The 387 Houses of Peter Fritz (1916-1992), Insurance Clerk from Vienna - Oliver Croy and Oliver Elser

The Venice Biennale in pictures

As the dust settles on the 55th Biennale opening, Craig Garrett makes sense of what's on offer

About halfway through the Central Pavilion, one of the two venues for Massimiliano Gioni’s exhibition “The Encyclopedic Palace” at the 55th Venice Biennale, a visitor might come across four paintings by Augustin Lesage, writes Craig Garrett, our former Commissioning Editor for contemporary art.

As the wall label explains, Lesage was born in 1876 in a village in northern France. The first half of his life was uneventful, but then, while working in the local mines one day, he heard a voice telling him he would be a painter. A few months later, after hearing the voices again, he went and bought paints and a large canvas, and he got to work. He had no plan, but, as he later explained, the imagery flowed out of him for two years until the canvas was complete. Then he began another. And then another. Over the second half of his life he made nearly 800 of these intricately patterned paintings, insisting all the while that the artistic decisions had been dictated by unseen voices: “We are the ones tracing through your hand. Do not try to understand.”

For “The Encyclopedic Palace”, Gioni has assembled an extended meditation on the artistic impulse. As the exhibition’s 150 artists demonstrate, this drive can come from almost anywhere. Augustin Lesage is not the show’s only artist who considered himself a conduit for mystical powers. There are also Guo Fengyi of China, Hilma af Klint of Sweden, Arthur Bispo do Rosário of Brazil, and even Carl Gustav Jung of Switzerland.  Elsewhere the exhibition includes a number of obsessive hobbyists, such as the American Achilles G. Rizzoli, whose detailed architectural renderings envision his friends and acquaintances as towering edifices. Or Evegenij Kozlov (E-E), who spent his adolescence drawing erotic fantasies of his neighbours in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Gioni states that the goal of his exhibition is to explore “the representation of the invisible” and “the desire to see and know everything.” For art fans craving a succinct presentation of the latest achievements in contemporary art, it may be a disappointment. The same goes for anyone expecting a snapshot of the global political landscape, or a response to the world’s recent conflicts and injustices.



But the Venice Biennale, like other biennials, has long explored those avenues, some would say with diminishing returns. What Gioni has done is clever, courageous and, in a sense, a political statement of its own. Although his exhibition does include artworks by a number of well-known artists (Carl Andre, Sarah Lucas, Rosemarie Trockel and many others), their work is more than evenly matched by the creations of amateurs, forgotten artists and even non-artists (Jung, for example, or Rudolf Steiner). There may be an underlying message here about the current professionalisation of art. (Case in point: what can be learned on a £60,000 MFA course can also be discovered in a coal pit in northern France.) And, as any fan of political engagement will tell you, an exhibition about art’s capacity to picture individual realities is also an exhibition about art’s inability to picture collective reality.

Fortunately, the 55th Venice Biennale is more sprawling than ever, with 88 participating countries and dozens of collateral exhibitions spread across the city. It’s tempting to say that whatever can’t be found in “The Encyclopedic Palace” might be found somewhere else in this city, perhaps in a grand 16th-century basilica or on a crumbling island far out in the lagoon. Fortunately there’s plenty of time left for your search. The biennale runs until November 24. If you'd like a greater understanding of the way art fairs and biennals can influence the greater forces of history before you book your ticket to Venice, take a look at our books Salon to Biennial and Biennials and Beyond. And of course, don't forget Defining Contemporary Art - Massimiliano was one of its eight authors.  

{media3}First stop in the Giardini is the Dutch Pavilion, which features new works by Mark Manders. Combining wood, furniture and clay, these sculptures are the latest episode in a nearly three-decade tale that is part fiction, part self-portraiture.


{media4}Jeremy Deller speaks to a television crew in the British Pavilion. His installation celebrates the best of the United Kingdom (Ziggy-era David Bowie, William Morris prints, a nicely brewed cup of tea) while taking revenge on its worst.   


{media5}Intrepid souls wait more than an hour to enter the French Pavilion, home to a carefully installed video work by Anri Sala. On separate screens, two pianists play the same composition at slightly different tempos, while on two other screens the recordings are carefully synced by Parisian DJ/producer Chloe.


{media6}Lara Almarcegui’s installation at the Spanish Pavilion is a portrait, in debris, of a small island nearby. Each component — brick, soil, wood, glass, gravel — stands alone in a quixotic battle against entropy.


{media7}For the Belgian Pavilion, Berlinde De Bruyckere has produced the brooding sculpture Cripplewood in dialogue with Nobel-Prize-winning author J. M. Coetzee.


{media8}Eighty-eight countries are represented in this year’s Biennale. Before handing out the prizes, the five-member jury spent three days visiting every national entry, no matter how far-flung. Pictured here are jurors Francesco Manacorda (Artistic Director of Tate Liverpool), Ali Subotnick (Curator at the Hammer Museum), Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy (Chief Curator of the 9th Mercosul Biennial) and Jessica Morgan (Curator of International Art at Tate Modern). The fifth juror was Bisi Silva (founder and Director of the Centre for Contemporary Art in Lagos). Together they awarded the Golden Lion prize for national participation to Angola.


{media9}The numerous off-site national projects include Ireland’s presentation of new work by Richard Mosse. As previously seen on, Mosse’s films and photographs of the seemingly endless Congalese conflict, shot on infrared film, infuse war reportage with an almost psychedelic beauty.


{media10}Special mention from the Biennale’s jury went to a group exhibition organised by Lithuania and Cyprus. Sited in an incongruously modern sports arena, the dream-like installation fosters uncanny confrontations with performance, sound, sculpture and photography. In the basement, a modern dancer improvises movements on a darkened basketball court, while upstairs a robotic vacuum cleaner roams empty hallways.


{media11}The weather improved over at the Arsenale, home to entries from several other nations, including, for the first time, the Vatican. But the main attraction here is the first part of “The Encyclopedic Palace,” an expansive exhibition curated by Massimiliano Gioni. (Part two is in the Giardini’s Central Pavilion.)


{media12}Gioni’s exhibition is a radical rethinking of the world’s oldest biennial. Intricate, engaging and full of surprises, it shifts focus away from the contemporary world and onto the private cosmos of the artist’s mind. Pictured here are Pawel Althamer’s life-size portraits of local Venetians rendered in plastic.


{media13}Charles Ray’s larger-than-life Fall ‘91 towers over viewers in a show-within-a-show curated by Cindy Sherman. One of the highlights of the Arsenale, this mini exhibition includes a range of depictions of the human form, most of them uncanny, grotesque or both.


{media14}Stylised figures crop up throughout the exhibition. The tapestries and paintings of Papa Ibra Tall span several decades. In 1950s Paris, the Senegalese artist encountered the Négritude movement, along with American jazz, and his masterful works mingle these modern influences with earlier legends and fables.


{media15}One thing that sets "The Encyclopedic Palace" apart from its predecessors is the number of non-professional artists who, despite their inability to function in wider society, still manage to express themselves through astounding works of art. Autistic Japanese sculptor Shinichi Sawada has created a bestiary of fanciful terracotta creatures that look like they would be at home under the sea or on the surface of a distant planet.


{media16}Ragnar Kjartansson’s work exudes a stately calm, with a crew of musicians playing a slow piece composed for brass instruments. With their small craft gliding to and from the shore, the musicians will continue to play the piece during open hours of the exhibition until it closes in November.


{media17}Another example of Venice’s 16th century Theatres of the World tradition is John Bock’s performance in the Giardino delle Vergini, near the back of the Arsenale. Dressed in Bock’s signature white shirt, a woman accompanies inscrutable tales with a series of strange props. Nearby, a single white worm inhabits a “maggot palace”.


{media18}Over in the Central Pavilion, a large gallery is hung with Rudolf Steiner’s lecture drawings — energetic diagrams of his attempts to fuse philosophy with mysticism. In the centre of the room, two performers interact via song and movement in Tino Sehgal’s untitled new work. Sehgal was awarded this year’s Golden Lion for Best Artist.


{media19}Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s Suddenly this Overview offers a wry take on the encyclopedia. Begun in the early 1981, these 150 clay sculptures playfully send up both theory and praxis, illustrating important subjects such as a loaf of bread, an ape discovering leverage, and the Battle of Morgarten.


{media20}New-York-based artist Andra Ursata creates works that orbit her personal history, mixing fantastical elements with memories of her childhood in Romania.


{media21}The 387 Houses of Peter Fritz (1916-1992), Insurance Clerk from Vienna, by Oliver Croy and Oliver Elser, exemplifies another common theme of “The Encyclopedic Palace”: the obsessive desire to create. This overwhelming drive, Gioni’s exhibition demonstrates, is not the exclusive territory of professional artists. It also belongs to insurance clerks, mental patients, retired housewives and — potentially — all of us.