The 55th Venice Biennale includes 88 official national participants showing in the country pavilions in the Giardini, at the Arsenale and in off-site locations throughout Venice. Running alongside and influencing the national shows, is the international exhibition, The Encyclopedic Palace, curated by Massimiliano Gioni, a director at New Museum in New York. This exhibition draws its inspiration from an imaginary museum designed in the 1950s by American Marino Auriti. A model of the museum, meant to ‘house all worldly knowledge’ can be viewed in the Arsenale.
With the numerous official and unofficial shows, weeks, rather than days could be spent trying to see everything. Keeping that in mind, we’ve chosen the essential highlights of the world’s most prestigious, and arguably, most influential, contemporary art exhibition.
A generous amount of film and sound art features in this year’s Biennale so it was no surprise that one of our favourite exhibitions was Anri Sala’s Ravel Ravel Unravel which features films of two pianists performing Ravel’s Concerto in D for the left hand, alongside a film of DJ Chloe mixing the two interpretations. Sala’s offering for France was shown in the German Pavilion in the Giardini while Ai Wei Wei, Romuald Karmakar, Santu Mofokeng, Dayanita Singh represented Germany in France’s Pavilion.
Between France and Germany is the imposing Pavilion of Great Britain housing ‘English Magic’ by Jeremy Deller. Inside the theme is English history and politics plus there’s a tearoom where visitors can stop for a cuppa. 250,000-year-old hand axes from the London Museum can be handled in one room while opposite is a painting of Victorian socialist designer William Morris as a giant, throwing Roman Abramovich’s obscenely large yacht into the Grand Canal.
In the Danish Pavilion, Jesper Just’s Intercourses features beautifully shot black-and-white films of two young black men in Paris. Desperation, alienation and longing are depicted extremely effectively, aided by an atmospheric soundtrack but no dialogue.
The bronze bells and giant loudspeakers in the Polish Pavilion’s Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More requires visitors to wear earplugs but Konrad Smolenski’s abstract music composition is truly fantastic.
Many of the most interesting country pavilions and unexpected surprises are outside of the main two venues. We were pleased we made the effort to find the Portugal, Wales, Iraq, Ireland, New Zealand, Slovenia and Macedonia pavilions, as well as the Fortuny museum and a Lisson gallery show at a tower across the bay in Arsenale Nord.
Portugal’s Pavilion on a former Lisbon ferryboat, moored just outside the Giardini, takes visitors on 30-minute trips across the Grand Canal. Joana Vasconcelos has tiled the outside of the boat in blue and white with a view of the Lisbon skyline while inside is a womb-like installation of crocheted fabrics and blue lights depicting oceanic scenes.
And further down the Grand Canal in the La Pieta, a venue where Vivaldi once taught violin, New Zealand presents Front Door Out Back, the wonderful site-specific installations by Bill Culbert, an artist who has been using electric light in art since the early 1960s.
The Enclave, by Ireland’s Richard Mosse, is a gripping film and photography installation showing scenes of rebel activity in a war zone in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Because Mosse and his collaborators used 16mm infrared film, the war and jungle scenes are rendered in psychedelic pinks and other colours, making ugly, tragic events look lush and beautiful.
The prize for the most nightmare-inducing show in the Biennale is a toss-up between Bedwyr Williams’ film of a very creepy ceramic-faced dentist in the Welsh Pavilion and Silentio Pathologia in the Macedonian Pavilion by Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva. The viewer must walk through a large-scale sculpture made from 907,000 butterfly cocoons and 700 albino rat skins stitched together by the artist and see 4 live rats in cages.
In the Slovenian Pavilion, Jasmina Cibic offers a fascinating mixture of wallpaper and curtains printed with a controversial national icon, the ‘Hitler Beetle’. The beetle was discovered in a Slovenian cave in 1933 by entomologist Vladimir Kodric and so-named by Nazi supporter Oscar Scheibel. Eleven valuable, albeit gaudy still lifes from the National Assembly’s collection are shown against the backdrop of the Beetle wallpaper.
Welcome to Iraq represents only the second time Iraq has shown at the Biennale and features artists trying to make work today in Iraq in the wake of Saddam’s regime of terror. Jonathan Watkins, curator at Birmingham’s Ikon gallery worked with Tamara Chalabi of the Ruya Foundation to find artists like the duo WAMI who made a room with cardboard furniture, books and sculptures.
The hundreds of artists showing in the Central pavilion and at the Arsenale are too numerous to mention but personal highlights were photo albums from Cindy Sherman’s collection, pages from Robert Crumb’s graphic novel of the book of Genesis and Charles Ray’s giant female mannequin in a 90s blue power suit.
In the tower on Arsenale Nord, Shirazeh Houshiary presents Breath, a four-channel video installation with a haunting soundtrack of Buddhist, Christian, Islamic and Jewish chants. Climbing the steps to the top of the tower, we were greeted with stunning views for miles across the rooftops of Venice.
Last but not least in this brief roundup of recommended shows is the Antoni Tapies exhibition in the Palazzo Fortuny. Paintings by Tapies, who died last year, are shown along with work from his immense private collection, all on display in a lavish Gothic palazzo you could spend hours wandering through.
Words: Joanne Shurvell Photos: Paul Allen
Payne Shurvell Gallery is currently exhibiting Northern Art Prize Winner 2013 Margaret Harrison until 20 July