Every second year, contemporary art from all over the world comes to Venice and occupies this beautifully historic festival city. When the 55th Biennale di Venezia opened on 1 June, TUL was there to absorb the buzz of Vernissage and to undertake the contemporary art marathon—a curated international exhibition over two locations (the Arsenale and the Giardini), 88 national exhibitions, collateral events, and other exhibitions throughout the city—almost 200 in total.
1. As midnight ticked over, we were dragging bags through Venice's cobbled streets in a vain search for our hotel. Finally, in a street we had been down four times, the entry opened up in the stucco wall, like Harry Potter's Platform 9 ¾. The supernatural is a strong theme in the 55th Venice Biennale—this was the first magical manifestation of many.
The first week of the Venice Biennale of Art – the world's largest and most important contemporary art festival—has overwhelming crowds that include two hour queues to see popular exhibitions, but the buzz, the parties, the networking, the amazing books, and the sheer spectacle of contemporary art at its zenith. Art on this scale is a glorious, stimulating, heart-palpitating endurance feat of no small order.
2. Venice is not known for its food, but the coffee is superb, even the most casual sandwich fresh, and the Aperol aperitif an afternoon pick me up. In a city where texture and surface are seductive, detail is important and this Biennale is a testimony to revelations from the past.
The International Exhibition in two enormous venues—the beautifully restored Arsenale and the Central Pavilion of the Giardini) is titled The Encyclopedic Palace. Curated by Massimiliano Gioni, it is compelling viewing, an exhibition of research that taps into the artistic imagination on a grand scale. Its starting point is the impossible fantasy of an encyclopedia of all the world's knowledge (a folly developed by artist Marino Auriti), is traced through the visual narratives of 158 artists and 4,500 objects. Gioni's ambition is to illuminate the artists' private dreams, visions and imaginings and share them with the viewer. Gioni suggested that creating the exhibition was a form of 'speaking in space… objects and images and experiences that go beyond words'.
3. The Australia Party is held in a Venetian Palazzo, and Australians sprawl, as the evening wears on, through a traditional building—the chandeliers, the loggia, the courtyard garden, the canal frontage. Australian Pavilion artist, Simryn Gill relaxes on the bed in the cloakroom—rest well-earned after days of installation, openings, tours, questions. High spirits abound—black clad women merge into one—as another ventures up darkened stairs, they cry, 'Miranda!'.
Other disappearances include the roof of the Australian Pavilion in the Giardini. Simryn Gill's installation, Here art grows on trees, speaks strongly to the personal narrative in The Encyclopedic Palace. The work communes with the sky; natural light, rain and air caress the words (cut from the books that also inhabit the space) and fly across the wall like a swarm of bees. Her 'noughts' series, hung on nails on the wall, include a pram wheel, aged and weathered like a relic from the textural layers of Venice. Painted black walls reflect colour and patina and bat natural light around the space. This display is gentle, sensuous, sensitive, and sophisticated in its subtlety.
4. Venice is an historical port, and even (especially) when art is ascendant, there is business to be done. This year is the biggest event yet staged, with ten new exhibiting countries who, 'wish to demonstrate their capability to be in the world of art'.
In Venice, music and water are never far away and, at the Arsenale, the combination is conjured by Iceland, with an orchestra playing in a boat under the ancient structure. It is a haunting, yet bleak, melody. In contrast, Vice Versa (from Italy) includes a performance piece by Marcello Maloberti with participants tethered with studded leather collars. On a monumental marble plinth four others stand, ritually elevating, turning, and lowering beach towels. Water is a common subject—notably Chile, with Alfredo Jaar, whose Venezia, Venezia highlights Venice's uncertain future, with a replica of the Giardini rising then sinking into a pond of green, opaque water.
5. Perhaps the spirits that guided artists like mystic Hilma af Klint, or Aleister Crowley (who explored the occult) in The Encyclopedic Palace also guide visitors through old Venice between the Arsenale and the Giardini. The route is fairly direct, but with exhibitions all over the city, the opportunity to divert is strong.
In Venice, getting lost is integral to the experience, yet during Biennale time it is usually productive, as an exhibition appears in your path. The Mexican Pavilion is a soundscape by Ariel Guzik in the derelict but wonderful Romanesque (ex) San Lorenzo church. Ai Weiwei's Disposition within the Church of Sant' Antonin is a series of steel tanks. Feel like a voyeur as you peek inside to see his humiliation during imprisonment by Chinese authorities. For a little modernity, view Tadao Ando's internal refurbishment of spaces showing Rudolf Stingel at the Palazzo Grassi. The extraordinary capacity of contemporary art as a place-maker and magnet is overwhelming at this event. See it if you can.
Image credits: Louise Martin-Chew, Venice Biennale Australia Council