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2013 Venice Biennale: the no-holds-barred how-to

Jul 4, 2013 Art

The hits, misses and must sees of Venice Biennale 2013.

So what’s so good about Venice, as opposed to an art event in say, Scunthorpe?

The trouble with the Venice Biennale, as opposed to all the others (and there are lots) is that if you took all the art away, you’d still have loads to look at and be stimulated by, and sigh over and be swept off your feet by. This is unlikely in Scunthorpe. So while the hardcore may be blessed with some sort of inner-built style switch off gadget, I’m not so lucky and continually lurch from amazing art experience to shoe envy, to delicious martini cocktails, to mind-blowing visuals of every kind.

Yeah right. Swanning around looking at art and checking out the local food and fashionistas, in one of the most romantic cities in the world must be a killer

Ok. On reflection maybe I am lucky because I don’t take it all too seriously – and neither should you. One of the best things about this Biennale (and I’ve been to a few) was the humour, the liveliness and the refreshing lack of pretension and name dropping that had crept into Venice since 2000.

Referring to?

Particularly the gawd awful and universally panned show put together in 2011 by a journalist friend of Silvio Berlusconi. The overwhelming advice for his dismal effort? Stick to your day job. (which was probably within the bungabunga empire anyway so not sure what he’s doing for a crust these days)

OK so there’s just one curator?

Fraid not. Every exhibition seems to have one or two and while the country pavilions are a law unto themselves and pretty much exhibit what they want, the Biennale’s official curator, this year the divine Massimiliano Gioni, had the (un)enviable task of putting together an exhibition across two venues, one of which is an architecturally severe early modernist building while the other is a gigantic (like 12 metre high walls gigantic) ex storage facility for ammunition, hence its name – The Arsenale.

Did he nail it?

You betcha. Mind you so did Bill Culbert’s show at the NZ Pavilion. But Gioni resisted the temptation to gather together the big names and bright egos of a clutch of well-known artists, and collected those who work on the fringes, on the outside, not just of the art world, but life in general. Sure there are some names – Cindy Sherman, Peter Fischli and David Weiss, Paul McCarthy, Bruce Nauman, Richard Serra and even our own Simon Denny. But it’s the work of relative unknowns across America, Europe, South America – working 50 or 60 years ago in asylums or after hours at home in social isolation, creating dolls, houses, photographs and paintings.

So this would be a good place to start?

Sure but don’t expect to finish it in a hurry. The Arsenale is about two kilometres long and it also contains country pavilions so it feels like the art will never end. Set aside a day for this alone.

And when the day is over?

Ah well that’s easy or hard depending on how well connected you are. If you attend the preview week, you need to get on some mailing lists for the parties. Prada is the biggie, and Australia have built up a solid rep for a good night out, while an evening on the roof of the Peggy Guggenheim (or “The Gugg” as you should refer to it) looking down on all the tourists, while you sip Prosecco and stuff down decadent canapés has to rank fairly high.

Ok rub it in why don’t you. I thought you were there to look at art

And I did! But evenings in Venice are for celebrating La Dolce Vita – so dressing up and looking the part is part of the fun. Unfortunately the weather didn’t cooperate this year and I ended up hiding umbrellas and stout walking shoes in the bushes at several parties whilst shivering in my little shift dress. Coat checks are a thing of the past in Venice these days, (Then again like the old days of nipping out for a smoke – you meet the most interesting people digging around in the oleander for your sneakers.)

So back to the art….

Yes – and next stop The Giardini or garden. Famously a swamp drained by Napoleon so the Venetians would take up gardening in the French tradition. No such luck of course so you poke around rather scrabby trees and bushes and lawns that you couldn’t describe as manicured. But its haphazard appearance suits the art on offer starting with…

Best in Show!

Russia – get rained on by gold coins (but only if you are a chick)

USA – an obsessive collection of everyday objects transformed by their precise arrangement and relationship to each other. Brilliant.

Great Britain – probably the only time I’ve witnessed an audience clapping at the end of an art video. It’s a gentle, loving portrait of the UK today – and you get a free cuppa at the end.

Serbia – The most innovative labels I’ve seen in a show in years, and two opposite but very appealing views on collecting from Vladimir Peric and Milos Tomic.

Austria – the surprise hit by artist Mathias Poledna features a “Disney” style cartoon complete with sugary song and tweeting blue birdies, made the old fashioned way and a thing of beauty to watch over and over.

Only if you have time…

Australia – well we gotta stick together at events like this given many of the people there think we can simply walk between the two countries at low tide. But sadly this year the Aussie effort is below par and Simryn Gill fails to fire up the audience with her doctored aerial photos of mines. (Without the mining boom Australian art wouldn’t be so well funded, nor would they be building a new pavilion, so a case of biting the hand that feeds?) Curator Catherine de Zegher, fresh from a mediocre 2012 Sydney Biennale, has run out of steam here. But by all means bump up their attendance numbers – the bureaucrats love those attendance figures on both sides of the Tasman.

Skip and head for the bar…

Spain – a pile of rubble. Nuff said really.

The Netherlands – one of many exhibitions featuring piles of charred wood. Could this be the new skull? Hope not.

Egypt – baffling and unfinished which is so annoying if you’ve travelled 12,000 miles and won’t be making a return visit.

Art stunt

France and Germany swapped pavilions in a weird reality TV moment reminiscent of those Wife Swapping shows. The stunt didn’t eventuate in great art.

After you’ve sunk a martini cocktail or two…

Only because a decent cocktail in Auckland is as rare as a carefully preserved heritage building or a well-dressed man – but once you’ve numbed yourself and your poor feet – then try and see the following shows around town…

Mark Quinn at Isola de San Giorgio Maggiore – jump on Vaporetto number 2, or the special Art Vaporetto and escape the madding crowds. A giant blow up of a pregnant victim of thalidomide, taken from Quinn’s famous sculpture, can be seen from miles away and hints at the paintings and sculptures within the exhibition. They are disturbing and creepily compelling all at the same time.

Palazzo Benbo – home to work from two more NZ artists – Scott Eady and Darryn George and about 60 other artists. Hot and pokey and hard to get your head around, artists paid to be in this show, so while fewer would have been better, the more artists, the more dosh for the curators to work with. Lots of stairs so your feet have been warned.

You seem to have a foot fetish…

Well you can’t jump on a bus, or take a taxi, so what goes on your feet is almost as important as what you are taking in with your eyes. I speak from bitter experience here and would advise you ditch your latest Italian bargain and go for something worn-in and inexpensive. That said, I did a day and a night in some lovely new wedges and survived (but missed a crucial vaporetto cos I couldn’t run for it) but flat sandals were awful and left me with aching calves. My best Biennale shoe yet? A simple espadrille bought at Annex’ summer sale. Comfort and a modicum of style, good with skirts or pants and not so pricey or rare that I couldn’t ditch them if I had to. Amazingly they came through a rain storm unscathed and I’ll be back for another pair come Spring.

The Bag Madge, the Bag!

Almost as important as footwear is your Biennale bag. You are on the receiving end of goody bags which are great for novelty value (but in short supply this year) but you need a good carrier to get you through – one that will take catalogues, sunnies, money, phone, tape recorder, map, laptop and your Tom Ford lippie purchased at such high expense in Milano on the way through. Too many women opt for a lump of black canvas or leather, totally lacking in shape or design, but then they are usually dressed head to foot in boring black to match. No the secret is of course Italian, structured, bright coloured and not too big. That way it looks chic and smart and you don’t look like you’ve come to the Biennale fresh from a park bench or sheltered accommodation.

Don’t leave the Biennale without…

Having a drink at the lovely 50s bar at the front of the Giardini while you watch the sun set on the water. It gets lovely and crowded during opening week and the summer, so you have to share tables and find yourself next to and engaging with arty folk from all over the world. They make a mean Aperol spritz and you can keep an eye on the queue for the vaporettos outside.

And don’t beat yourself up if you don’t get to see it all…

Taking an hour or two out and having a traditional Italian long lunch might not be so good for hanging around in art galleries in the afternoon, but if you are tempted, stay away from the tourist areas and head to the Jewish quarter and find café Paradiso – setting for many a wedding proposal as it happens, so again – you’ve been warned.



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