Having returned from Venice we’ve already made a mental note for next time - we need four days. Travelling on Tuesday (arriving in the evening) and travelling home on Saturday, meant we had three full days for taking in the art, and it’s not enough. That’s one day for the Giardini, one day for the Arsenale, one day for various pavilions scattered across town, and not enough time. I’m looking at the Biennale map and there’s fifteen or more pavilions that we didn’t get to, let alone those museums and random exhibitions that you bump into along the way. And shops and bars, we really should make time for those. And the Lido, never been there yet. Honestly, after our third year of visiting we should realise these things by now.
These small considerations aside, it was a great short holiday in Venice, and we saw tons of stuff. Though I did find myself worried that the Biennale experience does tend to become an Instagram event. That is to say, there is so much stuff to see in so little time that it is inevitable that it becomes superficial. You find yourself whizzing past works, and remembering those pieces that made a good photo. I’ve just put the Blurb book together and, coming in at around 200 pages, that suggests there was a lot of photogenic art in town this week.
Scouring the memory, the work that has remained most memorable would be:
The Iran Pavilion, in the academy of music. The artwork itself was okay, but lost in the competition against the architecture and the soundscape. Whereas lots of (too many) exhibitions play “the sort of sound you hear in exhibitions”, usually an ominous rumbling noise, an off-tune radio, or music played backwards, the Iranian pavilion was in a genuine music school. Not only was it the most impressive Venetian interior you’ve seen, with courtyards overlooked by serried ranks of classical verandas, peppered with sculptures, and dotted with doors and windows of wholly unnecessary detail and diversity (and murals, and whatever you call murals when they’re on the ceilings, and all at least 300 years old), but also there was music. From one room we could hear a pianist rehearsing Romeo and Juliet (aka the Theme from The Apprentice) while simultaneously from another someone was rehearsing something equally classical on the trumpet. The sort of visual and aural experience you simply can’t contrive, dwarfing the efforts of most of the thousands of artists and curators who’d spent so much time putting this city wide event together.
Azaerbaijan - a fabulous wide-screen animation that was a classical tapestry brought to life.
The Philippines pavilion - big tanks of stuff receding into the depths through an arrangement of one way mirrors and lighting. Was it more set decoration than art? I don’t know, it worked.
A two-screen video by Stan Douglas about a space traveller who gets duplicated. Shown on screens that showed a similar film but mirrored from the other side, it was possibly more an episode of the Outer Limits than the sort of piece one usually sees in a gallery, but again it worked.
The Russian Pavilion, Heather’s favourite. Elaborate, painterly, atmospheric and classical, including full size figures that jumped up in the air every 5 minutes. Again more set decoration than work with something to say? Hard to say.
Canada won the prize for country who really didn’t understand how the Biennale works. Their installation in the Giardini mostly comprised a 90 minute movie. A 90 minute movie? They were one of 28 different countries with individual pavilions in the Giardini, which is open from 10am till 6pm. Who the hell do they think has 90 minutes to devote to any one pavilion?
USA - Interesting to see the reviews, in the Guardian and the NY Times, raving about this as the high spot of the Biennale. I commented that it was the exhibition most like what you’re expect to see in a regular gallery. A reminder that there were so many areas where, had they been the only art we’d seen that week, we’d been raving about them for days after. But as it is, the next pavilion came along and before you knew where you were you’d forgotten what you’d seen.
Also from the reviews, which I didn’t read until we were home, I discovered that the boat stood beside the Arsenale’s outdoor cafe was a boat in which 800 migrants had died trying to cross the Mediterranean back in 2015. No signage told us this, and had I not read the reviews I’d have been none the wiser. An impressive and controversial piece, if you got the press pack. But if you didn’t, it was rather an ironic selfie experience that will have been Instagrammed infinite times by people woefully unaware of how inappropriate that was.
Belgium - amusing figures in their own fanciful universe. Might have been less impressive if they weren’t the first pavilion we saw.
Hungary - 3D models of photographic contraptions that looked like they’d sort of work (I love it when there’s a work you can’t describe and that you didn’t get a photo of. You had to be there).
Venice's installation was one where you had to take your shoes off (always a worry) then had you wading through a plastic tunnel, through which you could feel Venetian water. More theme park than art piece? After a while you do stop caring and just enjoy yourself.
Japan had a big inflatable traffic cone sticking through the floor that made noises when you sat on it; Germany was really really German, ie there was nothing about it you could even describe but it definitely involved concrete; Brazil did a good dance film, with non-conforming dancers from diverse backgrounds making a point about their country not being represented by their government, one of many politically straightforward pieces, but one that made its point more touchingly than most; A big robot arm constantly swept up a tankful of blood, not far from a marble throne where an air-filled hose whipped around every few minutes; Poland’s artist had turned a private jet inside out, one of those conceptual sculptural pieces that impresses because it’s so large, very much an Instagram moment; and there were a lot of miniature roomscapes, ie dolls houses by any other name, good for a snap but a bit of a cliche. Oh and Britain’s pavilion was easily the most forgettable.
Overall we found the work thinner on the ground than in 2017, with the Arsenale being less packed (with art that is, it was way over-filled with punters, many of whom looked like they’d got their tickets with a cruise ship package and had no idea what they were looking at. In the most impressive Phillippines pavilion visitors book someone had written “Is This Art?”. Sigh.) and possibly fewer exhibitions across town, though maybe we just missed more. Certainly what we saw was good.
There were only a couple of poor exhibitions, falling into the Foundation Level “will this do” category, or the Advert Masquerading As Exhibition section (and, you know, some of those things aren’t bad. There’s a sculptor who does bronze figures with half their body missing, whose work is essentially an advert for luggage, and he’s quite good fun), and mostly the experience was satisfying to the point of being overwhelming. At the end of every day we were well and truly “Arted Out”, and glad of the fact that there’s sod all to do in the evenings in Venice, cos we were knackered.
The Venice Biennale remains the greatest art experience I’ve ever encountered, very much visual art’s equivalent to the Edinburgh Fringe, with as many idiosyncrasies and foibles. And we love it. I come home bitten to buggery by mosquitoes, but as sure as ever that we’ll be back.
Further reading: These Galleries have most artists at the Venice Biennale - Artsy