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  • Cathy Dishner

The Venice Biennale

May you Live in Interesting Times

No one ever needs an excuse to visit Venice.  Each time I return, I am amazed that such a place exists built precariously upon endless meandering canals.  Venice is a beautiful city of pink-glazed lanterns, palatial majesty, warbling gondoliers, cobbled narrow streets, and countless bridges.

Even the constant influx of tourists wielding selfie-sticks, traipsing through St. Mark’s piazza, and clogging the Rialto Bridge cannot spoil the magic of Venice.

It is fitting that in such an art-inspired city, the Venice Biennale arrives every two years from May through November. This contemporary visual art exhibition is great fun whether you are an art afficiando, aesthete, or amateur.   I fell into the last category as I understood little about the event before arriving in Venice to visit my daughter.  Jackie was there for the opening of the Biennale with Wake Forest University classmates whose contemporary art class culminated in a two-week trip to Venice.  She was living in a former palazzo donated to the university and located directly next to the extraordinary Peggy Guggenheim museum.   I want to return in my next life as one of my daughters.  But, in this life, it is wonderful to be able to temporarily immerse myself in their world and share in their experiences.  Visiting the Biennale with Jackie as my expert guide was priceless.

The formal Biennale takes place in a park, the Giardini, on the outskirts of the main tourist areas. The Giardini includes a large exhibition hall that houses a themed exhibition curated by the Biennale’s director. Also located here are the 30 permanent National Pavilions that are property of different countries. Built in the 1930s-40s, each pavilion has a unique design and is managed by its country’s ministry of culture.   One of my favorite exhibitions was in the French pavilion located directly across from the English pavilion.  Shrouded in a disorienting fog, the impressively columned front entrance was blocked and visitors were directed to enter through a dingy back door into a basement area that had been dug up, revealing dirt and rocks that tunneled through the crawl space.  This suggesting that you had to dig your way underground to arrive at England surreptitiously in a time of enforced immigration bans and pending Brexit legislation.

At the Greek pavilion, ordinary drinking glasses covered the floor as visitors literally walked on glass, suggesting the fragility of the Greek nation at this time.  

The Arsenale is another major Biennale location where various artists exhibit their works in a massive cluster of renovated shipyards, sheds, and warehouses.  This space could take days to properly visit as the art exhibited is as vast as the space in which it is presented: painting, sculpture, virtual reality, textile, film, audio, performance art, and more are on display.

Adjacent to the Arsenale, Italian artist Lorenzo Quinn created a sculpture that provides a call to action: Six pairs of arching hands create a bridge over a waterway, symbolic of the need to build bridges and overcome divisions globally.

Many artists turned ordinary things into the extraordinary.  From one angle, an artistic blue Murano glass vase is perched on a small platform.  Yet, from the other side, it becomes apparent that the vase is actually a water container for a utilitarian drinking fountain.

The Biennale extends beyond these official platforms and pop-up exhibitions are present through the city and surrounding islands.  On the island of San Clemente where we stayed at the luxurious Kempinsky resort, a women’s high heel shoe prominently stabbed at the grass.  The sculpture looked frivolously glittery from a distance but was made from mundane pots and pans when examined up close. 

On the island of Murano we visited Glasstress, an official collateral event of the Biennale. Contemporary artists collaborate with the different Murano artisans to realize creations using ancient techniques. 

I had only two days to blitz through the exhibitions which was enough to experience it on a superficial level.  For those who are looking for greater immersion, I recommend 4-5 days.  Let us arrange Biennale tickets, curator tours, fantastic accommodations, authentic restaurants.  In high summer season, we can make it is easier to access the Biennale than cross the Rialto bridge!  

The idyllic pool at the Kempinsky San Clemente Palace 

The Venice Biennale runs from May 11th – November 24th, 2019 Come and "Live in Interesting Times"... Let us chart your path off the traditional tourist trod bridges and canals to the contemporary artistic wonders of the Venice Biennale.

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