The Venice Biennale is the show of a lifetime with its wild and wonderful exhibitions scattered across Europe’s most beautiful city of art.
I’ve dreamed of making a trip to the Biennale for 20 years. When I found myself at the ‘heart of the art’ earlier this month, I was in artistic heaven.
This is truly the Olympics of the art world. But the whole Biennale experience can be slightly overwhelming – there are dozens of pavilions and shows to choose from. Here are my top highlights if you’re planning a trip to Europe’s biggest art festival.
1. The Giardini Gardens – German Pavilion
The biggest hit of the Venice Biennale is Anne Imhof’s Faust over at the German Pavilion, a live event which mixes performance art and dance.
Scary-looking Doberman dogs greet you and pace behind glass walls near the entrance to the pavilion. Actors perform throughout the pavilion but you’ll be lucky to get inside because of the long, snaking queues. Get there early if you want to be part of the full-on, immersive experience.
I had to make do with peering through the glass windows of the pavilion to get a taste of what was going on inside. A wrestling match was underway and the action spilled out onto the entrance steps. One of the wrestlers was left crouching and adopting a pensive pose.
The audience streamed past the actor, apparently unaware of his presence or perhaps hoping to avoid eye contact in case they got dragged into the action.
Inside, a raised glass floor covers the space whilst glass pedestals stick out from the walls. It’s uncertain whether the audience is part of the show or whether we’ve become voyeurs. It’s a powerful and disturbing installation with a political message.
It’s no surprise that Germany won the Golden Lion for best pavilion for this inventive show.
2. Damien Hirst – Treasures From the Wreck of The Unbelievable
Damien Hirst is no stranger to controversy. The bad boy of British art is renowned for whipping up a storm and dividing critics… and that’s exactly what he’s done with his show at the Venice Biennale Fringe.
Treasure from the Wreck of The Unbelievable is an epic event staged across two huge galleries in Venice. “Bonkers but brilliant” or “bombastic excess” are just two of the critics’ reactions to his show.
Hirst’s huge show is monumental and epic in scale, taking the visitor on an immersive visual journey which is compelling and fascinating.
Never mind Hirst’s earlier works – cows preserved in formaldehyde, coloured dots, butterflies and the infamous shark in a tank.
What’s clever about this show is that Hirst dips into art history whilst adding his own original flashes of brilliance. This is Hirst as showman, ringmaster and magician. He pillages everything from high art to popular culture but with an original twist.
Read my blog post about Damien Hirst’s Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable
3. From Russia with Love – Russian Pavilion
One of my favourite pavilions is Russia although it’s overtly political and there aren’t a bundle of laughs. That said, it poses important questions about the world we live in – the use and abuse of power, political repression and individual freedom.
‘Theatre Orbis’ or ‘Theatre of the World’ is the name of the show which brings together sculpture, installations, music and film in a theatrical presentation.
There are shades of Modernist Russian art and early Russian silent cinema, but all the featured artists have given their work a contemporary twist.
A black and white film dances and flickers across the wars like a 1920s propaganda film. Sparkling white busts with pithy messages strike a Leninist tone and perhaps question Russia’s political landscape in the age of Putin.
Grisha Bruskin’s installations are one of the main reasons to step inside the Russian pavilion – his works are truly stunning and thought-provoking.
Brushkin’s surreal tableaux of figures include a brilliant montage of dolls, soldiers with weapons, strange towers, communist symbolism and two-headed birds.
I’m told that the work is a reflection on the clash between the ancient and modern worlds… and suggests issues of power and control.
There’s also a strong theme of surveillance running through this show. Down in the basement, the Recycle Group have created a wall of body parts which emerge or are trapped, depending on how you read the works.
Inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy, the installation looks at the morality of artificial intelligence, web ethics and the illusion of a digital immortality. You can even join in with the help of a special APP on your mobile phone.
The minimal white sculptures aren’t wholly original but they are politically powerful and engaging… and the whole show packs a punch.
4. America’s Nightmare – USA Pavilion
Politics is high on the agenda at this year’s Biennale and the USA pavilion is no exception.
The entrance to the classical style USA pavilion is through a tiny side door surrounded by litter and mounds of gravel… rather than through the front door with its imposing classical columns.
“I don’t think progressive ideas ever come through the front door. We always come through the side door, through the window, through the tunnel we bore, we struggle for our identities”, says the artist Mark Bradford.
Welcome to modern America and the American Nighmare!
Once inside, we’re greeted by a giant blobby red and black mass hanging from the ceiling which we have to negotiate our way around before we can move on.
Our next encounter is with what looks like a decaying building interior which covers the main rotunda, complete with crumbling walls and detritus strewn around the floor.
There’s a palpable feeling that we’re living in a land full of lost hopes and dreams. Even his paintings look like hell with their bloody red and black swirls of paint, almost gouged onto the canvases.
Artist Mark Bradford’s installations are deconstructions rather than constructions. There’s a strong suggestion that all is not all is well in the ‘land of the free’… and the American Dream is an illusion.
The final video – Niagara – leaves us with an uncomfortable feeling. It depicts a black teenager walking down a city street, striding along optimistically but actually going nowhere.
What will the future hold for this young man? We’re left to ponder America’s increasingly polarised society, beset by decay, class and racial division.
5. Australian Pavilion – Photographic Art Down Under
On the other side of the world (across the Giardini Gardens), the theme in the Australian Pavilion also strikes a worrying note about modern society’s ‘rift valley’ of class and racial division.
Tracey Moffatt’s ‘My Horizon’ is a stunning body of work with poignant photographic images which chart the human journey. Her work looks at the personal stories behind border crossings and ask questions about identity and dispossession.
The New York based Aussie artist is exceptional and her photographic images and videos are highly produced scenarios of human stories from present and past times.
Often theatrical, there are references to films and Hollywood as well as to the history of photography and art. They’re clever and poetic… her ‘Body Remembers’ photographs look like vintage prints – and recall the tale of a maid in the 1950s who is a refugee working in a rural area of Australia.
There are other stories too – of asylum seekers, refugees and those moving across borders in search of new lives.
The beauty of the photographs is astonishing in its own right but the power of the underlying narrative moved me. She creates a compelling narrative which is a million miles from the conceptual art in many Biennale pavilions. These photo dramas are not just technically brilliant – they have a real heart and soul.
6. The Christ Factory @ Arsenale
The Italian Pavilion is the outstanding show at the Arsenale Biennale with artist Roberto Cuoghi’s disturbing production line of Christ-like figures. We enter through a giant-sized poly tunnel with side rooms – like strange cells – containing corpses or models?
An enormous dark warehouse is a bizarre and unsettling mix of artist’s studio, factory and mortuary with plastic circular tunnels. The crypt-like atmosphere has Gothic overtones – like an art noir nightmare.
The Christ Factory is like stepping into a cult sci-fi or horror film, perhaps directed by Tim Burton. There’s a slab and furnace at one end of the warehouse where replicas of Christ are being made.
I’m told that at different times during the day you can see staff working and filling moulds of the body parts. Sadly, I missed this experience as the ‘art makers’ were on their lunch break. Nevertheless, it is a pretty creepy show.
7. Glass and Bone – Abbey of San Gregorio
‘Glass and Bone’ at the Abbey of San Gregorio is a hidden treasure of the Biennale fringe. I stumbled on it by chance whilst dodging the crowds in a narrow alleyway leading to Santa Maria della Salute in the Dorsoduro district.
Belgian artist Jan Fabre’s works in glass and bone represent a lifetime of art made over a period of 40 years. They reflect on life, death and the universe as the artist takes us on a stunning visual journey with his questions about mortality.
Metamorphosis is the big theme at the heart of this exhibition. Enjoy the beautifully crafted works or delve deeper and reflect on the philosophical, spiritual and political issues surrounding life and death.
Inspired by alchemy, Jan Fabre pays homage to the tradition of the Flemish art masters who used to grind bone powder into their colour pigments – as well as to the craftsmanship of Venetian glass makers.
He picks two hard, but fragile and delicate materials – and draws attention to the fragility of life itself. It’s a powerful show which is given greater resonance by its spiritual location in a former Benedictine abbey.
The most striking exhibits include a display of glass skulls with the skeletons of real birds in their mouths. I was surprised by their strangeness and raw power.
Jan Fabre’s bone and glass sculptures reveal the fragile and transient nature of human existence… and, rather weirdly, like Damien Hirst, he’s also obsessed with mortality.
Unfortunately, I saw the show after cramming in both the Giardini and Arsenale festival sites… which left my partner Tony asleep on a bench in the courtyard suffering from artistic overload and exhaustion. Next time, I’ll get there earlier in the day!
8. Intuition @ The Fortuny Palace
‘Intuition’ at the Palazzo Fortuny is one hell of a show… because it brings together everything from ancient art to modern masters and the best of contemporary artists.
This is a truly astonishing journey around the history of art, carried out with style and panache. There’s a romp around Abstract Expressionism, Surrealism and Fluxus whilst mavericks like Yves Klein (of Klein blue fame) and Anish Kapoor feature en route.
The Palazzo Fortuny is an incredible, atmospheric building in its own right and provides a fantastic stage for this show. The big themes are intuition, dreams, telepathy, paranormal fantasy, meditation, hypnosis and creative inspiration.
Ambitious? Yes, very… the whole journey takes us from Neolithic stones from ancient civilisations to art installations by Marina Abramovic and modern works by Kandinsky, Klee, Jean Arp and many more.
The Surrealists form a large chunk of this show with masterpieces by the likes of André Masson, Paul Eluard, Man Ray, Max Ernst, Francis Picabia, and Joan Miró.
This is a fabulous show but I missed out on some of the live performance art. You’ll need to time your visit carefully to see them and they sound interesting.
On the top floor of the palazzo, there’s an intriguing installation by Kimsooja which encourages the audience to mould balls from lumps of clay while surrounded by a sound performance. Each personal ‘spiritual moment’ will be cast in the finished clay balls. Watch how it progresses over time… and become part of the art work yourself!
9. Canadian Pavilion – Wet, Wet, Wet!
Back at the main Biennale site, the Canadian artist Geoffrey Farmer has created a highly entertaining and impactful water piece. His spouting water installation is a cross between a geyser, unpredictable fountain, timber shed and a dysfunctional wetland.
Farmer has smashed the Canadian Pavilion to smithereens. This is your chance to get drenched to the skin by the water works… and enjoy the water show as it builds and explodes.
A geyser spews upwards through the open roof whilst trees reach through gaps in the ceiling. Dotted around the courtyard, there is a spurting grandfather clock and sculpture of Rodin’s thinker, reconfigured as a praying mantis.
But what’s it all about? For me, it’s about Canada grappling with being a modern nation – it’s the country’s 150th anniversary this year. It’s about the hopes and dreams of its people.
Farmer himself says: “The history of conquering and destruction and trauma are definitely at the root of this project”. Like the American Pavilion, it’s all about nationhood and how that is changing in modern times.
10. Taiwanese Pavilion – Doing Time
It’s definitely worth the trip to the 18th Century Palazzo delle Prigioni to see one of the festival’s most talked about shows.
This former prison next door to the Doge’s Palace is home to the Taiwanese Pavilion with its retrospective of artist Tehching Hsieh – entitled Doing Time.
This must-see exhibition showcases the work of the legendary performance artist when we was an art student in New York.
The remarkable series of works include his ‘One Year Performances’ in which Hsieh photographed himself clocking on every hour of every day in the same place for a year.
He also stayed outdoors in Manhattan for a year, charting his everyday experiences. It’s a powerful, thought-provoking and often moving work.
His story is told through photography, video, maps and scribbled notes… plus there’s the clothing he wore when living on the streets like a homeless man. Don’t miss it.
11. France’s Pavilion of Soundscapes
“France is fun!” joked a group of teenagers leaving the French pavilion – and I can’t disagree. This is one of the most entertaining shows at the Venice Biennale.
Artist Christian Marclay and Lionel Bovier curate Xavier Veilhan‘s brilliant ‘Studio Venezia”, transforming the French Pavilion into a recording studio.
Wandering into the acoustic space I wasn’t prepared for the assault on my senses. Musicians and sound ‘magicians’ perform and record their work, often getting visitors to the pavilion to join in with the creation of soundscapes. There’s a great opportunity to perfect your whistling too!
Expect a sonic treat and a few surprises.
12. Art around the city
The Venice Biennale isn’t just about the big shows. The whole city comes alive with art on every street corner, from the strange and surreal to the beautiful and brilliant.
Unexpected installations and sculptures litter the streets and canal sides, from strange inflatables to giant-sized sculptures. They often pop up in unusual locations to baffle and bemuse us.
I loved the a gleaming gold column at the bottom of my street – entitled The Golden Tower by James Lee Byars which rises up as you emerge from a maze of alleyways into a Renaissance square with a small fountain.
Another star attraction is a giant pair of hands which crawl up the sides of a Venetian palace on the Grand Canal. Lorenzo Quinn’s ‘Support’ is all about climate change.
Venice is a floating city which is still under threat and needs the support of future generations to stop it from disappearing into a watery grave… and ‘Support’ reminds us of that scary reality.
The British Invasion
If you’re looking for British art, head over to the Giardini Gardens where Folly by Phyllida Barlow is the star of the show at the British Pavilion.
Huge, bulbous, brightly coloured sculptures on sticks jostle for space as you climb the pavilion steps. Once inside, Barlow uses textiles, wood, cardboard and foam to create her larger than life creations.
These strange shapes made me feel like I was trapped inside a cartoon, being chased by impossibly large objects and giant balls. It’s cool and compelling as a show.
Fun and Games
If you’re looking for playful art and entertainment, Erwin Wurm’s ‘One Minute Sculptures’ at the Austrian Pavilion is probably the most fun you can have at the Venice Biennale this year.
Participation and interaction are the name of the game. There’s a caravan with holes cut into its sides where children can stick their hands and arms through the gaps. Next door there’s a room full of caravan furniture including a portaloo where visitors are encouraged to perch on the seat and meditate.
Outside the pavilion, there’s a lorry upturned on its head where visitors can climb to the top and follow a set of instructions from the artist. Kids will love it!
“In a way, the whole art world is a caravan,” says Wurm. Perhaps that’s a good way of seeing the whole Venice Biennale.
Is the Venice Biennale the greatest earth show on the planet?
All life is here – go explore and enjoy the show!
Visit the Galleries – The Arsenale
Visit the Giardini Gardens
Tammy’s Top Tips – Venice Biennale 2017
The Venice Biennale runs from 13 May to 26 November 2017. The two main festival sites are at the Giardini Gardens and the Arsenele.
Both festival ‘hubs’ are huge and it’s easy to try to do too much resulting in total exhaustion. I’d suggest cherry-picking the best shows… or getting a ticket which allows visits on consecutive days.
The main Biennale sites are closed on Mondays (except October 30th and November 20th) and there’s an entry charge of 25 Euros.
Plan ahead. There is so much going art that you’ll need a plan of action and a good idea of where you want to go first… and how long to spend there.
Be an early bird. I never saw the highly acclaimed Japanese Pavilion because of the huge queues and waiting times. Be patient and don’t lose your cool.
Germany is another hugely popular show at the Giardini Gardens so avoid the busiest times of the day and make sure you do your homework about performance times – usually around 11:30am.
There are plenty of places to eat and drink on the Biennale sites so take your pick of a picnic, outdoor cafe or indoor restaurant.
Extra pavilions are dotted around Venice in a variety of interesting buildings from churches and chapels to palaces and prisons. Down in the dungeons of the Doge’s Palace prison, you can see the world premiere of former Turner Prize winner Douglas Gordon’s video installation, Gente di Palermo!
Frankly, I was disappointed by this work and found it underwhelming… but perhaps you need to stick with it?
It’s easy to miss the smaller fringe treasures of the Biennale so plot a route on a city map… and check the opening times which sometimes vary between venues.
Most of the smaller shows are free, and many are in places which would otherwise be closed to the public. I’d recommend the Iran Pavilion at the Palazzo Donà Dalle Rose with a powerful work by Tehran artist Bizhan Bassiri.
Michelangelo Pistoletti’s ‘One and One Makes Three’ is an intriguing free show in the church on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. His circular ‘hall of mirrors’ is a fun diversion, but carries a serious message. At the back of the church, you’ll discover a great gallery displaying his mirrored works, reflecting on peace and humanity.
Don’t miss the Venice Biennale’s blockbuster ‘side shows’ including Damien Hirst’s Treasures from the Wreck of The Unbelievable which runs from 12 March to 3 December 2017.
Allow a full day to complete this exhibition. I’d recommend starting at the Punta della Dogana near the Salute vaporetto stop – before heading over to the Palazzo Grassi overlooking the Grand Canal.
Why not take a break over lunch and chill between the two venues? Otherwise you’ll be in danger of art overload.
Elsewhere, try to build in smaller shows such as the excellent glass exhibition on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore on the opposite side of the lagoon to St Mark’s Square.