Italy

Venice Art Biennale: A Survival Guide

This year’s trip to Venice coincided with the art biennale, which makes this my second art biennale. Venice is overwhelming to begin with when it comes to art. The art in the churches alone could keep you busy for days, and then there’s the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Ca’Rezzonico, Ca’Pesaro, and a dozen or so other museums. If all you did was devote yourself to art, you could easy spend a week or two in Venice doing only that.

And so when the art biennale comes back to Venice, it triples (at least) the art available in the city. What’s a girl to do without losing her mind? Or overloading on art?

I have thoughts.

But first let’s start with the basics: the main sites of the biennale are the Arsenale and the Giardini. Your standard biennale ticket gets you one entrance to each site over a two day period. A plus ticket is good for three consecutive days, with multiple entrances to each site. I’m told there are also season passes, of a sort, available. You can get a nice discount on the basic ticket if you buy them early, like a month or two before the biennale opens.

Okay, back to the survival guide:

The Ghana pavilion.

Bad weather days: go with the Arsenale. This is a huge space–basically several long buildings. Some countries rent pavilion space here as well, such as the fantastic Ghana pavilion this year. There are also a few outdoor spaces for exhibitions, but it’s all mostly indoors, which makes it an ideal location for a day of craptastic weather. I tend to spend more time at the Arsenale, although I’m not really sure why. It’s not that the exhibits are better–but I do find more humor there, in general. For instance, the vending machine that sells bottles of sauerkraut juice (called Brine and Punishment–I’m totally serious) for €3.

Brine and Punishment, by the way, is project from the Slavs & Tatars. Trying to place that particular country? Yeah, my brain went there too. But no:

Founded in 2006, Slavs and Tatars began as a book club and evolved into an artist collective whose multifaceted practice has nevertheless remained very close to language, both in literal and figurative ways. Their work, ranging from sculptures and installations to lecture-performances and publications, is an unconventional research approach to the cultural richness and complexity of the geographical area enclosed between two symbolic and physical barriers: the former Berlin Wall and the Great Wall of China. This vast land is where East and West collide, merging into and redefining one another.

If you plan to spend quality time with each exhibit, you can easily spend a full day just in the Arsenale. Most often, though, I end up spending half a day–maybe around four hours.

And since you have a bad weather suggestions, you know what’s next. On good weather days: pick the Giardini. The Giardini site hosts 29 country pavilions, some of them designed by well-known architects. This is also the location of the Central Pavilion, which serves various purposes depending on the year. The pavilions are all pretty close together, but you still have to walk outside between each one. So yeah, the Giardini site is a good idea when the weather is fair.

The Giardini seems to have more time-consuming exhibits for the most part. I could have easily spent a whole day here if I were alone. As it was, Mr. Pretty was with me, so I sped things along a bit.

One of the creepiest installations this year was the Belgian pavilion, a work called Mondo Cane. Visitors receive a guide that describes all the figures within the work. Each figure performs on a loop. Sometimes sharpening a knife, sometimes ringing a bell. All figures are, well, they’re in jail or cut off from the public, etc. The artists, Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys, say it’s about patriarchal Europe. Could be, but mostly I just disturbed–yet I stuck around for a good half hour just watching. I also spent a ton of time in the Israeli pavilion, a piece called Field Hospital X that involved being put into what they said was a sound proof box in which you are instructed to scream your head off before watching a film about family abuse. The piece is described as “a space in which silenced voices can be heard and social injustices can be seen,” which struck me as kind of ironic given things like the “Trump Heights” debacle.

A piece at the Glasstress exhibit.

Off-site pavilions are the ones that can take up more space than you can ever imagine. I mean, there are nearly 90 country pavilions in total, but maybe half are at the two main sites. Then there are the dozens and dozens of collateral events and vaguely related events and installations (like the Banksy piece that randomly appeared on the wall of a smaller canal this year). The other pavilions and events can be anywhere–from the art district on Giudecca to a sixteenth century synagogue in the Jewish Ghetto. And yeah, Venice isn’t really all that big, but walking anywhere generally takes 45 minutes longer than you think it will, and vaporettos take time.

So the question becomes this: what do you most want to see? What do you have time to see? The way I take on the first question is to do a TON of research before I go to the biennale. What’s drawing attention? What has won the Golden Lion? Unless you have about a month, you’re going to have to make some hard choices.

This year I kept hearing great things about the Icelandic pavilion. To get there we had to head up the the San Marco vaporetto stop, then hop on a different vaporetto line to get to Giudecca. Oh, and then we had to figure out where the pavilion was, which took time. But it was worth it. I mean, come on–a cave full of florescent hair? That you get to play with?

Of course, getting there and finding it didn’t take nearly as long as it did to get to Burano and hunt down Glasstress, an ancillary event to the biennale that showcases art glass. Don’t even get me started on trying to find the Lithuanian pavilion, which won the Golden Lion this year for their amazing climate change opera (another installation where I spent at least an hour).

And the thing about deciding which of the off-site and collateral events you want to see is that while you pay one entrance fee to get into the Arsenale and Giardini sites, it’s not easy to figure out which of the off-site events are free and which are paid. The Icelandic and Lithuanian pavilions were free. Glasstress was not. The installations located inside of museums are probably not free.

Whatever the case, off-site exhibits are probably your best bet for good weather days. It’s not always possible, of course. Take, for instance, the Lithuanian pavilion–opera performances only occur on Saturdays. And it was also pouring down rain and cold and raw that day. The wait to get into the pavilion was about 30 minutes (a relatively short wait, given that I’d heard on opening weekend the wait was two hours!). I was drenched and miserable. But hey, no help for it. Just be prepared when you’re out and about, eh?

Mr. Pretty and I only had about three days in Venice, so we had to make the most it–and see as much of the biennale art as possible. Our plan was to spend half a day at the Arsenale on day one, half a day at the Giardini on day two, and then shove in all the off-site things we could in between. All told we did a good job, but it took real planning. Don’t be afraid to get down with your schedule!

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