Escape To Venice Biennale By Elizabeth Parker

La Serenissima hosts its 2109 Art Biennale from 11th May to 24th November. Our mission was to see as much as we could in three days….

Anicka Yi at the Venice Biennale (image courtesy of Annabel Yates)

There are hundreds of exhibitions all over Venice between May and November, but the Venice Biennale comprises the main exhibition, divided between the Giardini and the Arsenale, ninety national pavilions, and parallel events all over the city. Directed by Ralph Rugoff (of the Haywood Gallery in London), the event is called ‘‘May You Live In Interesting Times,’’ a suggestion that we may look on the alarming period in which we live with interest rather than just horror.

“The Shrinking Universe” by Eva Rothschild in the Irish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale (image courtesy of Annabel Yates)

Armed with sunscreen, umbrellas, and comfortable walking shoes, we set off to visit what is possibly the most prestigious art event in the world. We disembarked at the Giardini, as the crowds gathered in the morning sun. Our gargantuan task was an undertaking considerably enhanced by the illuminating leadership of Paul Hobson, curator and Director of Modern Art Oxford, who walked us through the international pavilion with his trademark humour, sensitivity and knowledge. What emerges as a dominant theme in the myriad installations (80 artists in all) is the Anthropocene – the period of time in which man has significantly impacted on his environment, arguably dating back to the Industrial Revolution – and we were caught up in the civil rights films of LA’s Arthur Jafa, the collage/paintings of Njideka Akunyili Crosby and many, many others, before emerging into a fog, as vapour poured off the pavilion’s roof and engulfed us.

Paul Hobson, Director of Modern Art Oxford (image courtesy of Annabel Yates)

Next to the national pavilions. Not for the faint of feet, scattered around the Giardini, here are some that caught our eye: Canada paying homage to it native Inuits with powerful video footage, and Brazil’s ‘‘Swinguerra’’ video comprising mesmerising dance routines, expressing the joys of its contemporary popular culture. Then the British Pavilion is a walk through Cathy Wilkes’ world of mysterious tableaux, with sombre figures and commonplace household objects under subdued natural light, offering a moment for contemplation.

Cathy Wilkes in the British Pavillion at the Venice Biennale (image courtesy of Annabel Yates)

A visit to the Palazzo Fortuny was next. This large gothic palazzo, donated to the city in 1956 by Mariano Fortuny’s widow, has earned itself a reputation as one of the most sympathetic museum spaces in Venice. We were encouraged to take time, sit on a comfy sofa, and admire these beautifully curated interiors, dedicated to celebrating the works of Fortuny, Pere et fils, both masters of design.

“I’ll Be Your Mirror” by Joana Vasconcelos at San Clemente Palace Kempinski Hotel, at the Venice Biennale (image courtesy of Annabel Yates)

Next, a restorative Bellini in the gardens of the San Clemente Palace Kempinski Hotel, which is hosting some iconic large-scale works by Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos, including her giant Venetian mask made of mirrors. Accessed by private boat from San Marco, the island’s charming little 12th century church has been recently restored.

The restored church on Isola di San Clemente in Venice (image courtesy of Annabel Yates)

The next day, we arrived at Saint Mark’s Basin just before the cannon shot to announce the beginning of the Vogalonga Regatta, in which hundreds of brightly coloured rowing boats of all sizes crowd into the laguna to take part in a 32km race round the island. Then on to the Arsenale, a complex of old shipyards and armouries, housing the second part of the Biennale. Standing alone is the wreck of the fishing boat which sank near Lampedusa in 2015, drowning more than 800 immigrants. Much has been said about this intervention by Christoph Buchel. Art or not art, this is a poignant reminder of the human cost inherent in the problem of migration.

The Grand Canal in Venice (image courtesy of Annabel Yates)

Weaving through the pavilions, Ghana Freedom is a triumphantly post-colonial collection of installations and paintings, while the Irish Pavilion of Eva Rothschild brings together four sculptural groups, each made of different materials (steel, resin, bronze) interacting with each other.

The interior of the Basilica of San Marco (image courtesy of Annabel Yates)

As we paused at Caffe Florian (which opened in 1720!), under the arcades of Saint Mark’s Square, we looked on the splendour that is old Venice; the sumptuous Basilica, with its horses that date back to classical antiquity, and the statue of the Four Tetrarchs, brought from Constantinople in the 13th century.

Jean Arp at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum (image courtesy of Annabel Yates)

Our last day comprised a trip to the Peggy Guggenheim Museum, overlooking the Grand Canal with its exceptional permanent collection of 20th century art and a special exhibition of the works of Jean Arp, spanning sixty years of this founding father of the Dada movement, with his fluid sculptural forms moving seamlessly between abstraction and representation.

Jannis Kounellis at the Prada Foundation (image courtesy of Annabel Yates)

Lastly, we made our way to the Prada Foundation, to see a major retrospective bringing together the works of Jannis Kounellis from both private collections and museums. Magnificently set in the 18th century spaces of this historic Palazzo, these eclectic works are not to be missed. Happy and blistered, we returned home, blown away, as always, by the marvel that is Venice.

Sunset from the Lido in Venice (image courtesy of Annabel Yates)

Meanwhile, in London, award-winning artist and designer Es Devlin has been named as the Artistic Director for the third edition of London Design Biennale, taking place from 8th – 27th September 2020. Devlin is known for creating large-scale performative sculptures that fuse technology and poetry. For London Design Festival 2018, her luminous fluorescent red Please Feed The Lions installation roared AI-generated collective poetry to crowds in Trafalgar Square while The Singing Tree, a collective choral installation at the V&A Museum in 2017, merged machine-learning with sound and light. For 2020, Devlin has chosen ‘‘Resonance’’ as the theme, which over 50 countries, cities and territories will respond to in their installations and presentations across the entirety of the site. Devlin’s reasoning behind the theme is that everything we design and everything we produce resonates. We can’t wait to see it!