I love Venice! This has been my third time visiting the city, and it is stunning every time. It’s always fun to lose yourself in the historic city and is cheap to travel to if you don’t mind staying in a hostel. Last year, I had the opportunity to visit the Venice Architecture Biennale, and I thought: heck, why not see what the art side has to offer?
On a scorching hot Sunday afternoon, we arrived at the first venue. Giardini della Biennale is an incredible park created by Napoleon in the early 19th century. It has hosted the Biennale since 1895, hosting permanent national pavilions that host work of artists from across the world. The buildings themselves are works of art, designed by famous architects such as Carlo Scarpa and Alvar Aalto. It is worth going to the Biennale to just see the incredible pavilions in the park.
Each national pavilion hosts work curated by artists chosen by that country. There were many powerful displays, discussing social and political issues. The Dutch pavilion was incredible, focusing on acknowledging transnational influences on changes in culture. The artist chose to honour the contributions of black authors, philosophers, activists and musicians to 20th-century modernism, who fought for their authenticity and recognition. Iris Kensmil brings these women forward to the public to give them the space that they have long deserved and celebrated their contribution to western culture.
“I’m a black lesbian feminist, warrior poet, mother, stronger for all my identities, and I am indivisible.”
Another thought-provoking pavilion was that of Israel. Most of the public is aware of the ongoing conflict in this area, so there is a sense of anticipation when it came to taking part in this interactive display – “Field Hospital X”. In a mock-up hospital, you receive a ticket and proceeded to wait for your “appointment”. You are then taken to a “soundproof” box (where the helpers repeatedly assure you that there are no cameras) and are asked to produce three self-contained screams. On a superficial level, the artists give you freedom and peace to say whatever you want. However, there is an underlying sense of fear that you are being listened to, which makes you uncomfortable to raise your voice.
Afterwards, you are placed onto a bed, where you can watch a film created by one of the three artists you have chosen. I chose a video about Palestinian conflict – the artist in the video wore a sheep’s mask for anonymity and said: “the world acts like their stupid” before proceeding to masturbate in front of the camera. It is very uncomfortable to watch, as you can imagine. You then have the choice to listen to the “second opinion” of people from Israel who have also seen the piece. What stuck with me was the idea of this man being so aggressive and violent, but hiding behind a mask. As a viewer of this conflict, placed on a bed, you are forced to watch as opposed to “looking away” – as we do daily when it comes to Israel’s affairs. You are then given a wristband that says “here anyone can be free”.
Other highlights include the Russian pavilion, which portrays modern scenes of conflict as if they were renaissance paintings. Having just come from visiting the Louvre two days earlier, where paintings depict Napoleon as a saintly figure emerging from a bloody battle, this really made me consider how we view war in the modern-day, and how much the devastation of modern conflict has escalated. Venezuela was also very powerful, discussing the dilution of cultures, and showing powerful paintings and images. One image was of a crying child, transforming into an image of Trump as you view it through a tinted window.
The majority of the pavilions were incredible, but there were also some poopers. The British pavilion was incredibly obnoxious. Whereas most nations decided to focus on real issues and interactive artwork, the artist representing GB decided to place her name six times on the entrance, and show an incredibly convoluted set of objects, with a mythical description to go with it. It might seem that I just don’t understand it, and I really don’t, but it is disappointing to spend the day looking at very carefully thought out, powerful messages to then walk through what is essentially a self-indulgent display. Maybe we are meant to be attracted to the eccentric nature of the artist, who closes the pavilion every few hours to have it cleaned, but I honestly couldn’t see a single person there enjoying the show. America also brought an equally obnoxious and cryptic set of sculptures to the show, with these nations probably relying on their status in the world to entice people to stay.
The national pavilions are not the only attraction at the Biennale. There are also individual displays from artists across the world, curated this year by Ralph Rugoff. The theme this year was “May You Live In Interesting Times”, and oh boy did the pieces live up to it. There were incredible displays of art, doubling as commentaries on a plethora of sensitive topics. A highlight includes a dual-screen sci-fi film by Stan Douglas about a woman who is teleported and swaps places with an alien who lives a parallel life, connected through quantum entanglement. It raises questions such as whether a clone of you would have the same rights as you and who how would the clone relate to you? Is the clone part of your family? Once a clone is made, does it have the right to live, or can we just kill it?
Another awesome piece was a giant robot arm by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu. The robot arm was placed on top of a puddle of blood-like liquid and was programmed to sweep up the blood whenever it spread out to a certain distance. It seemed as though the robot was stuck, continually trying to sweep up the liquid against its own will, doing an aimless task given to it by its taskmasters. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for it as it did a little dance until it was suddenly drawn back to the aimless job it has been given in its giant glass cube. We can’t be free to progress as long as we have to attend to the pools of blood we are creating as a species.
There were more incredible pieces in the exhibition, such as a bullet-hole ridden wall from a school surrounded by drug-related violence in Mexico. Another stunning display was by Rula Halawani, showing photos of places from her childhood in Palestine, juxtapositioning these once idyllic safe spaces to wastelands riddled with violence and abandonment.
There are too many individual pieces to talk about here, but I will get to talk about these people more as all the artists get to show a second set of work at the Arsenale to contrast the first. The Biennale has been incredible this year. Although, as an architectural student, I prefer more interactive exhibitions, I have been blown away by the depth and insight of the issues discussed by most of the artists. I am excited to visit the Arsenale to round off this year’s Biennale.
Watch this space for the second part of this review!