Viva Arte Viva

Essential highlights of the 2017 Venice International Art Biennale

Often referred to as the “Olympics of the art world,” the Venice Biennale showcases the work of hundreds of international contemporary artists. From quirky performance art to the giants of the artworld (Britain’s Phyllida Barlow and America’s Mark Bradford to name just two in this year’s exhibition) to lesser known artists, the Venice Biennale is the world’s most prestigious contemporary art exhibition. Among the 86 country pavilions in the Giardini, a handful really stand out. Alongside these, there are exhibitions which are perhaps less obvious but shouldn’t be missed, some of which are in the biennale’s second main site, the Arsenale and some are offsite throughout Venice.

Xavier Veilhan Musical Merzbau for the French Pavilion in the Giardini

Xavier Veilhan Musical Merzbau for the French Pavilion in the Giardini – Photo © Paul Allen

The Giardini

Enjoyable as it is to be immersed in art while visiting all of the Giardini’s country pavilions and the massive group show in the central pavilion, it is never an easy task to choose highlights. My favourites in the 2017 biennale include Mark Bradford’s “Tomorrow is Another Day” in the American pavilion, Phyllida Barlow’s colourful sculpture show in the British pavilion, the transformation of the French pavilion into a real recording studio and Geoffrey Farmer’s brilliant water feature that involved removing the roof of the Canadian pavilion.

Also in the Giardini, the Russian Pavilion presents “Theatrum Orbis”, a group show from three artists: Grisha Bruskin, Recycle Group (whose work recently caught my eye at Art Brussels) and Sasha Pirogova. The Russian Pavilion always tends to be theatrical in both concept and form and this year’s show is no exception with a hectic installation of sculpture, video and sound over both floors. Before leaving the Giardini, do climb the stairs inside a giant upended truck installed outside of the Austrian pavilion. And don’t miss the bonkers video installation “The Aalto Natives” by Erkka Nissinen and Nathaniel Mellors who explore issues of national identity in an often hilarious way in Finland’s Pavilion.

Phyllida Barlow with her work in the British Pavilion

Phyllida Barlow with her work in the British Pavilion- Photo © Paul Allen

Detail from Grisha Bruskin's sculptural installation at the Russian Pavilion

Detail from Grisha Bruskin’s sculptural installation at the Russian Pavilion – Photo © Paul Allen

The Arsenale

The former ship-building yard that is now the Arsenale features other artists invited by this year’s Biennale curator Christine Macel and more country pavilions. One of my favourite pieces here is the beautiful and horrifying video offered by New Zealand’s Lisa Reihana. “Emissaries” reimagines a wallpaper made in 19th-century France called Les Sauvages De La Mer Pacifique, 1804—1805, also known as “Captain Cook’s voyages”. Using twenty-first century digital technology, the video shows both known and invented encounters between the British navigators and the native people of New Zealand. Also focusing on a country’s indigenous population is Chile’s contribution.The striking “Werken” by Bernardo Oyarzun is a large installation of 1000 ceremonial Mapuche masks (kollong) occupying the center of the room.The masks are supported by rods of natural iron and the perimeter walls of the room are surrounded with led signs showing the 6906 Mapuche surnames still in existence.

Werken by Bernardo Oyarzun in Chile's Pavilion in the Arsenale

Werken by Bernardo Oyarzun in Chile’s Pavilion in the Arsenale – Photo © Paul Allen

Offsite throughout Venice

Every church, palazzo, square and garden seems to host art during the Biennale so it’s not realistic to think you can see everything in one visit and it’s likely you’ll leave feeling you’ve missed a lot. However, it is definitely worth making the effort to visit Guidecca Island, a short vaporetto ride across the Grand Canal to see both the Portuguese and Icelandic pavilions. At the Portuguese Pavilion a collaborative project between artist José Pedro Croft and architect Álvaro Siza makes for essential viewing. For “Uncertain Measure” Croft  has created six massive steel sculptures with mirrored and coloured glass outside of Villa Hériot. The canal and surrounding gardens are reflected in the colourful glass and the supporting wooden stakes of the sculptures can be seen as a nod to the 60 foot wooden poles keeping Venice afloat. Inside the villa, small models and drawings showing the creative process are on display.

José Pedro Croft's installation for the Portuguese Pavilion on Giudecca Island

José Pedro Croft’s installation for the Portuguese Pavilion on Giudecca Island – Photo © Paul Allen

At the other end of Giudecca is a less serene experience. Icelandic artist Egill Sæbjörnsson presents one of the zanier exhibitions of the biennale with “Out of Control” by creating Ûgh and Bõögâr, two imaginary trolls who are projected as 120 foot talking, moving creatures on the walls of a former warehouse.

Also recommended is the group sculptural exhibition on the grounds of the San Clemente Palace Kempinski. The private San Clemente Island can be reached in about ten minutes aboard the hotel’s private water taxi which runs every 30 minutes from near Piazza San Marco. This is the first time the hotel has shown a series of contemporary art installations around the island, including in the island’s 12th-century church. Gisela Winkelhofer has chosen well with the six international artists she selected: Sylvie Fleury, Jeppe Hein, Lori Hersberger, Gregor Hildebrandt, Brigitte Kowanz and Julian Opie. Julian Opie’s galloping horse on a screen beside the canal greets visitors as they arrive by water taxi. And Opie’s sculptural installation of five wooden towers painted in various shades of blue provides a striking contrast to the dusky pink buildings of the hotel that surround it.

In a stunning palazzo overlooking the grand canal is the Future Generation group show which features the work of 21 young artists, shortlisted for the 4th edition of the Victor Pinchuk Foundation’s art prize. Their work is on display in the spectacular setting of the Palazzo Contarini Polignac until 13 August. South African artist Dineo Seshee Bopape won the prize this year for her earthwork installation but there’s lots more to see over the various floors of the palazzo. I was particularly impressed by the wooden rollercoaster installed in the courtyard by E.J. Hill.

La Biennale di Venezia in the Giardini and Arsenale runs until 26 November 2017. Most offsite exhibitions also run until November but check their websites to confirm. A pass to everything the biennale has to offer is 25 Euros and many of the offsite exhibitions are free. Aside from walking, the best way to get around is to use the various waterbus lines (the vaporetto). A one day, three day or weekly vaporetto pass is essential if you’re planning to use the service a few times each day.

Words: Joanne Shurvell 

Photos and films – Paul Allen

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