There is no place like Venice, the city on water, or La Serenissima, as she is also known. She is glorious, rain or shine, flooded or not, and all the moreso during the opening week of the Venice Art Biennale. Imagine how, over cicchetti's or bellinis and whilst sitting in a motoscafi (water taxi), you can catch up with friends and meet just about every person in the art world in between experiencing all the art. The Biennale engages the whole city, from the national pavilions of the Giardini and Arsenale, to the cultural institutions of Venice, to the derelict palazzos that come to life to host a country or an art project especially for the Biennale.
There is a lot to see. Far more than is possible over the few days of the opening—especially with the queues, which are now worse now than ever, particularly for the must-sees during opening weekend. As the Biennale takes place until November, however, there is ample time to go back. Despite the frenzy and the queues, there are many things that make it all worthwhile: lunch at the Barganale with Michele Lamy and Ghetto Gastro, cocktails and dinners with friends from everywhere, yacht parties, the nights at the Bauer and later nights at Casa Dani, the French rave at the Torre del Arsenale, and the Palazzo parties (we loved Hauser and Wirth’s bacchanalian affair for Phyllida Burrows in the stunning Palazzo Barbero, and Konig’s party at the tiny but gorgeous Palazzetto Pisani—Palazzo parties rock). And let’s face it, beyond the contemporary art and parties there is Venice: her history, her canals, her cuisine, and her incomparable beauty, which attracts millions of tourists without a single contemporary art item on their itineraries.
The feast at Hauser and Wirth's party for Phyllida Barlow
Palazzo Barbaro for the Hauser and Wirth party
For those on the art itinerary, however, the Giardini di Biennale is one of the main venues: a real model of the world’s nations coming together to build an international village to showcase work since 1895. Altogether, 29 countries are represented in the Giardini, all built at different times. The Alvar Aalto-designed Finnish (now Scandinavian) Pavilion is a gem. For those countries that were not part of the Giardini negotiations, the Arsenale houses national pavilions, and the palazzos and other venues around Venice also play host: in the case of Thailand, a café at the entrance of the Giardini serves as our pavilion. But the idea of national pavilions seems a bit old fashioned; after all, what does it really mean to be from somewhere anymore? At a time when refugee crises and issues of immigration are at the fore, it is a question more relevant than ever.
The Scandinavian Pavilion
It is Germany who answers this question so poignantly. Anne Imhof’s "Faust" captures, in every single element, the concern of Germany and also the world. It was her presentation that won the coveted Golden Lion this year, and well-deserved it was. The queue is well worth it. The Pavilion’s imposing neo-classical façade is boarded up on the sides with railings to create a cage with dobermans guarding the pavilion; when there is no performance, the main entrance of the pavilion is shuttered away, closed off. There is an impression that, beyond the wall, cage, and shutters, a dystopian, parallel reality exists right next to the cohesion and cooperation between nations of the peaceful Giardini.
The German Pavilion
Entering the pavilion, you are confronted with a totally different reality: it is at once disturbing and strangely beautiful, these “prisoners” in a pristine cage that occupies a crawlspace below, sectioned off by a floor of glass. They go about their lives. They sing. They interact with each other and go about their business, blissfully unaware of us; yet, from time to time, they escape from the level below to move through the crowd and sit above us on glass panels jutting out from the wall. There is soap, towels, drugs, even a speaker: everything they need survive.
We watch them as they move beneath us. They are untouchable and lower than us: we stand on them, in a way, yet every move that they make compels us lower, to our knees to see closer. We hear their shuffling as they fight/embrace/make love. We hear their song. From time to time, a “prisoner” (a performer) escapes to the outside and sits on the fence, waiting. The fence separates Germany from the rest of the world (quite literally if you see the Giardini as a mini world of national pavilions). The dogs guard this fence and there is a barrier to entry: the queue and the fence that functions as a wall. Those outside must pay a price to get in; those inside are still prisoners, struggling.
This is the most poignant, daring, and altogether abashedly spirited portrayal of the state of the world today: bleak at times, but so is the world we live in. The moral conflict that we face when dealing with difference, with “outsiders” or “others”, makes us feel the guilt of judgement. The crisis that reduces humans to numbers, to those who do or do not belong, is a crisis that is global: it touches us all. Faust makes us feel as though we are also being watched. The way that the Faust of fiction traded his soul to the devil for knowledge, we trade our liberties for security, knowing that in reality it’s largely an illusory safety. The performance raises so many questions.
We witness moments when we feel the prisoners’ humanity through their interaction with the guard dogs: the tenderness as they pat and hugs the dogs, a species generally considered inferior to us. They too are caged, but are also carefree, free to bark, and free to run within a large cage. They are at odds with their human counterparts, who have all the necessities they need, but are still searching. Imhof’s presentation makes you consider what we are all really doing. It is bold and shocking, disturbing and beautiful; it’s the kind of work that makes it all worthwhile and answers the questions of what is art for and what can it do.
Elsewhere, Mark Bradford’s American Pavilion, Tomorrow is Another Day is a show of strength: the large installations and paintings in the American Pavilion especially great when you discover the materials they are created from are everyday objects from ash to tar to roofing. These large, billowing forms make another presence in the British Pavilion with Phyllida Barlow’s sculptures. Erwin Wurm’s Austrian Pavilion is a fun DIY fanfare. In the Arsenale, Italy’s trio of artists create three alternative worlds with Robert Cuoghi’s human-making machine that is sensational and straight out of Westworld. Adelita Husni-Bey’s video sends chills, again questioning where we are now. China’s shadow puppet show was as Chinese as one could imagine, and it is very interesting that they choose such a traditional form of expression.
South Africa’s Candice Breitz offers a video with Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore reading the responses of refugees from war-torn countries, while video interviews of the real refuges are presented in the next room. Outside the Giardini and next to the Palazzo Grassi, the Estonia Pavilion (in a beautiful Palazzo with a rose garden on the water) is worth a visit to see the work of Katja Novitskova. If there is an artist that represents the NOW, that would be her: nature, human, animal, and future merging as one.
Katja Novitskova's Estonian Pavilion
If Germany is an example of what a pavilion can be and Anne Imhof’s work is an example of the risks an artist can take to really express the concerns of Germany, Europe, and our time, there are some pavilions that come up short, as perhaps their priorities are less a critical assessment of where a country stands vis-à-vis their neighbors and more a representation of the concerns of the artist that is showcased.
The Thai Pavilion is in the Café Paradiso, where Navin Rawanchaikul staged a full-on Navin invasion in 2011; this time around, however, Somboon Homtientong’s paintings and drawings adorn the walls and space. The paintings and drawings are beautiful—we know many a collector who would love to have that detailed, perfectly executed drawing of Mahanakhon in their private collections—but we are not sure if Bangkok, Krungthep captures the concerns of Thailand and where we are right now. Perhaps it fell within Christine Macel's theme of Vive Arte Viva, a Biennale "for the artist", and Somboon is therefore well within his rights to express his own vision. Nonetheless, Thailand is the home of great artists who challenge the perception of our country and also the meaning of art globally, so perhaps we should wonder what the criteria was for the selection of artists at our Pavilion during the Venice Biennale.
In Bangkok, Krungthep, Somboon captures a changing Bangkok and expresses how this is sentimental to him. The plastic chairs piled up as an installation facing his drawings and paintings are symbolic of the change: how the old and local is being swept away, replaced by the new. However, we wonder what is Thailand, what are her concerns, for Thailand is not just Bangkok and development is not the only thing that matters to us. In the last decade, we have witnessed monumental change and conflict, the kind that makes us question our past, who we are, what we want to become. We are more than Bangkok, and our history is complex; we are a great metropolis that is connected to the world. The question of identity, of acceptance of others, of gender equality, of justice: these apply to us too.
Somboon Homtienthong's drawing of Mahanakhon at the Thai Pavilion
There is further representation of Thailand in the SE Asian Alamak! Pavilion with a video by Kawita Vatanajyankur and Anon Pairot’s rattan “Chiang Rai Ferrari.” This triple presence inspired the headline of Thailand’s “Reconquest of Venice.” Kawita’s work, rather than representing what we are, Thai women, falls into the cliché of objectified women. Worse than the contrived message, the extroverted and exotic display feels dated and ordinary (even if she is inspired by the work of the great Marina Abramović, what young female artist isn’t, and Abramović’s works are three decades old). Kawita presents Thai women objectified as household objects, tools in a kitsch world, but in reality Thai women are some of the most powerful business bad asses in Asia.
We had hoped that Thailand would have been represented in a way that truly captures the conflicts of our era. The news of the Bangkok Biennale, announced by Dr. Apinan Poshyananda during the Venice Biennale, was probably the best news for Thailand and might inch us closer to the acceptance of contemporary art in a country that has not been the most progressive in public funding for art and culture, offering some promise of a conquest that was certainly not apparent at Venice.
Beyond nationalities are the institutions unique to Venice that host collateral events. The Palazzo Fortuny is to not to be missed when, every two years, Axel Vervoordt weaves his magic. Vervoordt is the creator of a specific aesthetic: he merges a spiritual minimalism with art. For him, all art is contemporary, and contemporary art and antiques go hand in hand. This year’s show is called Intuition and it is more subtle and spiritual than others but the premise is the same: it is sublime and beautiful all at once, and all the more important as it is Axel Vervoordt’s final collaboration with the institution.
Across the Canale at the Galleria dell’Accademia is the show Philip Guston and his Poets. A must-have for collectors, Guston has worked alongside the American abstract expressionists and has also done a fair bit of work using words. At Venice, we see a show that looks at his immense body of work alongside poetry. Words and images presented hand in hand, Guston explores the shape of a word, the meaning of poetry, through his paintings and the lives of poets. Through a painting, he is able to truly express a feeling, as well as a story. This show leads us through his life, providing an understanding of his different phases and allowing us to get to know his contemporaries.
On the other side of town is the Fondazione Prada Venice. The Fondazione Prada is an institution deserving of considerable time: the collection is never what it seems and The Boat is Leaking, The Captain Lied is no exception. We are not sure where the architecture of the palazzo ends and Ann Viebrock’s scenography begins. What we experience is the complete convergence of film, photo, and set, giving us the feeling that all the world's a stage, as there are rooms are part of the set that invite us to enter and sit, but these are part of the stage, thus we could easily be performers. Or we see a picture of a room thinking it could be the room/set we are sitting in but realize that it is the replica of a room in paper photographed by Thomas Demand. And then there are Alexander Kluge’s films: they too suspend reality, for he brings a modernity to a palazzo and moving image to a still set. It is a stark yet romantic world in which reality is suspended. It is well worth purchasing the stunning book of the show, for it is an extension of the physical presentation.
The poster to Axel Vervoodt's show Intuition at the Palazzo Fortuny
The Boat is Leaking, The Captain Lied at the Fondazione Prada
Thomas Demand at The Boat is Leaking, The Captain Lied at the Fondazione Prada
Ann Viebrock at The Boat is Leaking, The Captain Lied at the Fondazione Prada