space and the occasion – including threatening Dobermans behind a fence, an elevated glass floor, a safety harness-equipped mezzanine and glass partitions as temporary walls – Anne Imhof and her team present Faust, both a five-hour production and a seven-month-long scenario comprised of performative dynamics, sculptural installations, painterly touches, and rigorously choreographed visual axes and movements that encompass the entire pavilion.
Geoffrey Farmer at the Canadian Pavilion
Moving away from his much acclaimed signature style (remember his meticulously staged cut-outs at Documenta 13), Geoffrey Farmer’s presentation at the Canadian pavilion is – at first glance – nothing more then a number of fountains in the rubble of what once used to be the pavilion. Titled to reference the emotive writings of beat poet Allen Ginsberg, A way out of the mirror presents a new way of experiencing the Canada Pavilion, in which the architectural history of the building is entwined with the installation itself.
A way out of the mirror began with Farmer’s discovery of two unpublished press photographs dating back to 1955 that depict a collision between a train and a lumber truck driven by his paternal grandfather. 71 brass planks, reminiscent of the lumber that was scattered at the scene of the accident, are part of the work. Other elements, including 3D-printed sculptures cast in aluminum and bronze, tell stories ranging from the relations between Italy and Canada after the Second World War to the artist’s own familial trauma, of luminaries Kathy Acker and Allen Ginsberg, and of Inuit teenagers residing in Cape Dorset, Nunavut.
All elements from these stories are connected by water, linking imagery to the flow of liquid, from the “fountain of knowledge” to the constant “livestream of images” we are familiar with today. Curator Kitty Scott puts it like this: “Farmer opens up and transforms the Canada Pavilion into an outwardly facing fountain courtyard: the water of Away out of the mirror translates a surfeit of emotion and discharges it in spurts and drips as tears, ejaculate and sweat. It is at once a monument and an anti-monument that memorialises individuals and stories in a gesture of generosity and inclusion.”
Erkka Nissinen and Nathaniel Mellors at the Alvar Aalto Pavilion of Finland
Artists Erkka Nissinen and Nathaniel Mellors had been long-time admirers of each other’s work, but The Aalto Natives is their first collaboration – an installation with video and animatronic sculptures exploring themes such as nationalism, xenophobia, bureaucracy and intolerance by way of absurdist satire.
The work re-imagines Finnish society through the eyes of two messianic outside figures, Geb & Atum, who are being represented by talking animatronic puppets. They are engaged in a dialogue touching on subjects such as Finnish creation mythology, contemporary Finnish society and their vision for the future of Finland. The story presents Geb & Atum as terraforming higher beings who re-visit the Finland they created millions od years earlier, and who try to make sense of the culture that has developed in the meantime. The talking animatronic puppets have projectors strapped to their head, by which they illustrate their conversation and activate the space of the Aalto Pavilion, combining various visual idioms such as 3D CGI, old school Muppet-style puppeteering, and hand-drawn stop-motion animation.
Dirk Braeckman at the Belgian Pavilion
We’re of course a bit biased when it comes to Dirk Braeckman’s Belgian Pavilion. Nevertheless we were svery impressed by his presentation. While a lot of pavilions around Il Giardini are buzzing with activity or are showing big gestures, the Belgian Pavilion is a quiet retreat in itself – a silent standstill that brings us back to the core of photography: the act of looking.
Dirk Braeckman’s photographs bring a stillness to today’s constant flow of images. Using analogue techniques, he has developed a visual language that focuses on viewing and reflects on the status of the image. Braeckman explores the boundaries of his medium, and challenges artistic conventions. The camera’s flash reflects off the surface of the subject, the texture of walls, curtains, carpets and posters. His images show anonymous subjects from his immediate surroundings, evoking an open story. The artist shows empty rooms in which time seems to stand still, elements of interchangeable interiors or human figures that stand only for presence – all separate from any specific identity, place, time or emotion.
There’s of course plenty more to see in Il Giardini, with its 29 National Pavilions and its Central Pavilion showing part of the exhibition VIVA ARTE VIVA, curated by this years curator of the Biennale Christine Macel – who is also the chief curator of the Centre Pompidou, Paris. Be sure to also pass by the Romanian pavilion where there’s a mini retrospective of the work of Geta Bratescu; the Austrian pavilion where Erwin Wurm shows a selection of One Minute Sculptures; and the French pavilion which is transformed by Xavier Veilhan – together with curators Christian Marclay & Lionel Bovier – in a immersive musical installation in which professional musicians play throughout the duration of the exhibition. In Christine Macel’s curated exhibition (read more about it in our second part about Arsenale) at the central pavilion, you shouldn’t miss videos by Taus Makhacheva, Agnieszka Polska, and Rachel Rose, and the installation of Andy Hope 1930.
PART II: ARSENALE
The Arsenale was the largest pre-industrial production centre of the world. Its surface occupied 46 hectars, and it once hosted up to 2000 workers a day in full swing. Now it is converted in a 50.000 square metres (25.000 of which indoor) exhibition space and functions as the second site of the Biennale activities.
VIVA ARTE VIVA
VIVA ARTE VIVA is both the title of the Biennale as it is of the central exhibition curated by Christine Macel. About half of Arsenale’s indoor space is made up by this exhibition – the continuation of Macel’s exhibition that started in the central pavilion of Il Giardini. In her text, Macel describes the exhibition as an exclamation, a passionate outcry for art and the state of the artist: “In a world full of conflicts and shocks, art bears witness to the most precious part of what makes us human. It is the ultimate ground for reflection, individual expression, freedom, and for fundamental questions. But rather then broaching a single theme, VIVA ARTE VIVA offers a route that moulds the artists’ works and a context that favours access and understanding, generating connections, resonances and thoughts.” The journey unfolds over the course of nine chapters, or families of artists, beginning with two introductory parts in the Central Pavilion, followed by another seven across the Arsenale. Each chapter represents a Pavilion in itself, or rather a Trans-Pavilion as it is trans-national by nature but echoes the Biennale’s historical organisation into pavilions.
But honestly, we were not so taken by VIVA ARTE VIVA. The nine different Pavilions go in all directions without really going anywhere. They are too superficial – some of them are made up by only a handful of works – and, as a whole, the exhibition feels a bit outdated. There is a lot of older work, by older artists, that isn’t always suitable to address the problems contemporary society deals with. But of course, on the level of the actual artworks, there are also some amazing things on display.
Right at the start of Arsenale, at the Pavilion of the Common, Franz Erhard Walther – the winner of the Gold Lion – presents three works from his early 1980s Wallformation series and a selection of Walking Pedestals from 1975, all inviting total involvement of the body. Walther does not provide instructions on how to activate his work though, leaving to the viewer to discover its capacities of use. Further down the endless halls of Arsenale, in the Pavilion of the Earth, there’s a cluster of works you also shouldn’t miss – bringing together a monumental semi-abstract turtle by Erika Verzutti, monumental performative sculptures of moths made in traditional Kosovar fabrics by Petrit Halilaj, an installation of salt pilars researching the exploitation of ‘the white petroleum’ lithium by Julian Charrière, and a large scale installation by Thu Van Tran including 16mm film, monumental photograms, site-specific painting and a selection of wax cast sculptures.
In the subsequent pavilion, the Pavilion of Traditions, there’s a number of interesting artists exploring not only recent history but also a more distant past, delving into historical references in an urge for legitimacy, rebirth and reinvention. Keep your eyes open for Francis Upritchards’ uncanny figures, Guan Xiao’s video David, Leonor Antunes’ immersive site-specific installation comprising a series of sculptures of leather, wood, metals and glass, and Anri Sala’s All of a Tremble (Encounter I) – reflecting the artist’s inquiry into to sculptural properties of sound. Towards the end of the exhibition, at the Pavilion of Time and Infinity, there’s Edith Dekyndt’s installation One Thousand and One Nights – captivating in all its simplicity: a man uses a broom to sweep together a carpet of dust perfectly framed by a slowly rotating rectangular spotlight. His endless sweeping kicks up small clouds of dust into the air, who then dissolve, waiting to be swept up all over again.
The exhibition VIVA ARTE VIVA continues after a number of National Pavilions. At the actual docks, by the water, you’ll find Alicja Kwade’s Pars Pro Toto, composed of several circular natural stones spread out to form their own universe. And the neighbouring Giardino Delle Vergini, the exhibition ends with some very nice projects. There’s Bas Jan Ader’s historic video Broken Fall, Erika Verzutt’s small sculpture garden alluding to a burial place for pets, Hassan Kahn’s beautiful sound piece Composition for a Public Park – a rightful winner of the Silver Lion, and a beautiful project by Dagestani artist Taus Makhacheva. The only physical thing you’ll find of this last project is a small label saying there’s a performance happening at coordinates 45°23’30.8”N 12°24’47.7”E, where several performers appear and disappear on a capsized boat transported from the Caspian Sea of Dagestan to the open sea in front of the Venice Lagoon. If you rent a boat you could see it in person, but documentation of the performance should be on view online on La Biennale website – though we haven’t found it ourselves. We did come across a very interesting fim about this project the artist uploaded on Vimeo.
Carlos Amorales at the Mexican Pavilion
There are also a number of national pavilions located at Arsenale. Among them is the Mexican Pavilion, that commemorates the first decade of its participation with an official pavilion in the Biennale. In that pavilion, Carlos Amorales introduces us to a world where prints, sculpture, music, and cinema combine to give life and form to a new way of looking into reality, which materialize critical thinking and today’s problematics in contemporary art.
The exhibition opens with a set of poems written in an encrypted alphabet created by the artist with abstract three-dimensional shapes. The texts displayed on seven tables, that formally refer us to paper sheets, imply a transition from the typographic to the phonetic. Each letter is a ceramic wind musical instrument, also known as ocarina that, when played, releases a specific sound for each letter. This coded language can be interpreted ver-bally, but can also be played as music. Around a thousand ocarinas establish a relation with an graphic musical score of 92 pages mounted on the walls of the pavilion. All these elements come together in the film The cursed village, which narrates the story of a migrant family that is lynched as they arrive to a foreign town. Where a pup-peteer controls the characters of the story and a music ensemble playing the ocarinas, interprets the soundtrack, dialogues, and soundscape of the film.
Candice Breitz + Mohau Modisakeng at the South African Pavilion
This two-person exhibition explores the disruptive power of storytelling in relation to historical and contemporary waves of forced migration. The exhibition starts with Mohau Modisakeng’s three-channel installation Passage, meditating on slavery’s dismemberment of African identity and its enduring erasure of personal histories.
But it’s the second part of the exhibition, Candice Breitz’s seven-channel installation Love Story that really got our attention. The installation interrogates the mechanics of identification and the conditions under which empathy is produced. The work is based on the personal narratives of six individuals who have fled their countries in response to a range of oppressive conditions: a former child soldier from Angola, a transgender activist from India, an atheist from Somalia or somebody escaping the war-torn Syria, etc. It evokes the global scale of the ‘refugee-crisis’, evolving out of lengthy interviews with the six participants in the countries where they are seeking or have been granted asylum – Berlin, New York and Cape Town. The accounts shared by the interviewees are articulated twice by Love Story. In the first space of the installation, re-performed fragments from the six interviews are woven into a fast-packed montage featuring Hollywood actors Alex Baldwin and Julianne Moore (who are cast in the work as themselves: ‘an actor’ and ‘an actress’). In the second space, the original interviews unfold across six screens in their full duration. Love Story suspends viewers between the gritty firsthand accounts of the people who would typically remain nameless and faceless in the media, and the accesible drama featuring two actors who are the very embodiement of visibility, raising questions around how and when our attention is focused.
We would suggest to save seeing Love Story for last. It’s such a tremendous slap in the face that everything you see afterwards feels futile. Take your time to watch these films, and ponder your lucky life walking back to your hotel through the small streets of Venice.
PART III: AROUND TOWN
James Richards at the Wales Pavilion
James Richards’ interest lies in the possibility of the private amidst the chaos of quotidian media. His work makes use of a growing bank of material that includes cinema, works by other artists, camcorder footage, late night TV and archival research. His presentation at the Wales Pavilion centers around two new works, supplemented with a series of digital collages.
The pavilion opens with Music for the gift – a six-channel electro-acoustic installation that explores the capacity of sound to render artificial spaces and locate sonic and melodic events within them – shifting around the viewer, setting up and shattering these imaginary settings. The result is a cinematic and multi-sensory experience – an arrangement of vivid emotional cues to be navigated subjectively.
What Weakens The Flesh Is The Flesh Itself is a video made with collaborator Steve Reinke. The starting point for the work is a series of images found in the private archive of Albrecht Becker – a production designer, photographer and actor imprisoned by the Nazis for being homosexual – held at The Schwules Museum*, Berlin. Amongst pictures of friends and photographs taken whilst serving in World War II is a collection of self-portraits that reveal an obsessive commitment to body modification and his own image: duplicated, repeated and reworked within. The artists have drawn on hundreds of these self-portraits and combined them with medical footage, educational film and text to construct a piece that interrogates what it means to build a body of work of the body, and for the body to become a work itself.
Egill Saebjörnsson at the Islandic Pavilion
Ūgh and Bõögâr are two Icelandic trolls whom Egill Sæbjörnsson encountered back in 2008 – a chance meeting that led to them immersing themselves in the artist’s life and vice versa. Out of Controll in Venice arises from their shared story: bringing together a café in Giudecca, handcrafted coffee cups, a LP, a book, a clothing line, a perfume, a digital experience and much more.
In the Islandic Pavilion the two shapeshifting trolls have taken over the form of a coffeebar – too lure in as many people as possible. But the café in Giudecca exists for more than simply rest and relaxation. Activated by layered projections of light animations and sounds, Ūgh and Bõögâr are talking to each other about their lives, thoughts and experiences. From time to time they make strange noises and perform a beastly performance. Their interaction reveals to us who they are at the same time as they assuage their insatiable hunger for humans and for knowledge about our way of life.
The Boat is Leaking. The Captain Lied. at Fundazione Prada
This trans-media exhibition project is the result of an ongoing in-depth exchange between writer and filmmaker Alexander Kluge, artist Thomas Demand, stage and costume designer Anna Viebrock and curator Udo Kittelmann.
Udo Kittelmann underlines how this collaboration is generated out of a “shared awareness both on an emotional and theoretical level of the critical aspects of present times and the complexity of the world we live in”. In a dialogue of polyphonic references and constellations between the contributions of each artist the exhibition spans film, art and theatre media. The confluence of image spaces and scene settings for a variety of atmospheres transforms the historic palazzo of Ca’ Corner della Regina into a metaphorical site for the identification of the worlds we live in and our personal attitudes to wards them.
The exhibition aims to provide comprehensive insight into the respective production of Alexander Kluge, Thomas Demand and Anna Viebrock whose artistic endeavours have always extended beyon d the aesthetic and imaginative and were conceived with political and historical intentions. All three artists reveal themselves as pathfinders and clue seekers, witnesses and chroniclers of times past and present. Out of this an exhibition is generated intended as a space for experiences and encounters. This visually powerful multi – layered environment bestows expression and meaning on the everyday and on th e worlds of yesterday and today between apparent normality and catastrophe in a society divi ded between lust for life and loss of trust extreme distress and never – ending hope.
Philip Guston & The Poets at Galleria dell’ Accademia
This major Philip Guston exhibition explores the artist’s oeuvre in relation to critical literary interpretation. In a spirit reflective of how Guston himself cultivated the sources of his inspiration, Philip Guston and The Poets considers the ideas and writings of major 20th century poets as catalysts for his enigmatic pictures and visions. Featuring works that span a fifty-year period in Guston’s artistic career, the exhibition includes 50 paintings and 25 drawings dating from 1930 until his death in 1980. The exhibition draws parallels between the essential humanist themes reflected in these works, and the language of five poets: D. H. Lawrence, W. B. Yeats, Wallace Stevens, Eugenio Montale and T. S. Eliot.
The exhibition is organized in thematic groupings, each corresponding to selected writings and poems by one of the five poets. Beginning with D. H. Lawrence and his 1929 essay Making Pictures, Guston’s work is introduced through an exploration of the artist’s visual world, considering the very act of creation and the possibility that painting holds. In early and late works from his oeuvre, the exhibition probes into Guston’s ascent to ‘visionary awareness,’ that is, his encounter with complete forms, images and ideas, and their physical manifestation.
Lucy McKenzie at Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa
For her first solo exhibition in Italy, La Kermesse Héroïque, the Brussels- based Lucy McKenzie has made a group of new works, including mural paintings on canvas, painted objects, sculptures and figures – combined with elements of decor (such as lighting and furniture) to explore the relationship between style, ideology and value. In 2014, the artist bought De Ooievaar, a dilapidated villa in the Belgian coastal town of Oostende, built in 1935 for a Catholic doctor with a large family. Its architect, Jozef De Bruycker, was active in the Flemish collaboration with Germany during World War II. As part of a painstaking restoration of its Art Deco, De Stijl and Postmodernist interiors, McKenzie has embarked on a long-term programme of research to uncover the conditions that produced this unique and remarkable design.
McKenzie frequently employs methods and thought processes derived from the applied arts. In her painting practice this can be seen in the use of commercial techniques such as trompe-l’oeil, stencilling and sign writing. With its labour-intensive mode of production, and alignment of value with skill, trompe-l’oeil is an innately conservative idiom. But it is this conservativism that facilitates a tension in the relationship between form and content, and is thus able to generate a sense of immediacy while at the same time creating an emotional distance.
Pierre Huyghe at Espace Louis Vuitton
The Fondation Louis Vuitton is presenting three works by Pierre Huyghe from their collection – between narrative, action and fugitive memory, all connected around Huyghe’s 2005 project A Journey That Wasn’t. This film is the result of a journey to Antarctica on board the Tara, belonging to the famous explorer Jean-Louis Etienne. The purpose of the expedition was to visit a new island that was formed by melting polar ice caps. An albino penguin was said to inhabit the fringes of the colony of its fellow creatures on this island. The project is expressed in two parts: the expedition itself and a translation of the island’s topography into sound. The sounds are then transformed into a musical score, which is performed by a symphony orchestra on the Central Park skating rink in New York. The film plunges the viewers into opposite worlds: pure and unspoilt nature and a spectacular urbanized society.
The film is flanked by two small works. Creature (2005-2011) reincarnates the solitary penguin as a small fiberglass bird with synthetic fur and sound, as a poetic complement to the lm. According to Huyghe, it is more than a sculpture, it has “a unique intuition, far away, in an unreachable land where he/she nearly disappears in the surroundings.” And Silence Score (1997) forms part of the unreal and musical atmosphere created in the lm and continues to disrupt our habits of perception. The four annotated scores were transcribed by Huyghe and, thanks to special software, include the imperceptible sounds of 4’33’’ (Silence) by John Cage, recorded in 1952. Cage’s concept was to have a musician play a few minutes of silence from a score without notes to focus only on the audible sounds of the surrounding space.
James Lee Byars’ The Golden Tower at Campo San Vio, Dorsoduro
This is not an exhibition, but a monumental twenty-meter golden totem towering over the Canal Grande for the duration of the Biennal. James Lee Byars envisioned The Golden Tower as a colossal beacon and oracle that would bridge heaven and earth and unify humanity – a contemporary monument surpassing the grandeur of the Lighthouse of Alexandria. The idea of The Golden Tower first began in 1976 and was developed with numerous conceptual studies throughout the artist’s career. The work was first exhibited in 1990 at the GegenwartEwigkeit exhibition at Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, and later in 2004 at the posthumous retrospective Life, Love and Death at the Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt. Towering to a height of over 20 meters, The Golden Tower is the artist’s largest and most ambitious work. The Venice installation of The Golden Tower, organised by Michael Werner gallery in collabratotion with the Fondazione Giuliani, is the first to fully realize the artist’s intentions of presenting the sculpture in a public space.
COLLECT ART BY THESE ARTISTS
The Sun, 2008
(40 x 40 cm – in an edition of 60 copies, signed and numbered by the artist)
(29,7 x 42 cm – in an edition of “à copies, signed and numbered by the artist)
A Beat, 2013
(28 x 42 cm – in an edition of 50 copies, signed and numbered by the artist)
Thu Van Tran
Digressions autour de l’Eruption du Mont Pelée, 2013
(18 x 18 cm – in an edition of 20 copies, signed and numbered by the artist)