Venetian adventures

In mid-June, I visited a friend who was coming to the end of a semester teaching for Venice International University. The few days immersed in the heat, sun, art, history and excellent company were restorative. Much of what I experienced has reignited my research and writing mojo. The focal point of this was visiting Damien Hirst’s Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable. I’m working on a blog post to order some thoughts on this, as well as researching it in depth to produce a conference paper and publication on it. For now, here is a collection of thoughts and images from the rest of the trip.

La Biennale di Venezia, 57th International Art Exhibition, VIVA ARTE VIVA

I had three full days in Venice. It was hot and my friend still had work to do and had already seen many of the biennale pavilions. There was no point in wrecking ourselves to see everything. I much prefer getting more out of smaller aspects of things anyway, as it can be overwhelming and counter-productive to try to take too much in. The humidity was playing havoc with some old back and hip injuries as well, and Venice is a city that requires its occupants to be able-bodied. We went only to pavilions we happened upon during gelato-seeking strolls (there are increasing vegan options, by the way), and on the way to and from planned activities. This turned out to be a useful approach, as we came across diverse and interesting work that we may not have seen had we pre-planned our visits using the substantial programme. Admission to each of the following biennale exhibitions is free.

Nigerian Pavilion
How about NOW?
Commissioner: Godwin Obaseki.
Curator: Adenrele Sonariwo and Emmanuel Iduma.
Exhibitors: Peju Alatise, Victor Ehikhamenor, Qudus Onikeku.
Venue: Scoletta dei Tiraoro e Battioro, Campo San Stae, Santa Croce 2059.

Nigeria’s first ever pavilion at the Venice Biennale centres on issues around identity and time, being and presentness. I was particularly drawn to Qudus Onikeku’s films showing his considerations of national identity through dance, and Peju Alatise’s Flying Girls sculpture (pictured right). Inspired by the story of a young domestic servant whose mind occupies an alternate dream world in which she can fly and be free, the work is dedicated to all Nigerian girls. It sends a poignant message calling for freedom for girls to be children just a few short years after the Boko Haram abduction of nearly 300 school girls. While freedom can be attained in the mindscape, we must fight to attain it for all in the real world.
A fuller and informative write-up of the exhibition can be accessed via the Venice Insider.

Republic of San Marino Pavilion
Friendship Project
Commissioner: Paolo Rondelli, Direttore Istituti Culturali della Republic of San Marino.
Curator: Vincenzo Sanfo
Exhibitors: Priscilla Beccari, Giancarlo Frisoni, Giovanni Giulianelli Sisto Righi, Patrizia Taddei, Marco Tentoni, Xing Gang, Lee Kuang Yu, Zhang Wang Zhao Wumian, Yishan, Fu Yuxiang.
Venue: Ateneo Veneto, Campo San Fantin 1897 | Palazzo Rota Ivancich, Castello 4421 | Liceo Artistico Statale Palazzo Giustinian Recanati Dorsoduro 1012 | Centro Culturale Don Orione Artigianelli Dorsoduro 947.

The San Marino exhibition offers a diverse range of artwork across various modes linked by the artists’ approaches to ink painting on/with different materials. Continuing the Friendship Project initiated in 2015, the work aims to embody and encourage collaboration and communication that transcends difference and othering. It is housed across four venues. The Ateneo, for example, claims to be ‘an institution for the promulgation of science, literature, art and culture in all forms, in the exclusive interest of promoting social solidarity’. 

We visited the part hosted by the art school in the Giustiniani palace. Highlights for me included Sisto Righi’s sculptures made from rusted, ‘found’ materials standing upon their packing boxes doubling as plinths (left), developing on the ‘readymade’ ethos that art can be anything and anything can be art, even in the flatpack Ikea age. Yishan’s large and miniature sculptures based on Chinese ink writing are fascinating, as are Patrizia Taddei’s intricately painted ceramics and Marco Tentoni’s large, multi-panelled paintings which I think are on goat-skin parchment or a similar material. 

Commissioner: IRWIN
Curators: Zdenka Badovinac, Charles Esche
Installation by Ahmet Öğüt
Venue: Palazzo Ca’ Tron, IUAV University of Venice
(Finished 15 July)

Standing for Neue Slowenische Kunst, NSK is a state that exists in time rather than in a place or space. Established in 1984 when three arts groups based in former Yugoslavia merged, the NSK State emerged in the 1990s to interrogate the production of meaning and increasingly make this the work of the spectator. Exploring the increasing fusion between art and politics, ‘NSK State in Time connects the history of the twentieth century with historic possibilities and necessities of the twenty-first century’ (Eda Čufer, p.5 of the pavilion newspaper). The exhibition invited us to do this by embodying the refugee experience. 

Accessing the tilted exhibition space featuring the responses to the Apology for Modernity manifesto printed in the newspaper was literally an uphill struggle. The less able-bodied you are, the more difficult it is, just like asylum-seeking. By managing to get up the steep structure, or by cheating and passing through the curtain acting as a side-door, the back space and future possibilities it acts as a gateway to could be viewed and the box's steepness witnessed from the outside. The space physicalizes and visualizes the difficulties posed by man-made (and I do mean made by men) institutional structures.

The pavilion was housed in the Università Iuav di Venezia, a Venice university solely focusing on design and architecture. Behind the structure was further information about NSK State, more responses to their manifesto poll, and its ‘passport office’ with the officer and desk up on an inaccessible platform with a ‘reflection’ image of the upside-down empty desk underneath, and the unmanned photo studio behind. Even if you make it through the difficult loopholes, citizenship,  legitimacy and safety remain out of reach.

The exhibition and brief manifesto are a call-to-arms to the west to resist complacency and become active, caring world citizens. The newspaper, which can be downloaded from the link above, is an important read.

Other exhibitions and museums

Venice’s impressive museum of natural history is housed in the thirteenth-century Fontego dei Turchi. Its varied collections comprise of fossils and artefacts spanning 700 million years explained with informative multi-lingual displays, including an interactive motion-sensitive holographic program that projects images of your selections onto the surrounding walls to show, for example, what creatures belong to what groupings. The curation alone blew me away. Themed rooms in the pre-history section had wonderful audio and light installations that gave the spaces a serenity conducive to concentrating while relaxing as you view and read. We whizzed quicker through the anthropological and zoological parts as neither of us are fans of colonial appropriation or taxidermy. We appreciated the arrangements, even if the ‘birds in flight’ room is a bit Hitchcockian and terrifying. The fish ponds in the central courtyard are lovely. Worth a visit.

illy Art Collection 25th Anniversary
Playfully entitled ‘The Dish Ran Away With the Spoon. Everything You Can Think of is True’, this collection of limited edition coffee cup sets designed by artists from the world over was presented amid Robert Wilson’s playful approaches to fairy tales and nursery rhymes. We happened upon the exhibition held in Magazzini del Sale by the lagoon after emerging from the Punta della Dogana part of the Hirst show. It was mercifully air-conditioned on the most humid day of my trip. It is sheer fun and joy and weirdness across seven rooms. Access is free and all on one level.
The Mocenigo Palace museum’s perfume exhibition had an unexpected continuity for me upon visiting it after seeing the whole of Damien Hirst’s Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable that day. Many of the plethora of perfume bottles across the ages and places displayed incorporated the bodies of former living creatures. The sea themes maintained a continuity for me with the discovered sea treasures and the Venetian setting. It was fascinating to see and smell the perfume-making process from the late eighteenth century, and to walk amongst the palace’s preserved rooms and period dress.

Personal Structures Open Borders, European Cultural Centre
Personal Structures is an international art project featuring works by artists from all over the world practicing across all kinds of media and modes. I’ve been missing getting the Ulster University art college degree show these past few years, and this immense exhibition has sated me. Some work drawing attention to humanoid genitals, manipulations of marble and busts of Walt Disney again evoked memories from what we saw the day before at the Hirst show. We spent around three hours there and barely scratched the surface, often unable to take time with certain pieces. For example, there was a corner with some fascinating video work on juxtaposed cultural identities that we wanted to stay with for a while, but the heat was stifling. If you visit in the cooler months, I highly recommend a visit. The exhibition is open until 26 November and entry is free.

As well as being immersed in art and history, it was great to explore the markets, mask shops, canals, campos and architecture of the city. Italy is a difficult place to eat veggie or vegan, but the volume of international tourism with diverse dietary needs is making this easier in Venice at least. I leave you with an image of what Venice's sex shops think of current politics...


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