The 2017 Venice Biennale, themed Viva Arte Viva!, showcased the power of art and artists in an increasingly chaotic world.
Since the very first Venice Biennale in 1895, attracting curious tourists has always been part of the mission of the famed art festival. Earlier in the 19th century, a trip to Venice had become a right of passage for the wealthy and artistically inclined, to indulge in the city’s rich history, architecture, and troves of art. Nearby island resorts such as Lido began to lure tourists for simpler pleasures as well. But after the reunification of the Kingdom of Italy—with Venice slow to join—other cities rose in prominence, reaping the benefits of reunification festivals, parties, and celebrations. Venetians wanted in, too.
Local intellectuals, including the mayor, came up with a plan: create a one-of-a-kind art destination. They would hold an exhibition, largely of international artists, along with select invited Italian ones, in order to reinvigorate, “a new and distinguished type of tourism,” (read: fancy) in the city. For the site, they chose the Giardini, built by Napoleon, then considered outside the main area of the city near St. Mark’s Cathedral. Its founders could not have predicted how their idea would put the city on the contemporary art world map.
In 1895, the first Venice Biennale took place in April. More than 120 years later in its 57th edition, it has rarely lost steam, with nearly half a million visitors. Curators from all over the world vie for the coveted directorship, just as international artists’ reputations are made, cemented, and celebrated through the bevy of shows. When it comes to art festivals, all things eventually lead to Venice, and its famed biennial is the gold standard of what’s happening now in art.Today, biennales, triennales, and other time-based, location-driven art events have exploded, but the Venice Biennale, held every other year, is still at the top of the list. In the 1990s the biennial craze took off, to match an increasingly globalized and Internet-savvy world, and today hundreds of such events exist around the globe, created in Venice’s image. Notable ones include the São Paulo Bienal, founded in the 1950s; the cutting-edge Berlin Biennale, founded in the 1990s as the city reemerged as a contemporary art center; and upstarts like Prospect New Orleans, the years-old project meant to reinvigorate the city’s art scene. In the 2010s, it would seem the art world has gone a step further: from Desert X in Palm Desert to the Antarctic Biennale at the edge of the world, there’s no locale too far-flung for the 21st-century art-goer. Still, the art world only truly stops for one. Hailed for its parties, exhibitions, bringing together of the global art elite, and world-class historical troves, Venice means art like no other city.
The festival invites its fair share of controversy, breakouts, and star turns. As Geoff Dyer wrote in his 2007 novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, based on his experiences at the festival, “The start of the Biennale proper [meant] the onset of party-anxiety and invite-envy, the fear that there were better parties you’d not been invited to, a higher tier of pleasure that was forbidden to you…You could be at a tremendous party, full of fun people, surrounded by beautiful women, booze flowing, totally happy—but part of you would be in a state of torment because there was another party to which you’d not been invited.” Once the parties and fanfare end, the art remains up all summer and the stellar art history associated with the city remains evergreen.
The fair, in its current form, is comprised of 30 pavilions in the Giardini, a park filled with national pavilions, often featuring one artist representative of that particular country. Each country has a designated pavilion in the Giardini to be used in each edition. Unlike at other festivals, these pavilions are the property of each country and their ministries of culture run them. Think of it as the original Epcot. Countries without a pavilion will often participate, too, throughout the city. The historically Euro-centric fair has seen tremendous changes in participation in recent years, with the entry of China (2005), Mexico (2007), the United Arab Emirates (2009), and India (2011). For the 2013 edition, the Angolan Pavilion took home the prestigious Golden Lion award for best pavilion—despite that tourism to the country is largely prohibited. In 2017, Nigeria participated for the first time.
Tradition also feeds into the prestigious, and competitive, air of the festival. Countries compete for prizes such as the Golden Lion, but also for clout. Best-of lists dominate coverage of the fair, and outside the Giardini, project locations push the boundaries further and further, from palazzos to the very waters of Venice. The main draw to the biennale is the main exhibition, which gathers the best artists from around the world in the Arsenale, usually organized by a single curator who is named director of the Biennale.
The 2017 festival, Viva Arte Viva!, celebrated the collaborative, innovative spirit of art in challenging and divisive times. Directed by Christine Macel, chief curator of the Centre Pompidou, who previously curated the French Pavilion in 2013 and the Belgian Pavilion in 2007, it is meant to remind how art can be a guiding light in troubling times—clearly, a long-held ethos of the fair since its historical beginnings.
“Today, in a world full of conflicts and shocks, art bears witness to the most precious part of what makes us human,” Macel wrote in her curatorial statement for her directorship of the most recent edition. “Art is the ultimate ground for reflection, individual expression, freedom, and for fundamental questions.”
The sprawling exhibition was, “designed with artists, by artists and for artists, about the forms they propose, the questions they ask, the practices they develop and the ways of life they choose.” Works dealt with the experience of being an artist in an increasingly confused world by young artists such as Rachel Rose (USA), Guan Xiao (China), and Erika Verzutti (Brazil), to well-established names such as Olafur Eliasson (Denmark), Anri Sala (France), and Franz West (Austria), to filmmakers like John Waters (USA).
Macel took the unique step of dividing the large show into nine “trans-pavilions,” which functioned like chapters in a book. Overall, it was a far lighter edition than in years past, with Macel aiming to underscore the good that art—and artists—can do in the world. The 2015 edition, for example, curated by Okwui Enwezor, was overtly political and, as many wrote, pessimistic, focused on social and economic issues, and art that elaborated on these themes. The 2013 edition by Massimiliano Gioni, titled The Encyclopedic Palace, took on expansiveness and curiosity as its main topics.
In 2017, individual country pavilions attracted top-name talent from each nation, plus some surprises. Standouts included the American Pavilion by Mark Bradford, whose Art + Practice in Los Angeles combines community engagement and contemporary art. His contribution, Tomorrow Is Another Day, turned the pavilion into a beautiful ruin, meant to address discrimination against minorities in contemporary America. Erwin Wurm’s Austrian Pavilion compared the moment humans came to Europe with the rise of tourism in Italy in the 1970s. The life-sized installation also highlighted the similarities with the sort of tourism celebrated by the art world.
Another appreciated shift in recent years has been the focus on the work of female artists, who dominated this year’s edition. Beyond Macel’s well-thought, inclusive staging of the main exhibition, many pavilions not only featured women artists, but highlighted their output and influence on the art world at large. The Swiss Pavilion, a major hit among art insiders, chose Carol Bove and artist duo Teresa Hubbard/Alexander Birchler. Curated by LA-based Philipp Kaiser, the show, titled Women of Venice, looked at the contributions of Switzerland to the Biennale through the lens of Alberto Giocometti, who infamously never participated in the fair. Other major works included Folly by Phyllida Barlow at the British Pavilion, a show of abstracted sculptures by the noted 73-year-old British artist, and Tracey Moffat’s new video works at the Australian Pavilion. And at the Romanian Pavilion, Geta Brătescu, at 91, commanded her country’s showing with self-portraits and her series Women, which she draws blindfolded. The year’s Golden Lion went to Anne Imhof for Faust at the German Pavilion. Imhof, too, ignited strands of the biennale’s history, noting that the German Pavilion was a Nazi-era construction. Imhof, in response, blocked the entrance with fencing and guard dogs, while inside, visitors walked over trapped performers who crawled under a glass floor. The jury wrote that the work was, “a powerful and disturbing installation that poses urgent questions about our time.”
The Central Pavilion this year was occupied by Studio Olafur Eliasson and Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary for Green Light, Eliasson’s studio, which crafts artist-designed lights to raise money for NGOs. The community-oriented approach and belief in the positive reinforcement of art clearly tied into this year’s theme.
But the art is never just confined to the Giardini and Arsenale. Increasingly the festival extends far beyond the reaches of the actual fairgrounds as the city becomes a living art piece in its own right at the hands of international artists, curators, and institutions. This year, The Golden Tower, by American James Lee Byars, loomed over the Grand Canal. The late artist intended the colossal 1976 work—a 65-foot-tall minimal gold pillar—to be exhibited in public, and this showing, near Campo San Vio, marked the first time it had been done. Meanwhile, Lorenzo Quinn’s installation, Support, of white hands emerging from the canal, could be viewed at the Ca’Sagredo Hotel.
Around the city, the best art institutions turn out their blockbuster shows for the crowds, such as the Pinault Foundation’s Punta della Dogana and Palazzo Grassi’s massive Damien Hirst show or Philip Guston and the Poets at Gallerie dell’Accademia. There are arty palazzo institutions galore, such as Palazzo Cini and Palazzo Fortuny, which can be counted on for art-lovers fare. And with its stunning views of the canal, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection is a must-see. The name Peggy Guggenheim seems to go hand in hand with Venice. After discovering and championing artists at her gallery in New York, she bought Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal, where she lived, entertained, and showed off her collection of American and European art. Her collection, in fact, debuted at the 1948 Venice Biennale in the Greek Pavilion, giving Pollock and Rothko their first exposure to Europe.
Venice lives up to its reputation as a living museum. Its famed biennale may be a microcosm—not everyone gets a chance to view the pavilions each year—but the message it sends, to the art world and beyond, has far reaching implications. If art serves as a mirror of societal fluctuations, this festival portrayed a world in an increasing state of entropy. Venice’s reputation for innovation in the realm of art lives on no matter where the art world flocks to next.
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