By William Huffman (Published in partnership with Canada Council for the Arts)
It was a familiar trepidation mixed with exhilaration that gave me pause, staring at an email notification, its subject line instilling both anticipation and some dread: Invitation Vernissage 56th International Art Exhibition–La Biennale di Venezia. It’s the beginning of an every-two-year ritual for which I play a small part in a cast of thousands–as colleagues from every corner of the art world descend on a tiny north eastern Italian city!
Now, even though the Biennale email is lodged between two pieces of spam, this is no run-of-the-mill message, it’s a highly coveted endorsement of one’s prominence in the very status-driven, international visual art industry. It hovers somewhere between a champagne greeting and call to action, it’s at the same time a set of marching orders and all-access, back-stage pass–this is a kind of cultural conscription that we just hate to love!
So, in order to understand what’s got me all fussed–and excited–a little background would be helpful. La Biennale di Venezia; it’s the most prestigious international visual arts forum of its kind. Now there are other biennials like Sydney or São Paolo, there’s also that every-five-year Documenta shindig and those mammoth Art Basels of the world. But the Venice Biennale stakes out unique territory; firstly, it’s the very oldest of the lot–founded in 1893, it’s been going strong for 122 years. That aside, it’s also the most lunatic of any art event idea.
Imagine pulling together the official participation of 89 countries (some even warring with each other in real-life) and something like 44 independent projects, which involve hundreds of temperamental artists, esoteric curators and assorted troublesome arts professionals. And this all happens in a city that’s geographically, physically and conceptually impossible! I mean, it’s literally built on a lagoon, frequently floods, can only be traversed on foot, or by canal boat, and is overrun by tourists most of the time. All of which is counterintuitive to development of the most ambitious, seven-month, visual arts event on the planet. But it happens–and it’s happened 56 times so far!
Now what does this thing look like? In short, the Biennale landscape is divided thusly: the most important part is Giardini di Castello, where about 30 countries maintain permanent, bricks-and-mortar pavilions. Canada is located here, sandwiched between Great Britain and Germany, facing France, and just down a garden path from Japan and Russia. Ah, the company we keep! Each pavilion houses a generally grandiose installation by that respective nation’s artist or artists du jour.
Of equal significance is something called Arsenale, which is a cavernous former shipbuilding facility and one of the venues where the Biennale’s artist director flexes some curatorial muscle. The original Arsenale intent was to highlight more emerging creators but it has evolved into an exposition showpiece for the Biennale.
And finally, there is a scattering of initiatives throughout the city, which comprises provisional pavilions for nations without permanent homes, together with often very obscure independent projects. I think that you get it, there’s lots and lots of content–always some must see’s and very often stuff that’s better avoided. Planning is essential, you must have good walking shoes and a taste for Prosecco really, really helps.
If you’re planning a visit (the exhibits are open from May 9th to November 22nd, 2015) here are five things, you might want to ensure are on your hit list:
BGL’s Canadassimo at the Canada Pavilion:
The Canadian pavilion in the Giardini di Castello is awkward architecture, I think both unfortunately and appropriately, reminiscent of a Muskoka cottage. This year though, it has been completely transformed by Québec City, artist collective BGL. A structure of scaffolding expands the exterior of the pavilion, while the inside is retrofit to contain an ersatz dépanneur, one of those small neighbourhood convenience stores found across Quebec, and beyond that a makeshift artist studio. There is even an elaborate second floor coin drop, where visitors can insert pocket change and watch it zip through a metal rollercoaster–Euros only please!
Irina Nakhova at the Russian Pavilion:
Also located in the Giardini di Castello, some transformation is happening here too, not quite on the BGL scale, mind you. Entitled The Green Pavilion, the artist has partly restored the exterior of the pavilion to its original appearance by painting the structure, well, green. Inside you will find a series of five rooms, including one containing an oversized pilot’s helmet with a (slightly creepy) projection of the wearer’s moving eyes.
Secret Power by Simon Denny for New Zealand:
This complex research-based project takes a departure point from the narrative around NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Housed in two separate locations, the first happens at the arrivals lounge of Marco Polo airport–and is quite likely the first Biennale-related installation you’ll encounter. Look for the ornate, floor-mounted photo–it’s too large to miss, right next to the very last luggage carousel. The second location at the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana in Piazzetta San Marco, and here, Denny has installed a very Bond, James Bond, looking server room, with racks and racks of technology, a spy agency workstation and lots of NSA inspired odds and ends.
Jenny Holtzer at Museo Correr:
Not far from the New Zealand pavilion, in Piazza San Marco, and dealing with some of the same themes as Denny, this project is one of the Biennale’s collateral events. This exhibition of painting is a significant departure from Holtzer’s better-known LED installations and it takes a starting point from declassified and other sensitive United States government documents relating to the its war on terror. Modeled on memoranda, planning maps, diplomatic communiqués, interrogation records, autopsy reports, and the handwritten cri de coer from detainees, the work is a stark and jarring contrast to the heavily adorned museum interior.
Jordan Bennett and Anne Troake representing Newfoundland & Labrador:
I wanted to bookend my suggestion list with Canadian content! This is the second Biennale in which the Terra Nova Foundation has presented an exhibition of work by East Coast artists. For this exhibition, entitled Under the Surface, Bennett explores ice fishing through video and installation while Troake presents a 3D projection that shifts from the familiar to the wild, the natural to the supernatural. This is another collateral exhibition and is located at Galleria Ca’ Rezzonico.
William Huffman is an arts administrator, curator, educator, and writer with a history of extensive involvement on both local and international cultural fronts. Follow @williamhuffman on Twitter.
Photos courtesy of Cheryl Rondeau