During three days of soaking up the misty romantic decaying grandeur of Venice, I had come across fragments of the Biennale scattered across the city. It was exciting to come across these incursions in amongst the palazzos. “The Very Light Art” exhibition, for example, in the grand marble palace of Ca’Rezzonico, juxtaposed fantastical candelabras with the gilt-framed paintings, and had a brilliant light installation of ruby red globes by Heimo Zobernig strung up in a marble bust-adorned hall.
The most imposing Biennale incursion was Mark Quinn’s 10 metre tall blow up of a naked, pregnant woman called Alison Lapper, a thalidomide survivor, looking defiantly from the Isla San Giorgio Maggiore across to the Doge’s Palace. The placement of the statue and it’s proximity to the church on San Maggiore has been criticised by a Catholic priest, but I found the placement to be a thought-provoking counterpoint to the flash and dazzle, the hedonism, which have been identified with Venice for hundreds of years.
My last day in Venice arrived, and it was time to visit the stronghold of its biannual modern art fest and the largest non-commercial exhibition in the world. At Arsenale, the theme of the exhibition is The Encyclopedic Palace, a concept dreamed up and patented by Italian-American artist Marino Auriti. This imaginary museum was proposed to be built in Washington and to house all worldly knowledge. It’s a broad and ambitious theme which gives great scope to curator Massimiliano Gioni. It means he can draw together divergent art and artists from across eras and places. And so, in the entrance, we have a model of the Palazzo Enciclopedico, surrounded by the beautiful black and white images by JD ‘Okhai Ojeikere’s showcasing and recording Nigerian women and their sculpted hair and head wrappings from 1960 to today.
It is as hard to choose from the many wonderful exhibits to write about as it was to see everything in a short space of time. The key to managing to get through the Biennale in just one day seemed to be skipping the omnipresent video installations which litter Arsenale and the pavillions on Giardini. Why waste time? We know that if it were great art it would be in a film, short or even a music video. I mean, can anyone remember the name or artist behind any video installation they have seen? I doubt it.
But a standout in the Encyclopedic Palace were the 90 sculptures designed by Polish artist Pawel Althamer, entitled “Venetians” (2013). Made from plastic on metal in his father’s factory, the sculptures take the faces and hands of modern Venetians, and place these on wraith like bodies suggesting wrappings, bones, Holocaust-survivors. I had the privilege to walk through the sculptures with hardly anyone else around, and giving me the eerie sense of wandering through frozen lives at Pompei. The figures are talking, embracing, begging, getting on with their lives in a slightly ghoulish frozen moment. It was absolutely mesmerising, and brilliant.
Shinichi Sawada’s terracotta creatures were another fantastical find. Set out in display cases, it was almost like looking at an exhibit at the Natural History Museum, which linked well with the theme.
References to religion came through distinctly, from Robert Crumb’s version of Genesis to Senegalese artist Papa Ibra Tal’s striking tapestries.
All in all, the Encyclopedic Palace showed off the work of outsider art, obsessive artists as well as those that had been accepted into the mainstream. It was a well-chosen collection of fascinating, sometimes nauseating, art and artists. It lifted me up and made me reflect.
Some countries had their pavillions around Arsenale. My favourites were:
I wandered through to the back of Arsenale and found myself in the hypnotic, thrilling Indonesian section. After living in London for the past six months, I realised how I had missed the East and South-east Asian influence which is more evident in Australia. Under the theme of ‘Sakti’, from the Hindu concept of a sacred force of empowerment, the six Indonesian artists represented gave something hynotic, supernatural and impressive. Firstly, there was a dark dinner party of sculptures by Entang Wiharso. Figures sit around a dining table, reacting to the collapse of one of them under a chandelier made of snakes. The matriarch is standing, hand clasped to her breast – is she a figure of judgment, has she dealt revenge? The set-up immediately screams foul play, perhaps some kind of bitter family saga coming to a head.
Surrounding the table is an intricate backlit frieze with vegetation and men and women embracing.
Further inside the pavillion, there is a labyrinth of ceramics by Albert Yonathon, and towards the back of the room a beautiful pagoda set with traditional puppets dancing.
This exhibition gave a snapshot of some of the multiculturalism and magic of that great archipelago.
Wim Botha’s sculptures made of books were cracked and creative: from a skull, to a winged head on a plinth, to a self-portrait in exile.
Getting into the spirit of the city of canals and drawing on it’s own maritime heritage, Portugal’s country pavilion was anchored on a boat just off Giardini. The small interior was festooned with crocheted jellyfish and tentacles, complete with an evolving light installation. Immersive and wonderful, it felt like being under the sea, but even better because moving Portuguese fado music was piped through.
Stay tuned for my afternoon exploring through the country pavilions on Giardini.