I traveled across the world to a tiny collection of islands off the eastern coast of Italy to see one of the most important international contemporary art fairs. After a series of flights, water taxi rides, and a long walk through the winding city of lagoons and bridges, I made it to my destination: The 2017 Venice Biennale.
The idea of a destination international art exhibition came about in 1893 among a small circle of artists and art lovers at the Café Florian in Piazza San Marco. Led by then Mayor Riccardo Selvatico, a proposal was put forward that in April 1895, Venice would open an international exhibition of the fine arts to be continued biennially. 122 years later, the Venice Biennale is still the most significant international contemporary art exhibition in the world.
This year marks the 57th International Art Exhibition, entitled "VIVA ARTE VIVA" and curated by the French Curator of the Centre Pompidou Christine Macel (and the 4th woman to ever curate this exhibition). In addition to the fair's curator of the group shows, each participating country selects a curator for their own national pavilion.
Every other year, the massive exhibition kicks off in early May and continues through the close of November. A $25 Euro ticket ($28.50 US dollars) allows you to power through the Giardini and Arsenale venues, which includes 120 artists from 51 countries.
As an artist myself, I found the Venice Biennale deeply personal in illuminating the pulse of contemporary art around the world. I operate FLAX Studio, a workshop and showroom space designed to shed light on emerging creative talent in San Antonio. As a result, I am constantly looking to the top global exhibitions for guidance. I also participate in San Antonio's two largest monthly art walks every First Friday and Second Saturday in the Southtown Arts District. I often find myself studying art and cultural hubs throughout the world, including New York, Berlin, Paris, London, Tokyo, Mexico City, and Barcelona. This week, I discovered Venice, Italy.
Day 1: The Giardini
My family and I arrived at the Giardini gates on the eastern tip of the island at 10 am sharp, to ensure we were the first ones inside the shaded garden area to explore some of the original pavilions created: Belgium, Hungry, Great Britain, Germany, France, Greece, Israel, United States among others. This year the German Pavilion artist Anne Imhof won the Golden Lion for Best National Pavilion, so we immediately got in line to enter. After a 15-minute wait outside the space, with 2 Doberman Pinschers closely watching us from behind a small gate that surrounded the pavilion, we were allowed entry. Ominous tones filled the room of glass and steel structures, with blank faced actors writhing on the floor.
Almost as impressive as the artworks displayed are the buildings in which they are housed. Each is uniquely designed to reflect the country's sensibilities at the time of creation - often stylistically at odds with the contemporary work inside. For example, the neo-classical French Pavilion housed a minimal unfinished wood interior installation that felt as though you were stepping inside of an acoustic guitar, viewing its architecture from the interior and experiencing the sound from within. The space was replete with fictional and non-fictional instruments and a recording studio to be used periodically by guest artists throughout the run.
The oppressive Venetian summer heat is only remedied by thought provoking art in chilled pavilions, standing in the breezeway of a lagoon and visiting one of the booths selling savory pastries, coffee and cold spirits. After about 7 hours, we hit our art saturation point for the day and took a water taxi to our Airbnb for an afternoon nap.
Day 2: The Arsenale
In stark contrast with the Giardini, with its lush garden area dotted with a mix of renaissance, gothic, and victorian architecture, is the portion of the Venice Biennale called the Arsenale. Within the Arsenale, a collection of shipyards with touches of byzantine style architecture, the art exhibition is housed within two large warehouses. Originally constructed to produce the naval power of Italy during the 15th and 16th centuries, the biennale’s Arsenal building (1104) is the largest pre-industrial production center of the world. Made long ago from wood, bricks, and iron, the space is well suited for contemporary art installations.
The artwork exhibited in the group show seemed to have a synergy and power that the isolated pavilions lacked. The Arsenale was organized in 9 conceptual chapters including: Artists and Books, Joys and Fears, Common, Earth, Traditions, Shamans, Dionysius, Colors, Time and Infinity. The mix of installation, sculpture, painting, photography, video, sound and light captured the overarching theme of humanism.
"Art bears witness to the most precious part of what makes us human, at a time when humanism is precisely jeopardized. Art is the ultimate ground for reflection, individual expression, freedom, and for fundamental questions." - Christine Macel, Curator of the 57th International Art Exhibition
Day 3: Satellite Shows
For those of us with an insatiable appetite for art, there are always satellite shows specifically installed during the Venice Biennale flight. Of the hundreds of unofficial shows available, the two that came highly recommended and that I was able to visit were at the Punta Della Dogana and Palazzo Fortuny.
The Punta Della Dogana was the original Sea Customs House for Venice until French billionaire François Pinault came along and purchased the estate from the city and transformed it into a world class contemporary art space including a cafe and gift shop. Originally built by Architect Giuseppe Benoni in 1682, it continued to be used until the 1980s when it was abandoned and left in disrepair for 20 years. In 2007, the Pinault Collection restored the historic space to be a slick contemporary art museum under the direction of architect Tadao Ando. In 2009, the foundation opened its doors to the public and has programmed exhibitions in congruency with the Venice Biennale. This year featured a solo exhibition in two locations (Punta Della Dogana and Palazzo Grassi ) by Damien Hirst entitled "Treasures from The Wreck of The Unbelievable.” The massive show of video installation, sculpture and photography tells the fictional tale of an ancient wreck and the discovered precious cargo. One of the most impressive pieces was a monumental sculpture of a woman encrusted with intricate filigrees of colorful coral – all completely made of bronze. Noted as his most ambitious and complex project to date, this show took almost 10 years to complete. His work traverses contemporary belief systems and ancient myth, leaving you lusting for lost treasure.
The Fortuny Museum was the former residence and atelier of the famed Spanish artist and intellectual Mariano Fortuny. Donated to the city in 1956 by his widow Henriette, the museum now hosts exhibitions that coincide with the Venice Biennale. This year showcased a multi artist show titled "Intuition" co-produced and curated by the Vervoordt Foundation. The space uniquely feels like a living cabinet of curiosities filled with an eclectic mix of prehistoric artifacts from Africa, scientific journals of greats including Galileo, and modern and contemporary art. Moving throughout the space I was unable to distinguish Fortuny's household treasures from the temporarily installed work without the help of the paper guide. I found myself sitting on his couch reading one of his library books sitting beneath THE Duchamp bearded Mona Lisa. I experienced communion with art in a new and intimate manner.
Thank you, Venice; you are truly a city that inspires the best of creativity!