Venice Biennale, the global art event
A brief history of the Biennale
The truly global pull of the Biennale attracts art enthusiasts of all kinds, from amateurs to the most sophisticated of collectors, museum directors, curators, journalists and reporters, from all over the world, not to mention cohorts of artists who come to both present their works and discover the creations of others.
Established in 1893, the first “International Art Exhibition of the City of Venice” was held in 1895 and welcomed 200,000 visitors. From its second exhibition onwards, in 1897, it was renamed the “Biennale” and, in 1934, “The Biennale of Contemporary Art”. It experienced several interruptions due to the events of 20th century history, and today — perhaps due to its notoriety — it is simply the “Venice Biennale”. The 58th exhibition holds from 11th May to 24th November 2019.
An original organisation
At the time of its founding, the Biennale organised a quite conventional exhibition of several artists in the Giardini (“the gardens”) of Castello, designed in 1834. The gardens were ideal for the extravagant late-night parties that followed. Unsurprisingly, 29 national pavilions were quickly built thereafter, in which each country installed one or more artists of its choice. The thirtieth pavilion of the Giardini — the Italian pavilion — is at the heart of the space, and it is there that the director, newly appointed for each Biennale, invites artists to express their artistic talents on a given theme. Boosted by its ever-increasing popularity, the Biennale has now expanded onto a second, post-industrial site, that was once a shipyard called L’Arsenale (“the Arsenal”).
At the forefront of creation
Faithful to the spirit of its origins, the objective of the Biennale is to be a showcase of the international creativity of its time. In addition, successive organisers have worked to invite the most innovative artists and to encourage creation through the awarding of prizes, in this case, the famous “Lions”. The Biennale is intended to reflect, and to promote, contemporary artistic trends. Listening out for the great changes in global artistic creation and the ever more diverse modes of expression, it awards established artists, but also supports the rise of younger talent. Laure Prouvost, for example, at 41 years old, represents France this year. At the age of only 40, Camille Henrot won the Silver Lion in 2013 with her film Grosse Fatigue. In 2017, at 39 years old, Germany’s Anne Imhof won the Golden Lion for the best pavilion, with an extraordinary, disturbing and unforgettable performance.
The Biennale 2019, main events
While Europe occupies a large part of the national pavilions, all the continents are represented. This year, we are welcoming the first participation of Madagascar, which reinforces geographical diversity at the event and encourages an openness to sometimes previously unknown artistic modes of expression. Canada’s choice to donate its pavilion to Isuma, an Inuit video production and production collective is certainly worth highlighting. Other highly anticipated installations include Natascha Süder Happelmann (Germany), Jos De Gruyter and Harald Thys (Belgium), Martin Puryear (USA), Laure Prouvost (France), Cathy Wilkes (Great Britain), Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz (Switzerland).
With regard to the exhibition theme, “May you live in interesting times” is the subject that Ralph Rugoff, the charismatic director of the Hayward Gallery in London and of the 2019 Biennale, chose to submit to the guest artists. This curse, attributed to China for more than a hundred years, is actually a Western invention and thus an example of fake news well before its time! Ralph Rugoff has often emphasized his interest in an art that combines pleasure with critical thinking. And throughout his career, he has never been afraid to organise exhibitions around current issues and challenges together with a healthy dose of humor. For him, “May you live in interesting times” is a rather ambiguous theme that aims to bring the two together. “It’s less of a curse than a challenge, and art can help us to make sense of things when the world faces crises and change that cause anxiety, frustration and maybe even despair.” And, he adds, ”May you live in interesting times” will also include playful creations, illustrating the fact that it’s when we play that we are, perhaps, most fully human*.
(*) Javier Pes, ”‘We Can All Be in Different Worlds’: Ralph Rugoff’s Venice Biennale Will Respond to the Rise of Fake News“, news.artnet.com, 16th July 2018.
An artistic effervescence throughout the city
Beyond the two main institutions, the Peggy Guggenheim Foundation for Modern Art and the Pinault Foundation for Modern and Contemporary Art, the “off” is also very much alive in Venice, with its many palaces and monuments the setting for numerous exhibitions. The Peggy Guggenheim collection, housed at the heart of the Venier dei Leoni Palace, on the banks of the Grand Canal, is one of the most beautiful collections of modern art in Europe. The Pinault Foundation is exhibiting part of its collection in the magnificent building of the Customs Point (Punta della Dogana), and also, during each Biennale, dedicates an exhibition to a major contemporary artist, in the no less splendid Palazzo Grassi. The 2019 Biennale will mark the first solo exhibition in Italy by Belgian artist Luc Tuymans, mega-star of the world stage.
But in the end, everything is art in Venice: a simple stroll through its alleyways and its palaces and churches, whose architecture as well as interiors testify to the city’s eternal connection with artistic creation, is a creative act in itself.