The 2017 Art Biennale in Venice really deserves its unofficial title of the Olympics of Art. I liked this edition a lot and I discovered many artists which I will follow from now on. I realize that tastes differ, especially related to art, but I’m convinced you will find many works of art to your taste. The event is certainly worth a trip of several days.
You will find a wide variety of contemporary art, ranging from paintings and sculptures over videos to installations and performances. Besides the pavilions in the main sites Giardini and Arsenale, there are also a huge number of events and exhibitions all over the city. Some are officially linked to the Art Biennale, others aren’t. This abundance of events seems to be increasing at every new edition.
When planning your trip, make sure to foresee enough time. Even though I had 5 days, my visit was too short. I didn’t want to rush from one place to another and I took time to really enjoy each exhibition. Take into account that you can easily spend a full day in Giardini, one in Arsenale, and at least 4 days to see everything in the city. Large exhibitions such as Intuition at Palazzo Fortuny (more info in my post ‘Follow your Intuition to Palazzo Fortuny’) or Damien Hirst at Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana (more info in my post ’18 reasons to visit Venice in 2017′) require several hours to visit. Besides that, it also takes time to walk from one location to another.
Making this list of my 8 favourite pavilions was extremely difficult. To start with, I limited my selection to the official Art Biennale pavilions and collateral events. There were however still many fascinating exhibitions to choose from. You can find my selection below, and more details about each pavilion via my Biennale overview page. As I didn’t manage to limit my list to 8 must-see pavilions, I will publish a second article with 8 thematic pavilions which subjects intrigued me, albeit social or political. Continuing the comparison with the Olympics of Art, you can consider the list below as my gold medallists, whereas the other 76 pavilions won silver or bronze. Feel free to let me know who would be on your personal stand.
Belgium – Dirk Braeckman
The Belgian pavilion shows large format photographs of Dirk Braeckman. The black and white, or black and grey in this case, prints of analogue pictures contrast beautifully against the white walls. Despite the dark colours, the images are very figurative and reveal much more than merely different shades of black. Thanks to the manipulation in his dark room, Dirk Braeckman creates lots of subtleties in his work. The intriguing works of art seem to have different layers, almost like paintings. While admiring the works, I almost forgot that I was looking at pictures. It’s certainly worth to visit the pavilion more than once. This will allow you to look at the photographs over and over again, in an attempt to grasp the stories behind the images. The Belgian pavilion is located near the entrance, so you could start and end your visit to Giardini with this astonishing exhibition. (More details, pictures and a review are available on the page of the Belgian pavilion.)
Austria – Erwin Wurm and Brigitte Kowanz
The Austrian pavilion is without any doubt the most interactive pavilion of this Art Biennale. It allows you to become part of the art or even an artist-to-be. Whereas most exhibitions have signs telling you not to touch the works, Erwin Wurm draws on the ground or on the object how you should pose on, under or in an installation. It is really fun, and young and old seem to enjoy it. His caravan for instance lets you stick your legs through holes in the bodywork or lean against a seat hanging against the caravan. Expect to wait in line for your turn or enjoy the other visitors/artists-at-work making fun of themselves. At the entrance of the pavilion, there’s also a large truck standing upright on its cabin. You can enter the container and climb to the top for a view over Giardini.
The serene light installations of Brigitte Kowanz are beautiful as well, but they are outshined by the dynamic works of Erwin Wurm.
(More details, pictures and a review are available on the page of the Austrian pavilion.)
United States – Mark Bradford – Tomorrow is Another Day
The pavilion of the United States plays on your perception right from the start. First, you have to use the small side door instead of the main entrance. As soon as you entered, you’re confronted with a huge installation which blocks the room almost completely. When you have to walk against the wall to pass it, you get the impression that you aren’t supposed to be there. It is certainly a way to attract the attention to the installation of Mark Bradford. The next rooms show a few large and colourful paintings and two additional installations. The last installation, a painted decoration on the ceiling of the small connecting room, made me think of the pantheon in Rome. Mark Bradford is known for his social engagement. In Venice, he supports a project which employs the prisoners of the city. Unfortunately, they don’t sell these handmade bags at the pavilion in Giardini, but only in the city center. (More details, pictures and a review are available on the page of the United States pavilion.)
Japan – Takahiro Iwasaki
A visit to the Japanese pavilion is only complete if you visit both parts of the exhibition. The best way is to start in the usual exhibition area on the ground floor. Here you can admire the gorgeous upside-down buildings, meticulously carved in wood by Takahiro Iwasaki. He also created several miniscule cranes and other construction equipment from very thin wire. In the middle of one of the installations, you will notice a big hole in the ground surrounded by blankets. That’s where the second part of the visit will bring you. Exit the building to crawl underneath the floor of the building and peep through the hole. Pay attention that you don’t hit your head as the ceiling is very low. You will be just in front of the small cranes so you can admire them at close range. The whole pavilion breathes patience and attention for detail. (More details, pictures and a review are available on the page of the Japanese pavilion.)
France – Xavier Veilhan – Studio Venezia
Xavier Veilhan developed one of the most original concepts I ever saw on the Art Biennale. The French pavilion changes daily as different musicians use the studio to practice and record. This fits perfectly in the Viva Arte Viva theme which puts artists and how they create art at the forefront of the 2017 Art Biennale. The studio is beautifully designed with lots of wood and with many instruments standing around waiting to be played. You can also see the actual recording studio behind glass. The experience is a very important element here, but you need to be lucky to see musicians at work. I went twice to the pavilion, on different days, but haven’t been able to listen to live music. A timing of the sessions would therefore add value for the visitors, so they can plan their day at Giardini accordingly. Despite this, I love the concept and the set-up and I will certainly try my luck again on my next visit. (More details, pictures and a review are available on the page of the French pavilion.)
Australia – Tracey Moffatt – My Horizon
The Australian pavilion lures you inside with images shown on large screens on the outside of the building. Once inside, you can admire 2 photo series and 2 videos of Tracey Moffatt. The first series of pictures conveys a very special atmosphere, almost like in a western movie. I loved the scenery on the images and found it very intriguing and extremely beautiful. The colour scheme and the lighting is really amazing. It took me a while to figure out whether the light came from a lightbox or from the ceiling. There are also two pictures which are almost identical, but with different colours and one person in a different position. This makes them look like standstills of a movie. The second series of pictures portraits one woman and her shadow in different locations. This series is more melancholic but also very appealing. I didn’t know the work of Tracey Moffatt prior to the Biennale, but I will certainly follow her in the future. I can easily imagine these pictures hanging in my living room. (More details, pictures and a review are available on the page of the Australian pavilion.)
Viva Arte Viva – Christine Macel
Christine Macel, the curator of the 2017 Art Biennale, selected 120 artists for her 9 pavilions, spread over Giardini and Arsenale. These pavilions cover different themes, such as ‘Artists and Books’, ‘Joys and Fears’ or ‘Traditions’. The pavilions run into one another, but you can easily recognize the theme from the selection of art works. It must have been an almost inconceivable job to select the artists and group them in this way. There are plenty of interesting and superb works to admire, so you will need quite a lot of time to get through these pavilions. Out of these, I have selected 3 artists who appealed most to me.
Michel Blazy is present with 3 works of art in Arsenale, of which 2 are located in the ‘Pavilion of the Earth’ and one is outside in the Giardino delle Vergini. His installations always evolve during an exhibition and this is also the case here. You will find ‘Collection de Chaussures’, which shows sneakers with plants inside, ‘Acqua Alta’ with a stack of paper slowly disappearing from water dripping on it and ‘Forêt de Balais’ with brooms which grow grass from the attached seeds. I would love to go back in a couple of months to see how these works evolved.
Lee Mingwei shows 2 performances in Venice. The first one is ‘The Mending Project’ in Arsenale, where a tailor fixes your clothes in an Instagram-worthy setting full of colourful threads. The second performance ‘When Beauty Visits’ takes place in the Carlo Scarpa garden of the central pavilion in Giardini (more info in my post ‘Explore Venice in the steps of Carlo Scarpa’). The host invites visitors to take place on a seat for a private moment in the garden. Both projects are very serene.
Abdullah Al Saadi has been keeping his diaries in tin boxes since 1986. He owns approximately 150 of them. The boxes vary in design and in size, and there are even boxes with pictures of Venice on it. They all have a cord inside to scroll the paper, inspired by the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is a simple concept but very intriguing to me. I would have loved to scroll them and read his life story. The location in the ‘Pavilion of Artists and Books’, next to the library of La Biennale (more info in my post ‘7 authentic libraries that will amaze you in Venice’) is perfectly chosen.
Jan Fabre – Glass and Bone Sculptures 1977 – 2017
The exhibition of Jan Fabre in the Abbazia di San Gregorio in Dorsoduro, is a good reason to cross Canal Grande. It gives an overview of his work made from glass and bones. All the glass is made in Murano where Jan Fabre works with the same glass master since a very long time. (More on the art of glassmaking in Murano in my post ‘Murano glassmasters: artisans or artists?‘.)When you enter the inner garden of the monastery, you immediately notice one of his famous green beetles, ‘Holy Dung Beetle with Laurel Tree’ (2017). I have seen several of these before and I still like them. If you look up, you will notice plenty of glass doves in the gutter which are part of the art work ‘Shitting Doves of Peace and Flying Rats’ (2008). This is a stunning setup, which almost looks surreal. I’m not even sure if everyone notices them. In the different rooms, you will discover several objects which are made of human bones or animal skeletons. Notwithstanding this controversial material, they are of a delicate beauty, especially the monk’s habits (‘Monk (Brugges 3003)’ (2002), ‘Monk (Paris)’ (2004), ‘Monk (Umbraculum)’ (2001), the ‘Canoe’ (1991) and the ‘Cross for the Garden of Delight’ (2013). When you leave, don’t miss the bronze sculpture on the roof, which you can see from the inner garden or from the Salute church. If you want to wander around the Dorsoduro area, you can find some ideas in my post ‘Dorsoduro: An amazing tour of intriguing architecture’.
As I mentioned before, making this selection was quite hard, and I already regret that I can’t list more. For instance, one pavilion about which I really doubted is Canada. The team has deconstructed the roof of the building and created a water show with fountains in different sizes and shapes. I couldn’t stop looking at it. I’m still unsure whether I should have added it to the list or not.
If you want to know more about the theme Arte Viva Arte and the different initiatives of curator Christine Macel, you can read my post ‘What to expect from the Art Biennale 2017’ or buy the detailed catalogue of the Viva Arte Viva Biennale online. More practical information is also available in the post ‘How to prepare your visit to the Art Biennale 2017’. You can also find reviews of the other pavilions via the Biennale page on my site. Finally, if you don’t want to miss the next post with the best 8 thematic pavilions, make sure to subscribe to the biweekly newsletter.
Enjoy your visit!
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