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How to Tackle the Venice Biennale

 Thursday, 22nd June, 2017

Art journalist Holly Howe shares her top tips for this year's art extravangaza.

Now in its 57th year, the Venice Biennale started in 1895 as a sort of world fair for contemporary art. As the years went by, more and more countries formally participated in it, with a number building permanent pavilions in the city’s Giardini (gardens). When that space was full, countries were invited to rent space in the Arsenale (the other main site of the Biennale), and now everyone else has to find their own space to rent somewhere in the city to house their national pavilions. But it’s worth taking part – the biennale now attracts around 500,000 visitors.

There is one overall curator who is responsible for the two central pavilions – for 2017 the honour was bestowed upon Christine Macel, Chief Curator of the Pompidou in Paris. Titled Viva Arte Viva, Macel describes it as “a biennale 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”. Which all seems rather vague to me, and when I visited her curated pavilions, I thought they lacked a cohesive focus. But one of the good aspects was that of the 120 artists she selected, 103 are participating in the biennale for the first time.

So of the 86 countries taking part, here are my top 10 pavilions you should visit if you’re dashing around the biennale in a day or two (but do try and go for longer!).


Curator Christa Steinle has paired Erwin Wurm with Brigitte Kowanz. While Wurm’s contribution to the pavilion is predominantly in the form of his One Minute Sculptures (which are celebrating their 20th anniversary this year), Kowanz’s Infinity and Beyond series comes in the form of neon writing placed on infinity mirrors. The link between the two? Temporality and viewer interaction.


Takahiro Iwasaki’s solo show is titled Turned Upside Down, It’s a Forest. Although Iwasaki was born in 1975, this work looks at the theme of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima as well as the 2011 nuclear power plant accident in Fukushima after the tsunami. For example his work Tectonic model (flow) is made of an arrangement of books on earthquakes, science, and technology, whose bookmark strings have been unraveled and made into delicate cranes.


Cody Choi and Wan Lee share this pavilion, combining humour (Choi’s sculpture of The Thinker made from Pepto Bismol) with more thoughtful works such as Lee’s installation of clocks whose hands move at different rates, reflecting the time it takes someone to earn a meal from around the world.


A hilarious 50-minute film from Nathaniel Mellors and Erkka Nissinen called The Aalto Natives, where two animatronic characters try to create a perfect world, based on Finland with Finnish socio-economic policies, free education and healthcare, and surrounded by a sea full of herring!


Another video installation, this work by George Drivas is called The Laboratory of Dilemmas. It is based on Aeschylus' theatre play Iketides (Suppliant Women), which poses a dilemma between saving the foreigner and maintaining the safety of the native. In this, he brings it to present day about a biological test on cell cultures, but with clear immigration parallels.

South Africa:

There are two separate works on show by South African artists Candice Breitz and Mohau Modisakeng. Modisakeng’s Passage is a video installation showing three characters, each lying in a small white boat which fills with water, eventually turning the boat into a coffin. For Love Story, Breitz interviewed six refugees who tell their stories on screen. She also picked highlights from these and got Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore to play the characters, questioning if we are more interested in them because they are celebrities.


A three-artist exhibition curated by Cecilia Alemani, the highlight is Roberto Cuoghi’s Imitazione de Cristo (2017). It feels like there’s an alien autopsy going on, but instead it’s a lab producing life-size devotional figures inspired by descriptions of the body of Jesus Christ, hung on the cross, from the medieval Christian text Imitation of Christ.


This is a group show titled Tiempos de la Intuición featuring 15 artists. One of the highlights is a selection of sculptures by Abel Barroso, who has made computers, laptops, tablets, mobile phones, even VR headsets, out of wood.


Titled La Venezia che non si vede (Venice which you don’t see), artist Antoni Abad proposes a sensory interpretation of the urban space that is Venice in collaboration with a group of blind and visually impaired people to reveal hidden aspects of the city. We were taken on an amazing boat tour, with Giulia as our guide. She is visually impaired and really showed us a new side to the city by getting us to focus on the movements of the boat and the sounds we could hear. Mesmerising.


Doing Time by Tehching Hsieh – an artist active in 70s and 80s – focuses on two of his key performance pieces – the Time Clock Piece (1980-1981) and the Outdoor Piece (1981-1982). For the former, he had to punch a timecard and take a selfie every hour, every day, for an entire year. And for the later, he lives outdoors in Manhattan for a year, documenting his movements on a map each day

See more of Holly's picks on Instagram.