Personal Structures curators Karlyn De Jongh & Sarah Gold in Hermann Nitsch ’130th Aktion’

Palazzi, parties and politics at the Venice Art Biennale

Treadmills on army tanks, bamboo bridges at the Guggenheim and brunches at the back of the north wind – Flint’s snapshots from this year’s Venice Art Biennale.

For the inauguration of Christie’s Biennale App last week, Flint joined the art world for the opening of what is widely recognised as the biggest international art exhibition.  What did we do before GPS!? While the LA Times noted whimsically that modern mapping technology has ended an age-old tradition of getting lost in Venice, with over 89 national pavilions to see, endless satellite events and cocktail parties to attend – there simply wasn’t time for aimless wandering among the city’s canal labyrinth – especially with a vaporetto strike to add to the madness!

Starting off with the UK’s main participation, the opinions seem somewhat split for Mike Nelson’s achievement in the Giardini; The Independent labels it one of the best things in this year’s Biennale while Laura Cummings from the Guardian is left underwhelmed. The former tearoom has been totally transformed into a maze of backrooms and dirty corridors resembling what could be a migrant worker’s filthy lodgings.  The warren of low ceilinged rooms with rotting walls evokes unease and confusion (exacerbated, no doubt, by standing in a sweaty 2 hour queue that awaits visitors on arrival). Many will find the room duplication irritating rather than masterful.  Despite visitors patience in waiting to get into the pavilion….once inside, you’ll be desperate to find the nearest exit.  Other queues in the Giardini came from the doors of the US Pavilion where Biennalistas were entertained by noisy tanks turned into treadmills, ATM machines morphed into dissonant organs and performances from Olympic gymnasts over American Airline cabin seats. A lively and original work from Cuban-American duo Allora & Calzadilla. Congratulations to Germany who won the Golden Lion for the best pavilion with the memorial self-portrait installation for artist, Christoph Schlingensief who died last year before seeing his final work completed.

This year more than ever, art and politics walk hand in hand at the Biennale.  Poignancy hung over the Egyptian pavilion where video of Ahmed Basiony’s performance – 30 Days of Running in the Space – is interposed with footage he shot in Tahrir Square during the January demonstrations in Cairowhere the artist was shot dead.  Newcomer Saudi Arabia also brings a political entry into the competition.  The decision to include The Black Arch from sisters Raja and Shadia Alem, questions discrimination in the cultural scene in a country where women still have no vote yet are invited to represent their nation at one of the most elite art events of the year.

Away from the main event at the Giardini and Arsenale, some of the most majestic Venetian palaces are opening their doors to host the fair’s collateral exhibitions. Quintessentially baroque Palazzi offer backdrops of 18th Century frescoes, furniture and paintings to some of the most cutting edge contemporary art.  Examples of these sensational juxtapositions include Francois Pinault’s refurbished Punta della Dogana showcasing  In Praise of Doubt, Ca’ Rezzonico which welcomes Barry X Ball’s Portraits and Masterpieces, Palazzo Bollani with Anton Ginzburg’s At the Back of the North Wind and Palazzo Fortuny, which is currently being  taken over by Axel Vervoordt’s collection, with works from artists such as Auguste Rodin and Anish Kapoor.  But possibly the most exciting is Personal Structures at Palazzo Bembo, located just south of the Rialto bridge.  Dutch curators Karlyn De Jongh & Sarah Gold present 28 artists from 5 continents, some established others whose oeuvre is less known. Highlights include a visually striking and disturbing piece of performance art by Hermann Nitsch and a video installation with Marina Abramović locked in a staring battle with a donkey.

During the vernissage, while the art world continued sipping Prosecco, Flint took time to have afternoon tea with the directors of Hackney based WW Gallery who are displaying their artists on paper accompanied by cupcakes and earl grey in Campo San Polo.  An inventive show from two new and inspiring London curators, Debra Wilson and Chiara Williams.

To celebrate the launch of Big Bambu, the work of artist twins Mike and Doug Starn, we joined party biennalistas for negronis and mini tiramisus on the terraces over looking the Grand Canal.  For the past month, the Starn brothers along with their 11 man rock climbing crew have been working around the clock  to complete their  3,000 pole installation.  Formerly set up on the roof of the MOMA last Summer, this second giant nest of bamboos now unites the Peggy Guggenheim Collection and Wake Forest University campus.  Incredible roof top views (just remember to leave you Jimmy Choos for another night).

A final mention goes to the hat trick of Isola San Giorgio Maggiore which hosts three separate exhibitions during the Biennale, most impressive of which is the British contribution from Venice in Peril, titled Real Venice.  Artists from around the globe have been invited to donate photographs which immortalize the city with the proceeds going to ensure La Serenissima survives and is improved for future generations.


The Venice Biennale runs from 4th June 2011 to 27 November.  For further information please visit the official biennale website. To download Christie’s Biennale App please follow this link.

Above image: Personal Structures curators Karlyn De Jongh & Sarah Gold in Hermann Nitsch ’130th Aktion’