Given the decision of whether to spend our final few days in Italy in either Rome or Venice, the choice wasn’t difficult. Having avoided Venice previously because we believed it was a tourist trap, we had recently become enthusiastic converts having finally discovered it just a year ago. It turned out that Venice actually was a tourist trap after all, but oh what a trap! This city is so wonderfully unique that it simply can’t be resisted and so once again we were more than happy to take the bait. There was also another important reason for visiting once again and that was because this was the year of the renowned ‘Venice Biennale’. Occurring on every odd numbered year, this major exhibition attracts the world’s foremost contemporary artists and in the world of visual art it simply doesn’t get much bigger than this. As an art teacher, the Biennale is something that is generally read about but seldom experienced first hand, so the opportunity for me to visit would certainly be an added bonus.
With its origins dating back to 1895, the Venice Biennale has continued to evolve and now involves numerous countries from throughout the world presenting works based upon a selected theme. The theme of this years Biennale was ‘Palazzo Enciclopedico’ (The Encyclopedic Palace) ... “the desire to know and understand everything, a desire that recurs throughout the history of art” and not surprisingly the interpretation of that theme would vary enormously as we were to discover. With each country displaying their contribution in either the central exhibition halls or in their own purpose built pavilions spread over two sites, the exhibition would take many hours to view. So Jules and I prepared ourselves for a very big day and joined one of the queues that form early each day throughout the duration the Biennale (June to November), resulting in an attendance that regularly tops 300,000.
We began in The Giardini (The Gardens), which provided a leafy environment quite unlike anywhere else in Venice. Here, set amongst the trees is the large Central Pavilion as well as 30 other permanent national pavilions, each different in size and design. The grounds were spacious and on a warm summers day Jules and I enjoyed just wandering between venues in anticipation of what the next country might have to offer. Of course we patriotically sought out the Australian pavilion and while being a little confused about the work on display, we were particularly impressed by the contemporary nature of the exhibition space itself, complete with a retractable roof. We were also interested in the way each country chose to mount their exhibition. Some presented several artists who each interpreted the theme, while others simply chose to display only one large-scale work. Several other pieces combined elements of performance, with other works encouraging the interactivity of the viewer. Jules became involved with an installation by Russian artist Vadim Zakharov that consisted of a shower of gold coins falling three storeys high through the floors of the pavilion to the basement below to form a large pile of money on the ground. From here, only woman viewers (this is were Jules comes in) were invited to pick up a handful of the coins and place them into a bucket to be manually cranked back up by a man to the top so that the coins could shower down once again. Fortunately an umbrella was provided so that Jules could avoid being stoned to death by the force of the falling coins but otherwise it was all good fun, visually interesting and somehow managed to combine a vaguely cryptic social message.
Later we would head over to the second major site at The Arsenale (the original Venetian arsenal built in the 12th century) where the creative output continued. Here the works on display were even more adventurous with several exhibits combining film and audiovisual elements that often jarred our senses. While many of these were popular, we much preferred the more contemplative pieces such as those displayed in the Indonesian pavilion (their first ever contribution to the Biennale) that included a mystical piece by Albert Yonathan Setyawan entitled ‘Cosmic Labyrinth: The Silent Path’. Here under subdued lighting, a simple ceramic form had been repeated then positioned on the floor to create a visually evocative sculptural installation that perfectly reflected both its culture of origin and the title of the piece. Jules on the other hand was drawn to the sight and aroma of the floor installation of Sonia Falcona in the Latin American pavilion entitled ‘Campo de Color’, that consisted of hundreds of clay pots filled with colourful spices. I also particularly enjoyed viewing all 50 chapters of the ‘The Book of Genesis’ by Robert Crumb (one of my illustrative heroes) and I had to admire the way in which he tackled such an unlikely subject matter, taking him four years to complete the illustrations.
We had begun the day at 10.00am and walked out of the final pavilion at 6.00pm … it had been a marathon day, but one that was quite unforgettable. Like most art exhibitions, you are not expected to like all of the works that you encounter. Each has its own individual resonance and that’s what makes viewing contemporary art such a fascinating experience. The art works that we had viewed throughout the day had impressed us, inspired us, amused us, unsettled us, shocked us, entertained us and confused us, but they certainly didn’t disappoint. I had written copious notes on a small pad and had taken many photographs (it’s wonderful that the Biennale allows you to do that), so there was plenty for me to take away from the experience and eventually share with my students. The Venice Biennale had been a celebration of creativity that I was thankful to have experienced at least once.