THIS is a partner post to my guide to a day at Giardini at the Venice Biennale.
You’ll find all the practical information about getting to the Biennale and its layout on that post.
Just a note to remember. Forty eight hours in Venice will give you ample time to visit the bulk of the ticketed sites, and probably enough time to visit nearby exhibits like Macau and Hong Kong. Seventy two hours will give you the ideal amount of time to soak in Venice and navigate around its maze of canals so that you get a taste of the best of the collateral events too. But be warned. Venues are closed on Mondays, so if you’re thinking of making a long weekend out of your trip, be ready to hit the pavements on Friday morning.
To get the most out of Arsenale you’ll need a full day. On Fridays and Saturdays the site is currently open until 8pm…worth noting and taking a packed lunch if you’re prepared to be a real trooper!
This year there’s a lot to see at Arsenale, particularly in the Corderie and Artiglierie areas which function as collective exhibitions and that host over 100 different artists this year. This in addition to a couple of dozen international pavilions that are scattered around the old ship yards.
There’s so much different work on show, particularly in the Corderie and Artiglierie that it would be impossible to cover in a single blog post. So what I’m going to do is focus on the six things I think you should not miss here and let you explore this maze at your own pace. In addition, I’ll give you the tips for what I think are the six best national pavilions scattered around Arsenale and then a couple of little diversions to keep it challenging.
After you make your way through the obligatory (and always enjoyable) Bruce Nauman light pieces, you’ll eventually begin to run into the work of the late Terry Adkins. His sculptural pieces which often blend brittle and softer more tactile materials are exhibited in a way that allows us to enjoy his abstract pieces and to respectfully lament his passing.
Nearby Terry Adkins’ work is a piece by Italian artist Monica Bonvicini (Room #2). A former winner of the Golden Lion (1999), Bonvicini, in addition to being a presence on the international biennale scene, has also exhibited in major spaces since taking home the prize. Latent Combustion (2015) is a jarring, conceptual installation piece. Like roses being hung and dried, Bonvicini suspends her bouquets of black, rubber lacquered chainsaws from the ceiling. They dare you to walk in and amongst them, repelling you with their muted violence and the pungent smell that the industrial materials off set.
Nidhal Chamekh studied at the Fine Arts school of Tunis and lives and works in Paris. In light of recent events that have taken place in his native Tunisia, Chamekh’s series De quoi rêvent les martyrs 2 (EN: what do martyrs dream of 2) is sadly poignant. Artists rarely commit to large scale works without doing preparatory drawings (or digital designs beforehand these days). Martyrs on the other hand focus on the end and their end goals.
Preparatory drawings often are a starting point, a beginning point, and as such offer the chance to step back into the beginning, rather than focus on the end. In these beautifully drawn works, Chamekh seeks to transgress back to the original, starting point, to address the disturbed dream states of people who are willing to create acts of atrocity. These technically well drawn, though ominous images are carefully designed. Chamekh sparingly introduces colour into certain works and avoids it elsewhere, suggesting that these fitful dream states and obsessions are devoid of the vibrancy of life, even in their embryonic phases.
You might at this point step out for a breath of fresh air or some natural light to reset those pupils of yours. If you head out of one of the doors on the left handside as your making your way through the Corderie, you’ll make a pleasant discovery of Ibrahim Mahama’s rather phenomenal Out Of Bounds. It’s an installation of epic proportions, made of sacks that cover and transform the entire passage way that runs parallel to the Corderie. The young Ghanian artist uses these fibre sacks like a patchwork, achieving something that only large scale public works (usually done by much more experienced artists) are capable of. Here, the installation speaks of the inequality that is rife not only around world, but through the art world too. Covering the Corderie with a network of this fragile and sturdy object speaks volumes not only of Ghana’s economy but of the inequality that is even on show at an international art exhibition. Incredibly powerful!
Continuing back into the pavilion, there’s no way you’ll be able to avoid the delight of seeing artist and jazz pianist Jason Moran’s Staged: Savoy Ballroom 1 which recreates the Harlem NY space alongside a sound piece created by Moran himself (Room #7). A companion piece in the series, Three Deuces pays further tribute to the jazz clubs Moran never got to experience when jazz was at its most popular heights. Head over to Soundcloud and you can listen to one of his tribute pieces yourself.
You’ll need to take a leap of faith and your taste pallet when you reach Room #8. It’s here that Mika Rottenberg’s remarkable No Nose Knows awaits you.
Rottenberg is primarily a video artist whose work often captures the labour of women in the throes of physically grueling work. Dough makers, massage therapists, and here, pearl cultivation. These video pieces are intertwined with magical, fantasy sequences which lend a surreal layer to the work, transforming the mundane into something special. In the case of No Nose Knows, Rottenberg has crafted a shop in which the pearls are displayed, ready to be weighed and sold, cleaned, displayed in an articulate and organised manner, while behind, let’s say in the back room or sweat shop, a video plays, in which a Japanese woman rather stoically makes her way through a huge pile of clam shows, savagely prising them open and carving out the contents with all of the effort required of the task. But its when the cultivation takes place that the real magic occurs. A must see.
My final recommendation for the Corderie show is that of Kutlug Ataman. The Turkish film maker and contemporary artist singlehandedly redefines the concept of portraiture with his amazing piece in Room #10. With The Portrait Of Sakip Sabanci, for which the artist was commissioned in 2011 to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Turkish businessman/philanthropist, Ataman, taking Sabanci’s philanthropist nature, decided to pay tribute to the man, not by seeking to capture his likeness, but instead through using 10,000 portraits and ID photos of people who worked for the industrialist or whose lives he somehow supported. These images blink and alternate across 9,000 small led screens, suspended like a wave from the ceiling. This is a phenomenal piece which will have
you spellbound, suggesting that our likeness is created more through the lives we touch than our own physical make up.
Once you’ve gotten through the Corderie show you’ll be well advised to take a break. Recharge, rest and get some air, because soon enough you have some walking ahead of you, and even more ideas to take in.
It’s more of a mixed bag ahead. Heading upstairs into the South African pavilion, you’ll be happy that the substantial mix of offerings is brought together by the curators who reign in a very busy exhibit by adopting a monochromatic emphasis. You can read more about my take on South Africa’s pavilion here.
Next door is Singapore, which deserves a look in. Arsenale is a special place in that its settings often require more effort on the parts of artists and curators to establish a dialogue. Singapore’s take this year is understated and fascinating. What happened to that island?
You’ll also need to see one of the must sees of the year at the Biennale which is the adjoining Georgia pavilion. It’s the year’s political hot potato of the Biennale and I defy you not to be moved by it. You can read more about my take on the pavilion here.
Once you’ve headed back downstairs and made your way back towards the Isolotto, you’ll notice there are another dozen or so shows in the vicinity that will be vying for your visit. My take here is quite clear: these are small nations that deserve your visit, but if you’re pressed for time you’d do better to focus on the three countries that I feel are absolute highlights of the entire Biennale. Kosovo, Tuvalu and Latvia. All three achieve their aims using different mediums, different spaces and different mentalities. But all three of them will amuse and inspire you. To read more about my take on Tuvalu go here.
To read more about Kosovo go here.
And to read more about Latvia, go here.
Being geographically challenged at Arsenale says nothing about the quality of work. In fact, China is usually a crowd favourite even though it is located in the outer areas of the Arsenale. On your way over you’ll spot Xu Bing’s spectacular dragonesque sculptures on the water, and although they’re worth a peek, you’d do better popping into the Indonesian pavilion for a more engaging monstrosity. It is here that Heri Dono, one of Indonesia’s most famous artists explores international culture in a unique way (and one that will make you smile). Visit here for more on Indonesia.
China’s pavilion is a bit of a let down in comparison to previous years, so I suggest you pop into it first before backtracking into Italy’s pavilion, which, unlike in recent years, is well executed and enjoyable this year. Of note in the Italian pavilion, Codice Italia and absolutely not to be missed are Nicola Samori’s room: which set up as a chapel of sorts, sees its icons undergoing a series of deformations: and Marzia Migliora’s Still even/nature posing which recalls Italy’s rural roots and the memories Marzia has of her grandfather’s estate at corn harvest time.
And with that done, you’ve seen my must sees at Arsenale for the year. And you've probably earned yourself a week's rest somewhere nice and lush. I know I needed days to recover from all that walking!
I hope you’ve found this useful and maybe even agree with some of the things I’ve said. Feel free to let me know in the comments. I won’t bite!
Dave Di Vito
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Dave Di Vito is a writer, teacher and former curator.He's also the author of the Vinyl Tiger series and Replace The Sky.
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