This article appeared in the May 2015 issue of Dream of Italy.
If your travel plans include a visit to Venice between now and November 22, 2015, you are in for a visual feast in the form of the La Biennale Venezia:, the 56th edition of the world-renowned contemporary art exhibition that is held every two years in La Serenissima.
During the Biennale, Venice puts her best foot forward as the city comes alive with activity in every corner. While the main exhibitions are located in the historic pavilions at the Giardini and in the Arsenale, both located in the Castello district, there are multiple national pavilions and collateral exhibitions scattered throughout the city. (The Venice Film Festival is part of the greater exhibition and will be held September 2nd through 12th.)
Navigating the Biennale
Now that the jam-packed, party-heavy, art world people-watching days of the Vernissage opening period in early May have passed, the city has settled into a comfortable groove that allows visitors an opportunity to see some pretty interesting art as well as fabulous interiors that are generally shut tight to the public. There are several ways to take part in the Biennale activities and exhibitions. The good news is that you don’t even need to love contemporary art to enjoy the experience.
For more than a century, the Venice Biennial has been one of the most prestigious cultural institutions in the world. Founded in 1895, it has been avant-garde in the promotion of new artistic trends and the organization of international contemporary arts events in accordance with a unique multi-disciplinary model.
The 56th edition this year was curated by Nigerian-born Okwui Enwezor, a curator, art critic, editor and writer. He titled this year’s exhibition, “All the World’s Futures” and you will see the title plastered on everything from a vaporetto to the side of a building. Each edition has a different curator, publicly announced about eighteen months in advance by the Biennale organization.
Eighty-nine national participants are exhibited in the historical pavilions at the Giardini, in the Arsenale and throughout the city of Venice. The countries participating for the first time in the exhibition are Grenada, Mauritius, Mongolia, Mozambique and Seychelles.
Additionally, there are 44 collateral events at locations throughout Venice, which are approved by the curator of the international exhibition and promoted by non-profit national and international institutions. That is a lot of art to take in during one visit!
The most obvious way to experience the Biennale is to purchase a ticket and go through the Giardini and Arsenale venues. Regular tickets cost 25€ and allow for one entry into each venue. It should be noted that these do not need to be used on the same day. For those who might want to come back again, a special 30€ ticket allows for multiple entrances into each venue over a consecutive two-day period.
As it can be overwhelming taking in so much art, the two-day pass is an excellent compromise so that one has the option of returning at another time. For those who might be in Venice longer, an 80€ pass will last until the close of the exhibition in November and allow for unlimited entry into both venues.
After viewing the exhibitions in the Giardini and the Arsenale, the collateral events around the city are plentiful! These are often free of charge and are an excellent way to enjoy the Biennale. Not all of the collateral exhibitions run through the November close date, so if there is something specific you have your heart set on seeing, do some advance homework to verify that it will still be on view during your stay.
The choice of what to see and where to go is certainly overwhelming in this period, there are endless possibilities. Where does one start? To begin with, the Biennale website – www.labiennale.org — is extremely informative and an excellent way to get a good overview. Also, now that the opening days have passed, there are many articles online about top things to see at the Biennale. Everyone online has an opinion, which is helpful if you need guidance on what to see.
If contemporary art is not your thing, you can still enjoy the Biennale on your own terms. Going through the main exhibitions is not for everyone nor do all visitors have a full day or two to dedicate to seeing them. So while contemporary art may not be on your immediate radar, by paying attention to the collateral events around town, one can see some art as well as palace interiors that are not usually accessible.
For example, it’s always a lovely walk from the Punta della Dogana up along the Zattere. There are no fewer than seven exhibitions along that stretch of Venice; seven new spaces to enter and look around. It has been said before that the palace interiors are sometimes more interesting than the art. It’s so hard to compete with Venice!
These exhibitions can be found effortlessly. As you stroll through Venice, look for the posters and banners that are everywhere, even hung from balconies on the Grand Canal or propped up on the street close to the entrances. The posters and banners are a tip-off that something is inside. Once you have seen a few, you will start to notice them throughout the city. While these exhibitions are generally free to the public, you will note that they do close on Monday, which is the Biennale’s weekly closing day.
Some highlights that should not be missed are the pavilions for the United States., Japan, Australia, Armenia, and the the Doug Argue Exhibition. Should you arrive in Venice via the airport, you will already have a chance to see your first Biennale exhibition, “Secret Power” by Simon Denny, which is on display in the arrivals area. This is the first time an artist has exhibited inside Venice’s Marco Polo Airport. His exhibition continues in Venice at the Marciana Library in Piazza San Marco.
The United States is represented by Joan Jonas, 78, who began her artistic career as a sculptor in the 1960s before moving into performance art and becoming an early adapter to video in the 1970s. Her multimedia, site-specific installation, “The Come to Us without a Word” encompasses video, performance, installation, sound, text, and drawing and has been called a “triumph” by the The New York Times art critic Roberta Smith.
Jonas spent all spring living in Venice and bringing her vision to completion by being on-site every day, leaving no detail to chance. Since 1968, her practice has explored ways of seeing, the rhythms of ritual, and the authority of objects and gestures. Jonas’s exhibition received an honorable mention from the Biennale jury. She will return to Venice this summer to give three live performances at the Teatro Piccolo Arsenale on July 20, 21 and 22.
The Japanese Pavilion is literally a sea of yarn with the installation, “The Key in the Hand” by Chiharu Shiota (pictured above). The artist solicited thousands of keys from the public to create the work. Upon entering the pavilion, the visitor is confronted with a large-scale web of red yarn that almost fills the entire space of the pavilion. Attached to the end of each piece of yarn is a key.
The artist’s idea for the use of the keys came about because keys are used to protect valuable things like homes, assets and our own personal safety. The warmth of our hands embraces these keys as we use them and by “coming into contact with people’s warmth on a daily basis, the keys accumulate countless, multi-layered memories that dwell within us.” The installation is peaceful and contemplative and an enormous surprise upon entry to see such a sea of bright red.
The city of Venice is not known for its innovative architecture since no new construction is allowed, just refurbishment. An exception to this rule is the construction of the new Australian pavilion, the only 21st-century pavilion in the Giardini and the first new building in Venice in 20 years. The new building replaces the previous pavilion, in the same location.
The building, designed by architects Denton Corker Marshall, is a black rectangle that hangs out on the canal behind the Giardini. The inaugural exhibition by Fiona Hall is an immersive installation that confronts global, political, financial and environmental events and issues. Hall is one of many women chosen to represent her country, a trend seen in many of the national pavilions.
The Golden Lion was awarded to the Republic of Armenia this year which showcased a group exhibition by artists of the Armenian Diaspora on the island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni. The award was fitting and much deserved in this symbolic year 2015 on the occasion of the one hundredth commemoration of the Armenian Genocide. The exhibition location also holds special significance as the Armenian monk Mekhitar established the Mekhitarist Order there in 1717.
It was on the island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni that Lord Byron studied the Armenian language in the early 19th century. Many important works of European literature and religious texts were first translated into Armenian on this scenic island. Over its 300-year history the Monastery of San Lazzaro with its gardens, former print shop, cloisters, museum and library, has helped to preserve Armenia’s unique cultural heritage, much of which might otherwise have been lost. The exhibition is phenomenal and the visit to the exquisite island is an added bonus.
Moving away from the Giardini, Arsenale and national pavilions and into the center of Venice brings you close to the Accademia Bridge in the Palazzo Contarini dal Zaffo with four monumental works by Doug Argue, an American-born, New York-based artist. The non-profit organization Save Venice Inc. presents it first foray into the contemporary art scene with Argue’s Scattered Rhymes, held in conjunction with the 2015 Venice Biennale. The title of the exhibition pays homage to Rime Sparse, the collection of sonnets by the 13th-century Italian poet Petrarch.
These site-specific works were inspired in part by Titian and Tintoretto, two master painters of Renaissance Venice. Argue’s paintings capture the effect of the city’s canals, narrow streets, and particular red brickwork at the same time that they continue his ongoing efforts to suggest the passage of time, light, motion, and how the past informs the present. This is just one example of gaining access to a palace on the Grand Canal that is otherwise closed to the public.
There is no better time to visit Venice than during a visual arts Biennale year, such as this one. La Serenissima shines at the moment while inviting you to explore the city, stopping in numerous exhibitions here and there while winding your way throughout the city. There is no area left untouched and this is the beauty and reach of the Venice Biennale. More artists want to participate each year and because space is limited in the main venues, they seek out unique spaces for their installations. Venice Biennale truly offers something for every visitor.
–Jill Weinreich Luppi
Jill Weinreich Luppi, an American living in Venice, last wrote about daily life in Venice for the October 2014 issue of Dream of Italy.