1. Ace the numbers
This is already the 57th Venice Biennale. This year, the exhibition has 120 invited artists (85% first-time participants) spanning across a variety of themes such as “Artists and Books”, “Joy and Fear”, “Traditions” and “Colors”. With 86 national pavilions, Antigua and Barbuda, Kiribati and Nigeria are the “freshers” of the event. It is an extravagant feast of contemporary art that can easily consume a couple of days of your time, if not more.
2. Viva Arts Viva
An English translation of this year’s tagline is “Long Live Art”. Yet the director of the Biennale, Christine Marcel, expresses the difficulty of this slogan. She describes her enthusiasm to embrace artists who construct an alternative and essential space for enrichment in the present day, who “build us up, and edify us, to embrace life, even if doubt ensures inevitably”.
After Documenta 14, a German art exhibition, began to base its works on political issues, the Venice Biennale picked up the baton on the discourse of social instability and political turbulence, now a shared conundrum. Such political topics remain commonplace, despite the themes of the Central Pavilion being loosely defined and the national pavilions enjoying an even greater extent of freedom. The giant workshop-cum-studio at the Central Pavilion – an exhibition no-one could miss – is called Green light – An Artistic Workshop by Olafur Eliasson. The artist invited 80 asylum seekers and refugees who had recently arrived Italy to build lamp models designed by another artist, Einar Thorsteinn. The luminous green unit produced could flexibly be rearranged or assembled to constantly transform the site.
My favourite piece is Swan Song Now by Jane Zelibsaka in the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic Pavilion. A surreal installation with shimmering swans placed on projected sea, combined with a digital panel of a girl holding meditative gestures, this piece is richly infused with cultural references and symbols concerning eternity, politics, ecology and humanity across different worlds and time periods.
4. One to remember: Anne Imhof
Even if you cannot make it to the marvellous Venice, there is a name that you must still know about – the German artist Anne Imhof. Her expansive multi-media performance work, Faust, won her the Golden Lion for Best National Participation. There are plenty of videos of her performance online – so don’t miss it. The space of her work is clean and minimalistic, staged on elevated glass panels with scattered, monochromatic props. On the first glimpse, the vacant setting already exudes an intense sense of seclusion and powerlessness. But it is the ephemeral performance, with discursive figures, that expose the vulnerability of the complex, contemporary relationship between body and power. This work is highly poetic, yet also brutal and threatening to look at.
5. Phyllida Barlow represents British art as playful and excessive
Described by the Guardian as “the artistic outsider who has finally come inside”, the teacher of Rachel Whiteread, Martin Creed and Douglas Gordon transformed the British Pavilion into a scrap yard, but a joyful one as the name Folly indicates. It is worthwhile to look beyond the initially confusing exterior and read the unsung story of Barlow, who remained virtually unknown in the art world for over forty years until her recent international exposure. Her unremitted effort and ardent affection for the arts is as striking as her monumental sculptures.
6. Keep an eye on the “small” nations
Whilst fascination for the traditional ‘big-names’ of the art world is a natural instinct, it may be wise to turn towards the smaller nations. Gesturing beyond contemporary discussion of art, they attempt to steal the spotlight from the global audience onto their own, internal struggle. To name but a few, Mongolian artist, Munkkh-Munkhbolor Ganbold, made art from animal skulls in order to express his concerns over the continuous destruction of their ecosystem due to industrial activities. The Filipino artist, Manuel Ocampo, responded to the curator’s accusation that you were “no longer being able to see the Philippines without seeing Europe” by his painting Cook in the Kitchen, written with “The Development of Abstract Art Immigrant Version” at the very top. It may be worth moving from the traditional vantage point, and engage with the cultural and aesthetic diversity of an extensive pool of participating nations, especially at such a nationalistically-charged time.
7. Hidden gems out of the core
A visit to the Venice Biennale can be much intensive than you ever imagined: it is not just a single exhibition, but becomes a magnet, attracting many collateral events and special projects. “The Boat is Leaking, the Captain Lied”, widely-alleged as the best peripheral show to the Biennale, juxtaposed the mind-blowing set design of Anna Viebrock, the moving images of Alexander Kludge, and the realistically artificial (or vice versa) photographs of Thomas Demand. The show filled the historical building of the Ca’Corner della Regina, once a Venetian palazzo in the 1700s, with a powerful battle of different art mediums and an atmospheric contemplation of political rhetoric. This is not to mention Rachel Maclean’s latest film “Spite your Face” and Pierre Huyghe’s show at the Louis Vuitton Foundation. Events such as these are hard to be wiped from your itinerary in Venice.
8. Last but not least, we must talk about Damien Hirst
Hirst’s latest show, “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable” accumulated surprise as a result of its tremendous size, which took up two museums with hundreds of exhibits. Most people were baffled by the bronze sculpture of Mickey Mouse shielded by colourful corals, but really, the objects did not matter. One could easily dismiss his kitschy aesthetics and the artist’s ego attempting to represent a clichéd model of the artist’s almost-religious power today. But one could also choose to embrace his unflinching dedication to self-mockery with an almost self-immolating approach. Love it or hate it, we should listen and consider. Echoing Paolo Baratta, the President of the Venice Biennale 2017,
“La Biennale must present itself as a place whose method is dedicated to an open dialogue between artists, and between artists and the public”.