This, of course, is nothing new, Venice has been invaded so many times – from the Romans to Attila the Hun – that it has formed part of the city’s very fabric, a mish-mash of cultural and architectural influences that sets it apart from other Italian cities.
Its grandeur owes much to its unique position as a trading port and has supplied successive generations of the super-rich with the finest luxury goods from around the world – augmenting it with home-grown artisan industries that grew up around it, notably the masterfully blown fine-coloured glass from its neighbouring Murino island. But it’s the city’s place at the centre of the art world that has made the Biennale such an important cultural event. The festival itself begins in May and runs all the way through until November, during which time an estimated half a million people will pass through the city, consuming its artistic delights. The money generated from all this cultural tourism is quite literally keeping the city afloat, going, in part at least, into a programme to construct 79 mobile floodgates, which will separate the lagoon from the Adriatic when the tide exceeds one meter above the usual high-water mark.
“Enwezor is using it as an opportunity to confront some serious issues, from human rights abuses to the injustices of today’s capitalist system.”
120 years after its founding, the Venice Biennale has grown to mammoth, almost intimating proportions. Encompassing 53 national pavilions featuring some of each country’s most prominent artists, as well as the extensive International Art Exhibition. This year’s (the 56th, incidentally) is entitled ‘All The World’s Futures’ and is curated by the Nigerian artist and writer Okwui Enwezor. The exhibition is split over two main locations, the Arsenale and the Giardini. In addition, smaller shows are dotted around the city, essentially turning the whole of Venice into one huge, art lover’s paradise.
Art today is big business, hence the big boats I presume, and it comes in large measures. For example, Chinese Artist Xu Bing’s giant ‘Phoenixes’ installation sits in adjoining boat houses at the Arsenale – the 100 foot long pair of mythical creatures stand poised to take flight across the city. But it’s not all about scale. Some artworks are impressive for other reasons. Take the Argentinean artist Ernesto Ballesteros for example – for the entire duration of the Bienniale (all 198 days), he is creating a piece entitled ‘Indoor Flights’ in which he constructs and flies paper gliders around the gallery. The effect is much more profound than it may sound, the grace in which both the artist and the gliders move about the space borders on the transcendental. His almost religious commitment to the making process draws one’s attention to the enormous amounts of energy artists invest in their work.
“Opportunities for retail therapy are abundant and you could easily lose yourself for hours in the endless displays of artisan crafts.”
Whilst different countries seem to use the Biennale as a marketing opportunity to promote their cultural credentials by showcasing their homegrown talent, Enwezor is using it as an opportunity to confront some serious social and political issues, from human rights abuses to the injustices of today’s out-of-control capitalist system. To do so, he has invited big names like the British Turner Prize-winning artist turned Oscar-winning film director Steve McQueen, who highlights the destruction caused by the drug trade in his video ‘Ashes’; and American sculptor Melvin Edwards, who brings us some powerful metal structures created from the farm tools slaves were forced to use. Elsewhere in the exhibition, we find artists dealing with child poverty and education, this Biennale does not stop short at pulling its political punches.
However, although highly stimulating and interesting, all this art can leave one feeling rather exhausted – especially in the heat of the Italian summer sun. Fortunately, Venice has no shortage of ways to relax – whether that’s stepping into one of the hundreds of cool chapels or sitting in a shady courtyard ‘ristorante’, taking some time out with a glass of vino and a bite of fresh pasta. Just wander down any enticing narrow lane and you’ll find yourself a shady spot in no time.
Opportunities for retail therapy are, of course, abundant, and you could easily lose yourself for hours in the endless displays of blown glass or artisan crafts. After all, we all need a coloured glass elephant, or three – a thought that my cynical and discerning 22-year-old self would have baulked at. For him, the only acceptable souvenir was the set of photographs and sketches he had created. I still have them to this day, and occasionally dip into them, a treasured reminder to keep my eyes, and mind open to the possibilities of time travel.
Martin was the guest of Swatch, the main partner of la Biennale Arte, the world’s most prestigious exhibition of contemporary art.
Photography by Martin Perry, Alicia Steels (via Unsplash), Henrique Ferreira (via Unsplash) and Vidar Nordli Mathisen (via Unsplash)
Get out there
… treat yourself to a boat-taxi direct from the airport to your hotel. It’s a bit more expensive but well worth it for unique experience.
… give in to getting lost. It’s very easy to do so, so just go with it – you’ll find things you never dreamt of and it’s so small you’ll eventually find your bearings again.
… avoid the urge to rush. Yes, there is so much to see and do, but the real pleasure is allowing yourself time to enjoy the experience of immersing yourself in Venice and its history.
… forget to have a coffee at Piazza San Marco, but don’t sit down – an espresso at the bar will cost you €1, seated you’ll pay €15.
… have a gelato, it’s not just an ice-cream to cool you from the heat, but a delicious little piece of heaven, and a taste of Italian history. It’s culture that you’ve come for, after all, isn’t it?
… use a selfie-stick or drag a trolleyed bag around town. I don’t need to explain why. Do yourself and everyone else a favour and just don’t.
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