A round-up of the Venice Biennale for all you need to know

With so much to see at the Venice Biennale it can feel like an endurance test; Craig Garrett provides a guide
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Bice Curiger, Director of the 54th Venice Biennale International Art Exhibition

1 / 10 Bice Curiger, Director of the 54th Venice Biennale International Art Exhibition

2 / 10

Oscar Tuazon with The Trees (2011), his ‘para-pavilion’ in the Giardini

3 / 10 Oscar Tuazon with The Trees (2011), his ‘para-pavilion’ in the Giardini

Monika Sosnowska, model for Antechamber (2011), another ‘para-pavilion’

4 / 10 Monika Sosnowska, model for Antechamber (2011), another ‘para-pavilion’

Thomas Hirschhorn, Crystal of Resistance (2011), in the Swiss Pavilion

5 / 10 Thomas Hirschhorn, Crystal of Resistance (2011), in the Swiss Pavilion

Thomas Hirschhorn, Crystal of Resistance (2011), in the Swiss Pavilion

6 / 10 Thomas Hirschhorn, Crystal of Resistance (2011), in the Swiss Pavilion

Christian Marclay, The Clock (2010), shown in the Arsenale

7 / 10 Christian Marclay, The Clock (2010), shown in the Arsenale

Visitors queue for hours to enter the British Pavilion

8 / 10 Visitors queue for hours to enter the British Pavilion

Barry X Ball, Envy (2008-10), at the Museum of 18th Century Venice at Ca’Rezzonico

9 / 10 Barry X Ball, Envy (2008-10), at the Museum of 18th Century Venice at Ca’Rezzonico

Roman Abramovich’s yacht, Luna, moored in front of the Giardini

10 / 10 Roman Abramovich’s yacht, Luna, moored in front of the Giardini


It’s never easy to grasp the entirety of the Venice Biennale in a single visit, but with more nations participating this year than ever before - 89 - plus countless collateral exhibitions, it is increasingly a test of human endurance.

Bice Curiger, Director of this 54th edition, deserves praise for the main exhibition, ILLUMInations. With new works by rising contemporary artists from around the world, including Carol Bove, Yto Barrada, Urs Fischer and R. H. Quaytman, it strives to capture the spirit of its time, and for the most part it succeeds. Working with a small budget, and given little more than a year to prepare, Curiger has put together an exhibition that is thoughtful, consistent and visually arresting. Her master stroke, however, was the creation of four ‘para-pavilions’ throughout the exhibition, each consisting of an architectural installation designed by a sculptor - Song Dong, Monika Sosnowska, Oscar Tuazon and Franz West - to display works by other artists. In an exhibition criticised by some as insufficiently confrontational, these para-pavilions provide several of the show’s most exciting moments, their collisions of diverse artworks throwing off showers of sparks (in keeping with the exhibition’s theme).  

As always, the permanent national pavilions provoke the full range of human response, from agony to ecstasy. Demonstrating the depths to which art can descend when national politics trump creative vision, the Italian Pavilion is even more of a train wreck than it was in 2009. At the other end of the spectrum, Poland has given its pavilion to Israeli artist Yael Bartana, whose moving project about the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland combines historical fact with speculative fiction. In the Swiss Pavilion, Thomas Hirschhorn, originally from Bern but now living outside Paris, has created one of his signature immersive sculptures, a tsunami of consumer detritus and political philosophy powered by the artist’s stubborn sense of hope. 

Crowded installations in pavilions throughout the Giardini led to long queues during the opening days, with visitors waiting as long as two hours to enter Mike Nelson’s installation at the British Pavilion. The Biennale’s Golden Lion award for best national pavilion went to Germany for an installation by the artist, filmmaker and theatre director Christoph Schlingensief. Begun last year, just months before Schlingensief died of cancer, it looks back on his personal and creative lives, providing one of the most affecting emotional experiences of the Biennale. The Golden Lion for best artwork in the main exhibition went to Christian Marclay’s The Clock, a 24-hour video collage that gleefully demolishes the wall between art and entertainment. The Clock has become a crowd-pleasing sensation wherever it has been shown, and Venice is no exception, with many viewers glued to its screen for hours at a time.

Unfortunately, time was a scarce commodity during the Biennale’s opening days, and dozens of collateral exhibitions beckoned from permanent galleries like François Pinault’s Punta della Dogana and historical buildings in far-flung corners of the city. Standout solo shows include Enrico David at the Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa, Barry X Ball at the Museum of 18th Century Venice at Ca’Rezzonico, and Karla Black at the Palazzo Pisani. Worthwhile group shows include works from the Fondazione Prada Collection curated by Germano Celant, and Jacqueline Miro and Tim Nye’s Venice in Venice, an exhibition of works made since 1960 by artists in Venice, California, including Robert Irwin, Bruce Conner and Larry Bell.

Collectors such as Prada and Pinault were not the only ones using Venice as an opportunity to flex their muscles. (The exhibition of Pinault’s collection at the Palazzo Grassi is titled The World Belongs to You - very nearly true in his case.) On each evening during the Biennale’s opening days, a roster of private dinners and parties battled for the attention of VIPs. Dealers, having financed the fabrication and shipping costs of the artworks in the Biennale’s main exhibition, were conspicuously present, as were countless members of the PR and fashion tribes, no doubt attracted by the scent of luxury and free prosecco. Topping them all, however, was Roman Abramovich, who moored his mega-yacht directly in front of the Giardini, demonstrating once and for all that a rising tide lifts some boats higher than others.

 

Craig Garrett is the Commissioning Editor for Contemporary Art at Phaidon


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