Known for its production of glass, silk and drapery, Venice has been at the heart of Western Europe's maritime trade for centuries. The interminable parade of merchant vessels cruising across Venetian waterways is very much a part of the floating city's DNA; a proud symbol of its place in the international economy.
Every two years, Venice welcomes a maritime trade of a very different kind. Instead of perishable goods, the shipping containers are filled with sculpture, painting, photography, ceramics and printmaking destined for the holy grail of art exhibitions: the Venice Biennale.
In 2017, 120 artists from 51 countries sent their work across the seas. The six-month long exhibition unfurls across the historic Giardini, the Arsenale, the Central Pavilion, as well as countless disused palazzos, churches and unsuspecting corners of the island, ready for the appraisal of the more than half a million visitors.
It's such a large-scale operation requiring a huge infrastructure, one wonders how the intricate veins of Venice's canal system cope. Logistics aside, there is something undeniably magic and heartening about this 120-year tradition. It's a collective glimpse into the utopian dreams of the world's great thinkers and philosophers. Diasporic threads of the population exhibiting side by side as equals; stripping back the veil of their ego and baring their souls for the world to see.
The 57th edition of the Venice Biennale exhibition, which opened in May, is titled "Viva Arte Viva." As Curator Chrisine Macel explains, "In a world full of conflicts and jolts, in which humanism is being seriously jeopardized, art is the most precious part of the human being."
Macel went on to stress the role of art in unstable times: "It is the ideal place for reflection, individual expression, freedom, and fundamental questions. It is a 'yes' to life, although sometimes a 'but' lies behind. More than ever, the role, the voice and the responsibility of the artist are crucial in the framework of contemporary debates."
Candice Breitz + Mohau Modisaken
This immersive two-person exhibition explores the disruptive power of storytelling in relation to historical and contemporary waves of forced migration. Breitz’s seven-channel installation, Love Story, interrogates the conditions under which empathy is produced. Featuring Hollywood actors Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore, the work is based on and includes dense interviews with six refugees. Modisakeng’s three-channel installation, Passage, meditates on slavery’s dismemberment of African identity and its enduring erasure of personal histories.
The United States
Tomorrow is another day, Mark Bradford
Tackling social justice and America’s dismal political situation, Mark Bradford primarily explores these themes through abstract paintings and sculptures. Prior to reaching the pavilion’s exit, however, viewers are shown a video of a black man sashaying away from the camera. This work, a re-enactment of Marilyn Monroe’s final scene in “Niagara”, serves as an exploration of race, gender and sexuality.
My Horizon, Tracey Moffatt
Making powerful statements about race, refugees and indigenous dispossession, Indigenous Australian artist Tracey Moffatt’s exhibition ‘My Horizon’ comprises two new series of large-scale photographs, Body Remembersand Passage, and two new video works, Vigil and The White Ghosts Sailed In. Evoking tantalising, open-ended narratives, the works draw inspiration from sources as diverse as television news reports, poetry, Surrealist painting, documentary photography, Hollywood cinema and the artist’s personal memories.
Counterbalance: The Stone and the Mountain, Cody Choi and Lee Wan
With garish neon signage advertising free orgasms (referencing the casinos of Las Vegas and Macao), it’s hard to walk past the Korean pavilion without even a little curiosity. Though the promise is an empty one, the pavilion does not disappoint. Lee Wan’s “Proper Time” is a must-see. For his work, Wan has filled a room with 600 clocks, each adjusted to highlight the amount of time different individuals with varying professions must work before they can afford a meal in their respective locale.
‘Licht-Pavillon: (Light Pavilion), Erwin Wurm and Brigitte Kowanz
Don’t expect to enter the Austrian pavilion and remain a passive viewer. A mini retrospective of Erwin Wurm’s “One Minute Sculptures” make you work, even if you don’t realize it. The trickster-sculptor has placed seemingly random objects—like a pair of stuffed pants, a patio chair, and a vacation trailer—on the walls and floor of the space. But they only become sculptures when visitors stick limbs into their holes or stand on their surfaces. Brigitte Kowanz’s light works join Wurm’s interactive sculpture in the pavilion; each work hangs on a mirrored wall primed for taking art selfies.
Faust, Anne Imhof
Any self-respecting listicle about this year’s must-see pavilions would be remiss not to mention Anne Imhof. In addition to winning the 2017 Absolut Art Award, the German artist is also the recipient of Venice’s top prize – the Golden Lion for best national pavilion. Inside, Imhof’s band of Balenciaga modelling performers, alongside a pack of Doberman pinschers, wandered about the space in a performance that references power dynamics in today’s tech-obsessed society.
The Absence of Paths
Comprising three separate issuing locations scattered across Venice, The Absence of Paths is an interactive performance that raises questions surrounding human migration, national identity and the concept of a state. Each kiosk is manned by Tunisian refugees who issue imitation visas referred to as freesas – a document which aims to “endorse a philosophy of universal freedom of movement without the need for arbitrary state-based sanction.”
Studio Venezia, Xavier Veilhan
The word “studio,” in English and Italian, refers to a space where both artists and musicians make work. This synchronicity, along with historic multidisciplinary art schools like the Bauhaus and Black Mountain College, serves as inspiration for Xavier Veilhan’s installation, which is also a working recording studio. Over the course of the installation, a roster of some 60 musicians will play and record in the stunning, soundproofed space, which is covered in both real and sculptural instruments. Veilhan’s intention isn’t to present a polished performance, a finished product, or, like most pavilions, a magnum opus by a single artist.