It’s nearly impossible to see every work of art at the Venice Biennale and although many attempt to complete this glorious task, they often fall short. The biennale is just too monumental with the eighty-eight participating national pavilions, the extensive exhibition hall and hundred subsidiary events spread around the city. Inevitably there are always going to be one or two forgotten national pavilions tucked away in the pockets of the city or an installation by an emerging artist located on the second floor of a hidden palazzo that is missed.
This year’s 55th Venice Biennale, “Il Palazzo Enciclopedico” curated by Massimilano Gioni, is my fifth biennale and although with every visit I attempt to complete the unthinkable task of seeing it all, I always find myself reading a review a week later of a piece I overlooked.
I have, however, at each biennale managed to consistently visit the twenty-nine national pavilions that are centrally situated in the Giardini. These buildings that are allocated to specific nations, consist of predominantly European countries and have nearly all coexisted since the first Venice Biennale 118 years ago. What I seem to always overlook are the new participating pavilions that are often located in the outskirts of the main exhibition. Ironically these countries, that are harder for me to point out on a globe, are equally difficult for me to track down in the windy streets of Venice.
Hence for this 55th biennale, I fought my natural inclination to visit the Giardini and Arsenale first and instead to venture into the city of Venice to explore the newer and often less established national pavilions. With a total of ten new participating countries (including Angola, Bahamas, Kingdom of Bahrain, Republic of Ivory Coast, Republic of Kosovo, Kuwait, the Maldives, Paraguay, Tuvalu, and Holy See), here are some of the pavilions that stood out:
The Venice Biennale remains one of the last art exhibitions that overtly holds global competitions and awards. An unlikely candidate, Angola, was awarded the well-deserved Gold Lion prize for the best national pavilion, which is usually granted to Western nations.
Although it took me a while to locate the pavilion, I was relieved when I walked up the stairs into the temporary exhibition space, a classic Venetian 16th Century building called the Palazzo Cini. The exhibition, “Luanda, Encyclopedic City”, consists predominately of artist Edson Chagas’ photographic series Found not Taken where he presents images of broken chairs, wires, washing machines, pipes and other disregarded objects found on the streets of Luanda. Arranged in twenty-nine stacks of loose large sheets on the floor, the work allows the viewer to flip through the photographs and take what they please. These raw images harmoniously installed in this romantic building, left me, as a viewer, feeling like an essential and interactive part of the work. As a contrast to Chagas' artistic process of finding and photographing objects, now the public has a similar opportunity to find and take his portrayal.
The longevity of this exhibition depends on when all 4,000 prints are taken, so I was thankful to have visited it first and to have walked away with a beautiful photograph.
Mariam Haji, The Victory, 2013, installation view, Pavilion of the Kingdom of Bahrain, In a world of your own, 55th International Art Exhibition, Il Palazzo Enciclopedico, la Biennale di Venezia; photo by Italo Rondinella, courtesy by la Beinnale di Venezia.
Kingdom of Bahrain
I admit I walked in knowing little politically about this nation so I was impressed that the exhibition titled “In A World Of Your Own” was able to successfully provide me with an introduction to Bahrain.
Not only a newcomer to the biennale, The Kingdom of Bahrain is also a new nation, celebrating its 42nd year of independence from British rule. With an emerging art scene, this pavilion exhibits three diverse artists: Mariam Haji, Waheeda Malullah, and Camille Zakharia who represent the pioneers of Bahrain contemporary art.
The youngest of the three, Mariam Haji (born in 1985) presents a series of mural sized drawings. Impressive in their scale and realistic technique, these images illustrate empty landscapes filled with people and animals, often in motion or struggling positions. The symbolism of her imaginative narratives relates directly to notions of gender, identity and religion in Bahrain.
Complementing these works by employing similar themes is the photographic series A Villager’s Day Out by Waheeda Malullah. These images depict a woman covered head to toe in a black abaya staged in different locations around Bahrain. Isolated in her surrounding, the juxtaposition of the woman’s dark silhouette against the backdrop of the colorful environments provides a playful yet disconcerting depiction of everyday life in Bahrain. These captivating images effectively portray the current tension in the nation between the religious customs that are part of a long tradition and the Western urbanization that is rapidly evolving the country.
Studio Azzurro, In principio (e poi), 2013, Holy See Pavilion, In Principio, 55th International Art Exhibition, Il Palazzo Enciclopedico, la Biennale di Venezia; photo by Italo Rondinella, courtesy by la Beinnale di Venezia.
It seems inconceivable for any current artist to surpass the classical masterpieces of Michelangelo and Bernini that are preserved in the Vatican. As a nation that strives so heavily on its rich and complicated history, I was curious to see what works would be brought to the contemporary discourse.
Located in the Arsenale, the exhibition titled “In Principo” consists of three different artists, who take varying approaches in interpreting the first eleven chapters of the book of Genesis. Although the works draw on religious and ethical themes, the overall exhibition has a surprisingly secular tone. Arguably the visuals from the work Creation by the Milanese collective Studio Azzuro, contributes to this. Installed in a separate room, the piece consists of three large black stones with computer generated images of figures. Relying on the viewer’s participation, the stones illuminate when touched and the people begin recounting personal stories. Borderline invasive (because the people are life-size and intimately close), the gimmicky “iPad-like” quality is distracting from the religious content.
Although the work successfully stimulates an artificial environment, enjoyable to interact with, the two subsidiary works located in other rooms – Uncreation by Czech photographer Joes Koudelka and Recreation by American artist Lawrence Caroll – leave more of a conceptual impact.
The Holy See pavilion, statistically, has generated lots of traffic. This could be due to its central location or to the fact that it’s such a politically controversial country. The organization of the Biennale, where every pavilion is located, undeniably is a direct analogy for power. However introducing new countries allows these nations to provide the public with the knowledge and emotional understanding of their current and historical state.
After parting from the Venice Biennale, I knew I had missed an array of works, however this time I was able to confidently walk away satisfied – with a new appreciation of diverse international art scenes.
(Image at top: Edson Chagas, Pavilion of Angola, Luanda, Encyclopedic City, 55th International Art Exhibition, Il Palazzo Enciclopedico, la Biennale di Venezia; photo by Italo Rondinella, courtesy by la Beinnale di Venezia.)