Refuge in Venice at Biennale Arte 2024, the 60th International Art Exhibition, Part I

Featured image
A view of the Grand Canal from the Peggy Guggenheim Collection terrace.

The 60th International Art Exposition, aka the Biennale, is currently on in Venice. Its theme? “Foreigners Everywhere.” The idea? To focus on refugees and misplaced persons — not necessarily the happiest inspiration for artists (although when are artists truly happy with their work?). The Biennale has been growing for years as galleries, collectives and artists rent palazzos all over town to cash in on all the art-obsessed visitors to Venice. This session has more than 300 National Participations, Official Collateral Events, Exhibitions, Foundations, Museums, Galleries and Art Spaces dotted all over the city. The official Biennale has 200 more artists than the 2022 edition!

The majority of the artists are from the Global South, Indigenous, queer and displaced, whether by choice or not. Appropriately enough, Venice was settled by refugees from the mainland fleeing the hoardes of Alaric, Attila, and the Lombards in the late 5th and 6th centuries. On the whole, critics did not especially care for the Biennale proper. Too many dead artists — more than half of the participants — was one big complaint.  I tried to get to as many of the spaces around Venice as I could, but that was clearly an impossible task to accomplish in one week.

Grey Skies and Choppy Water on The ay to The Giardini
Grey skies and choppy water on the way to the Giardini.

The great news is that there are now non-stop flights from New York to Venice. The bad news was that once on the ground the weather was very cold and damp, not that different from the recent New York weather. An interesting week lay ahead. I had gotten a weekly pass for the vaporettos, those Venetian floating “buses.” So on our first morning, it was time to check out the Biennale.

The Entrance to The Biennale
The entrance to the Biennale.

There is a huge garden at the eastern end of city. For those that have never been, the Giardini and the Arsenale are the two spaces that house the Biennale. Napoleon created the Giardini, and the Arsenal was where all the Venetian ships were built (it’s now used by the Italian Navy). A long alley in the Giardini is lined with some of the National Pavilions.

The Alersea Opera at the Nordic Countries Pavillion in Venice
The Altersea Opera at the Nordic Countries Pavilion.

One of the first pavilions we visited presented an interesting installation. Sweden, Norway and Finland share this space. Tza Tza Yeung Ho, Lap-See Lam and Kholod Hawash created this combo of bamboo and kimonos, which explores the allegory of Lo Ting, a mythical Cantonese half-man half-fish creature.

The Shifting Composition in the Japanese Pavillion
The shifting compositions in the Japanese Pavilion.

Compose by Yuko Mohri in the Japan Pavilion was focused on shifting phenomena. The artist created a large space of dripping water, inspired by leaks in the Toyko subway system that were created by the earthquakes. Fruit is arranged around the large space on “antique” tables. Electrodes in the fruit convert the energy produced when they rot into a system of lights and droning music. It was a popular space. New fruit is regularly swapped in as the artist wants us to think of the cycle of life.

The French Pavillion Is A Melange of Martinique and Europe
The French Pavilion is a melange of Martinique and Europe.

Some countries’ entries landed with a pointless thud. Korea, which had an outstanding exhibit in 2022, presented Odorama Cities. The idea was to explore the smells of different spaces in a very plain pavilion. Except, there was nothing to smell. The French entry was created by Julien Creuzet. It discusses his diasporic experience, whatever that might be. The space is colorful, at least.

Lenka, A Captive Giraffe, Who Died in The Prague Zoo in the Czech Pavillion
Lenka, a captive giraffe, who died in the Prague Zoo in the Czech Pavilion.

Another understandably favorite exhibit is The Heart of a Giraffe in Captivity is Twelve Kilos Lighter. The giraffe was captured in Kenya in the 1950s, thanks to cheap hunting permits, and the poor thing died of pneumonia two years later while held in the Prague Zoo. When she died, she was exhibited in the National Museum in Prague until 2000. Artist Eva Koťátková invites you to walk through her body and listen to stories about her while exploring ways of relating to nature.

A Canal in The Giardini in Venice
A canal in the Giardini.

Towards mid-day the skies cleared up. A small canal bisects the show and there are more pavilions on the other side.

Expostion Coloniale In The Serbian Pavillion
Exposition Coloniale in the Serbian Pavilion.

Aleksandar Denić created a series of scenes that represent spaces and things that migrants might see and experience in their new countries. Dingy spaces filled with Western commercial products included.

The Venice Pavillion
The Venice Pavilion.

Pietro Ruffo is a Venetian-based artist who creates in different mediums. His Constellation Globe is created on paper and arranged on a globe, with all 12 astrological signs of the zodiac represented. Behind the globe is The Woodland’s Archives done in ink.

An Artist's Studio Reacreated
An artist’s studio recreated.

Safet Zec is an 80-year-old Bosnian painter who lives in Venice and other cities. His recreation of a studio was an interesting way to display many of his pieces.

A Monumental Piece in the Arsenale
A monumental piece in the Arsenale.

Next stop: The Arsenale. This huge sculptural installation by Colombian artist Daniel Otero Torres, Aguacero, is supposed to represent the system that marginalized Colombians built to collect rainwater as their natural sources had been polluted by illegal gold mining.

Masks From The Lebanese Pavillion
Masks from the Lebanese Pavillon.

Dancing with Her Myth by Mounira Al Solh is a multimedia installation that mixes ancient Phoenicia with the present. These charming masks were inspired by Phoenician deities.

Neon From A Paermo-based Collective
Neon from a Palermo-based collective.

This was one of the many pieces that was beyond a head scratcher. Claire Fontaine is a collective consisting of a British and an Italian artist. The neon pieces echo the name and theme of the Biennale. It’s a very “light” piece, however the plaque describing the installation was a very long, convoluted mess of art-speak that was mass politicized. That was the biggest problem with most of the art at the Biennale. Bizarre self-justification. Nothing, seemingly, is meant to be simply enjoyed.

The Seeing Forest From A Singapore Based Artist
The Seeing Forest from a Singapore-based artist.

Robert Zhao Renhui presented an interesting installation. It mixed odd sculpture with human debris adding video screens of animals and forest life. It shows that humans can make a mess of things. A good note on which to end our time at the Biennale.

The Accademia Bridge In The Distance
The Ponte dell’Accademia in the distance.

Heading home, we could see the Accademia Bridge from our vaporetto stop. It had been a long day, and the sky and the canal were a welcome relief from a day filled with “art.”

The Very Wide Via Garibaldi
The very wide Via Garibaldi.

We headed to dinner at Nevodi, located a stone’s throw from the Arsenale on the very wide via Guiseppe Garibaldi. It was our first time dining at Nevodi. The food was creative and delicious; and the room simple.

The Bangladesh Pavillion On the Grand Canal
The Bangladesh Pavilion on the Grand Canal.

Seeking to see as much art as we could in Venice, I had decided it was easiest to do that by Sestieri, or area of Venice. Santa Croce was first. We took the vaporetto to S. Stae. The Bangladesh exhibit was right next to the vaporetto stop, featuring about 14 artists who showed their varied views of the country. An interesting exhibit, and smart of them to place it there.

Part of The Library of the Palazzo Mocenigo
Part of the library of the Palazzo Mocenigo.

The Palazzo Mogencino is one of the municipal museums in Venice specializing in the history of Venetian costumes, textiles, and perfume. It has an extensive library of documents, books and periodicals. The volumes in this case date back centuries, the records of which have yet to be fully examined. Everything is set in a lavish palazzo, augmented with displays of 17th and 18th century clothing on mannequins. I could not help but notice how petite people were then, and how tiny their shoes were!

The Cosmic Garden From India
The Cosmic Garden from India.

Close by was the Indian entry organized by the Chanakya Foundation, featuring a collection of paintings, sculptures and crafted works that are quite spirited. We asked the space’s docent if she had any copies of the free guide to the Biennale which, inexplicably, wasn’t available at the Giardini or Arsenale. Thankfully she did, making the rest of the visit much more interesting.

Light Sculptures at the Ca' Pesaro
Light sculptures at the Ca’ Pesaro.

The Ca’ Pesaro, the city’s museum for modern art, is located in a 17th century palazzo designed by the great Baroque architect Baldassare Longhena. Chiara Dynys works with lights for this luminous piece.

AI "Westies" in the "Dream Cathedral"
AI “Westies” in the “Dream Cathedral.”

We then found a most amusing concept where a tryptic is set in a 1,000-year-old church, created by Huemin, an AI artist and programmer. You are invited to speak your confessions, and the screens will bring them to life. I really had nothing to confess, but I was missing my dog so I asked to see “Flying Westies” and “Westies Going to Heaven” (the westies looked a bit like wolves and horses). Also I wonder how the screen would have dealt with someone confessing a real sin of an abusive or sexual nature? I found the concept clever and amusing, but cannot say that I think that it is really art (but what do I know?!). Certainly the church setting makes it look and feel a bit more authentic.

Art from Holocauste Survivor Boris Lurie
Art from Holocaust survivor Boris Lurie.

Next door showcases an exhibit by a Russian born American artist called Life With The Dead. Boris Lurie and his family were taken by the Nazis and imprisoned. His mother, grandmother and sister were shot by the Germans. Lurie moved to New York with his father in the mid ’40s, and soon was working as an artist. He was a founding member of the NO!art movement. His work is deeply personal, greatly influenced by his youth and loss.

An Exhibit entitled "I'm Not Afraid of Ghosts"
An exhibit titled, “I’m Not Afraid of Ghosts.”

The Palazzo Teipolo Passi has a group show of female 33 artists — Jenny Holzer, Tracy Emin and Eva Juskiewiez (at the right) among them. The day we visited they had no banner on the main calle, or street, to mark the smaller calle leading to the Grand Canal. It had been ordered, but was late. The exhibition is on the piano nobile overlooking the water. We managed to find the space; and it was empty.

The Salute AT Night
The salute at night.

The Grand Canal was velvety looking that night. Dinner was at what used to be a favorite restaurant. The management or the kitchen had changed, and the food was not as good. And the staff was being naughty telling some foreign patrons that they needed to tip. That’s a no-no as service is included in all restaurants in Italy.

“Fear Giving Wings to Courage” from Jean Cocteau at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.

Saturday we were going to stay in Dorsoduro, our sestieri. First on the list was the Peggy Guggenheim Collection for Jean Cocteau: The Juggler’s Revenge in the special exhibition space. My only complaint was that the show was too small. There are nonetheless many drawings along with some of his stylized films. The drawing above, done on a bed sheet, is quite large. Several of the figures, among them Cocteau and his lover actor Jean Marais, sported visible pubic hairs with Cocteau pinning visible fig leaves over them. At one point, the piece was sent for a show at the Peggy Guggenheim gallery in London but British customs did not want to release the drawing. Guggenheim had to promise she would not exhibit it in public, but only show it to friends. She liked it so much she bought it.

The Sword Cartier Made For Cocteau
The sword Cartier made for Cocteau.

This sword was made for Cocteau’s induction into the prestigious Académie des Beaux-Arts. An artist who worked across many disciplines, including poetry, art, film, and theater, he was often disdained by the leaders of the Surrealists and other movements for his open homosexuality. They never understood that the Académie would actually welcome his presence. It’s a visually sublime show.

The View From The Punta Dogana
The view from the Punta della Dogana.

The Pinault Collection has two locations in Venice. One is in the Punta della Dogana at the very tip of Dorsoduro where Pierre Huyghe installed a group of works called Limimal. The only issue was that the entire interior was pitch black, with pieces hidden in the dark. It actually spooked me. Many critics took issue with the work.

Art in the English Church in Venice
Art in the English Church in Venice.

Chronos by Maria Kreyn sits near the altar of St George’s. The piece invokes the Orphic story of the cosmic egg and is quite evocative in this fully working Anglican church.

Martha Jungwirth at The Palazzo Cini
Martha Jungwirth at the Palazzo Cini.

The Palazzo Cini is close by. The Austrian artist, Martha Jungworth, offers a group of works called Heart of Darkness named after the Joseph Conrad novella. And interestingly, her gallery, Thaddaeus Ropac, worked with the Cini Foundation on the project.

Scattered Lives in the Ukraine Pavillion
Scattered blooms in the Palazzo Contarini Polignac.

The Victor Pinchuk Foundation took over this space to present Daring To Dream In A World Of Constant Fear. The Ukrainian philanthropic group put together over 20 works in this large palazzo, the Contarini Polignac. Graft by Puerto Rican artists Allora & Calzadilla on the ground floor created blossoms from the Baobob tree. The petals move across the floor as people walk across it. There are several more floors with interesting presentations.

A Magnificient Head By Jim Dine
A magnificent head By Jim Dine.

There are 32 new works from American Artist, Jim Dine, in another nearby palazzo. The Dog On The Forge has paintings, drawings and sculptures  in bronze and wood. It is a major statement by the 88-year-old artist. And a must-see.

Ewa Juszkiewicz at The Palazzo Cavanis
Ewa Juszkiewicz at the Palazzo Cavanis.

We walked along the canal outside the Dine exhibit to the other side of the island where there were an additional cluster of exhibits. Ewa Juszkiewicz has an exhibit at the Palazzo Canavis. Locks with Leaves and Swelling Buds show paintings based on sometimes famous portraits of women in the 18th and 19th century where she creatively covers the faces of the sitters in unusual materials, subverting the genre.

Clouds on The Riva degli Schiavoni
Clouds on the Riva degli Schiavoni.

Next, we took the vaporetto over to San Marco as there were several exhibits along the canal, including a show in the Doge’s Palace, The Worlds of Marco PoloThe large exhibit gave a rather detailed peek into the East and West in the 13th century. Most of the rooms were full of maps and books from the period. Photography was prohibited, and they were serious about that.

Works By Robert Indiana in the Procuratie Vecchie
Works by Robert Indiana: The Sweet Mystery in the Procuratie Vecchie.

Nearby there was an interesting show of Robert Indiana‘s work. It was mostly from his early days when he lived down by the South Street Seaport. His early work has been a bit overshadowed by his mid-’60’s LOVE paintings and sculptures, so it was nice to discover these pieces. The success of the LOVE series seems to have sidetracked him from moving forward in the following decades.

That evening we dined at L’Osteria di Santa Marina on the campo Santa Marina. The space is slightly old fashioned, but the food is pretty inventive.

Barbara Hodes is the owner of NYC Private Shopping Tour, offering customized tours in New York and Brooklyn.

Stay tuned for Part II

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