Exhibitions Worth the Trip: Venice Biennale

Venice Biennale pavillion
Image: Giorgio Zucchiatti Courtesy: la Biennale di Venezia.

Venice is well known for its wealth of art and architecture that inhabit the floating city, but did you know that contemporary artists live there, as well? At least, temporarily. From June 1 through November 24, 2013, Venice will hold the 55th Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte, or better known as the Venice Biennale to the English-speaking world. The exhibition of art began in 1895 and is held every other year (on odd years.) Today, it showcases artists selected from around the globe to represent their country and is regarded as a premier showcase of contemporary art.

the show

The exhibit is really a festival of exhibits, held in two main locations, the Giardini and the Arsenale, as well as varied satellite exhibits throughout Venice. To give you an idea of the sheer scale, here is map of the 2011 exhibition locations. If you’re interested in the artists who are joining this year, the website, Universes in Universe is compiling a useful list of artists and pavillions.

2011 Venice Biennale Map

Another key feature of the Biennale is the International Exhibit, curated by the show’s director, a role filled this year by art world darling*, Massimilano Gioni, Associate Director and Director of Exhibitions of the New Museum in New York City. This year’s theme is entitled Il Palazzo Enciclopedico or Encyclopedia Palace and references the work of an Italian-American artist, Marino Auriti, who filed a patent in 1955 to create the Palazzo, an imaginary museum to house all knowledge. Gioni seeks to exhibit contemporary art alongside historical artifacts and found objects under this theme and creates “a reflection on the ways in which images have been used to organize knowledge and shape our experience of the world.”

This year's visual art exhibition is just one component of many under the auspices of the Biennale Foundation. Events are also held for film, drawing the attention of Hollywood stars, as well as architecture, directed next year by superstar architect, Rem Koolhaus. Even if you can't make it to Venice on an odd year, there's surely a Biennale around the corner.

Fondamenta Arsenale
the location

The Giardini was the handiwork of Napoleon, who saw himself using the nearby Arsenale as a port for his fleet and created the adjoining gardens. When transportation shifted from boats to train with the addition of rail in 1841, the once central district shifted to be more of a ceremonial one. Coupled with the gardens awkward design, the area was poised to be the home for art exhibits beginning in 1851, which redefined its role as a modern space contrasting the traditional St. Marks square. The Giardini’s temporary use has been problematic over the year and left it as a threat to vandalism and misuse. The city, however, strives to find a use for the Giardini and the pavillions that have been built over the years, alternating between art and architecture since 1975. (Read more about its history on the website, art and education.)

The Arsenale, however, has a much longer history being that it was the center of Venice’s shipbuilding operations and the seat of the republic’s naval power. Since the navy’s move to Ancona after the Second World War, the use of the Arsenale has been in a state of limbo, and just last month the city of Venice was given a majority share of the location to develop for further cultural activities. Nearby, the Naval History Museum provides you the history of the area’s previous glory.

while you're there

If you decide to visit during the Biennale and have contemporary art on your mind, there are a few places throughout the Veneto that would be of interest. During the fall, both Verona and Padova are hosting art shows that would allow two decidedly different takes on contemporary art at ArtVerona (October 10-14, 2013) and ArtePadova (November 15-18, 2013,) respectively. You could also take in local artists in Vicenza at Trastevere in Arte Vicenza, which looks to be a local art fair that took a hiatus last year, but has plans to return in 2013. As for exhibits, it's difficult to find venues that have announced future shows in advance, but if you head to Padova, check Padova Cultura or Xearte for some ideas.

*I read an entire article that referred to how much he looked like Cary Grant as frequently as it discussed his curatorial chops. The art world seems to be smitten with him. Looks aside, I think his quote on contemporary art alone (from a recent WSJ article) should eclipse his darling status.
"We need to remind ourselves that contemporary art is first of all a form of conceptual gymnastics, in which we learn to coexist with what we don't understand."—Massimiliano Gioni


Where: Venice, Italy
Website: http://www.labiennale.org/en/art/
When to Visit: June 1 - November 24, 2013.