It’s a dark, moonless night, but that doesn’t seem to bother our pilot, as he drives at break-neck speed, across the open stretch of black water towards the twinkling lights of Venice. A few short minutes earlier I had been collecting my bags from the luggage carousel at Marco Polo airport and now I am sat in the back of a stylish watertaxi feeling more than a little bit fabulous. It was the end of a very hectic week of fashion shoots and I hadn’t been able to give this trip much forethought. But suddenly I’m excited to revisit the magical city that had left such a lasting impression on me.Venice Bienale

Back in 1993, I was a poor but earnest art student, travelling on budget trains across Europe to sample the city’s art galleries and frescos. At the time, I was still seriously into painting and drawing and was giddy with excitement at the idea of what was in store for me in this historically and visually rich place. I remember waking just as the train slid into the sidings and sleep-walked out of the station, unsure if I was still dreaming. The dimly lit, tightly packed and gorgeously weathered buildings looked for all the world like I had travelled a few hundred years back in time, rather than a few hundred miles. I was mesmerised and smitten in equal measure, and even though the walk took hours in the cold January night, with multiple wrong turns, it was an experience that has always stayed with me.

This time however it’s an altogether more organised affair. I was in the safe, comfortable hands of funky Swiss watch brand Swatch. They had kindly invited me to be part of the opening of the 56th International Art Exhibition at La Biennale di Venezia, of which they are major sponsors. Quite literally putting their money where their mouth is by supporting the Arts – creativity and artistry being central to their whole brand ethos. Let’s face it, turning a plastic quartz watch, albeit a very high quality one, into an extremely popular and collectable item for over 30 years is one hell of a feat of creativity.

Their involvement with artists is much more than a marketing ploy, it’s central to the product itself. Some of the biggest names in the art world have taken on the challenge of working on this tiny canvas, elevating them into miniature and highly collectable artworks. Swatch Creative Director, Carlo Giordanetti embodies this commitment to the Arts, and it’s his knowledgable hands I’ll be in for the next couple of days. He enthusiastically introduces some of the current crop of artists he is collaborating with. These include the colourful, irreverent Berlin-based duo Eva and Adele, whose notion of identity and gender is as plastic as it is nonconformist. Like me 23 years ago, they seemed to have timetravelled from the distant future to be there. But, in this magical setting, nothing seems impossible. Joanna Vascocelo's Nighttime GardenThis point is only proven by Portuguese artist Joanna Vasconcelos’s Giandino dell’Eden installation, a disorientating fantasy nighttime garden, created using a myriad of multicoloured plastic LED flowers, amongst which a mysterious figure dances, also adorned with coloured LED cable. This intricately crafted installation is ‘Tron’ meets the ‘Chelsea Flower Show’– a real case of ‘plastic fantastic’. It’s no wonder Giordanetti had chosen to sponsor her, and asked her to create a very special timepiece to celebrate the occasion.

Half an hour after setting out, the pilot slowed the engine to a purr and were sedately chugging down a quiet waterway, surrounded on either side by the beautiful, and painstakingly maintained gardens of some very grand residences. We had passed the islands some minutes earlier and were now out at the far edge of the lagoon on a thin strip of land that forms a barrier between the Adriatic Sea beyond. A few moments later the boat is guided expertly onto the jetty of my stunning hotel, right on the beach, where the waves were breaking gently against the sand. I took my first big breath of fresh sea air. Italy had done it again; it had charmed me without even trying. With a good night’s sleep behind me, I was eager to take in the Biennale at the Arsenale Pavilion. The journey – in another water taxi – was equally as exhilarating as my arrival. What the darkness of the previous night had hidden was the sheer visual spectacle of the series of islands, Byzantine and Catholic church steeples punctuating the low-lying terracotta rooftops, resplendent against the deep clear blue skies, while the bright sunlight bounced off the water – sunglasses are of course obligatory in Italy. Sadly, this picturesque historic vista was marred for me by the presence of tens of bombastically ostentatious billionaire’s yachts. These monsters were a flotilla of aggressive invading battleships from another planet, proving just how much of a status destination Venice is.

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 of 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.

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 showsare dotted around the city, essentially turning the whole of Venice into one huge, art-lover’s paradise.

Xu Bing Bienale Phoenix

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 draw one’s attention to the enormous amounts of energy artists invest in their work.

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 balked 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.

www.swatch.com


GET OUT THERE

1. Treat yourself to a boat-taxi direct from the airport to your hotel. It’s a bit more expensive but well worth it for the luxurious and unique experience. www.motoscafivenezia.it

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. Be sure 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.

5. 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.

6. Don’t use a selfie-stick or drag a trolleyed bag around. I don’t need to explain why, just don’t.