We report back from Venice Biennale

Every two years a large part of the contemporary visual arts ‘business’ assembles in Venice for La Biennale.  This is the biggest and most established biennial.  It attracts huge numbers of arts professionals and collectors, many of whom (the collectors that is) are of the serious money kind.  It also takes place close to the Basel Art Fair and so collectors and professionals traveling from USA and Asia can make the most of their time out of the office by going to both.

La Biennale consists of three official strands.  The national pavilions, based in the Giardini and sites around Venice, are an opportunity for countries to showcase the work of a selection of artists in a group show or a single artist.  There are a wide variety of approaches taken to what is presented and how.  In some cases the hand of the state is very obvious and the results are dull and at best politically dubious.  Other countries take an arms length approach and cead control to free agent curators.  However, it is not uncommon for a national pavilion to present and artist or artists who are not from their own country which can happen when the focus is on the curator.  Artists in the national pavilions compete for the Golden Lion which this year was awarded to Christoph Schlingensief who was presented at the German pavilion.

Alongside the national pavilions is the huge themed group show that takes place in the Arsenale.  This former arms store is vast.  The Biennale organisation appoints a curator or curators to select the show around the theme, this year the theme was ILLUMinazioni (their caps not my typo!).  The is also a competitive aspect to this exhibition as an artist gets selected from the show for another Golden Lion, this year it was won by American Christian Marclay, and a Silver Lion for best young artists which was won by Haroon Mirza.

Finally, the Biennale organises a number of collateral events, projects and exhibitions that add context to the program.  Oh sorry I forgot that lots of other organisations, artists etc organise ad hoc events to coincide with the La Biennale.

Venice Biennale is mind bogglingly huge.  To see everything, if you really had to and I would not advise it, would take a good week.  You have to be strategic.

It is important to work out what your priorities are. For me I need to get round the major national pavilions and the Arsenale show as they are the core and you have to work hard to pick out the good stuff from the large amount of ordinary and awful stuff.  This takes time.  Most arts professionals visit La Biennale during the vernissage which is the three day preview for press etc.  So in addition to looking at the work there is a lot of networking going on.  This is valuable on two counts, you can find out what is happening across the visual arts world but importantly you can find out what work/artists are causing a buzz. Networking happens just by wandering about. During the vernissage you bump into friends and colleagues from all over the world in all corners of Venice.  Networking moves into overdrive once the exhibitions close for the day at 7pm.  Galleries, dealers and artists organise receptions and parties all over the place running into the small hours.  They range from events taking place in small bars to huge formal events for very wealthy collectors and patrons, i.e. Roman Ambramavic who was in town with his art dealing partner aboard their huge yacht.

So having planned my strategy I managed to get to the following pavilions and collateral …

UK, Greece, Poland, Brazil, Venice, Egypt, Serbia, Austria, France, Iraq, Wales, Israel, Danish, Russia, Germany, Venezuela , Switzerland, Spain, Belgium, Netherlands, Hungary, Hong Kong, Melong, Scotland, Georgia, New Forest, Macedonia, Pino Pascali, Lativa, Passage 2011, Lech Majewski/Bruegel Suite, Azerbaijan, Portugal, Andorra, Central Asian, Cyprus, Iran, Slovenia, Luxembourg.

As with all big art events, there was some great work to see and some not so great work.  I particularly liked the Egypt (Ahmed Basiony), UK (Mike Nelson), Spain, Denmark (a group show on freedom of speech), Germany (Christoph Schlingensief) and France (Christian Boltanski) pavilions.  Unfortunately I never got into the USA as the queue was too long.  On the whole I found the ILLUMinazioni hard work and very patchy, you had to search out the interesting work and quiet often it was swamped by visual and aural noise.  Artists who did manage to catch my eye in the ILLUMinazioni show and others that I got to were Jack Goldstein, Nathanial Mellors, Pipiloti Rist, Norma Jeane, David Goldblatt, Omer Fast, Menglong, Lech Majewski, Marat Raiymkulov, Glaser/Kunz all for different reasons.

In addition to seeing loads of artists work we also met with our visiting curators and may more colleagues from across the world so it really was a worth while trip.

Dave Moutrey
Cornerhouse Chief Executive