la Biennale di Venezia

My trip to 55th Venice Biennale realised many progressively more geographically specific personal firsts; my first visit to Italy, to Venice, to Venice Biennale, and to Venice Biennale preview weekend. It is from this degree of distance and with eyes this fresh that I entered the terrain of the biennale.

I was expecting to experience a Venice overflowing with romance, beauty and decadence; one of the manmade wonders of the world. What I felt on arrival, and which became an increasingly potent force as I navigated the city and the art of the biennale, was the transience of this historical place, continually being re-patched and bolstered as if it were a plaster life raft rather than a proud and solid stone island. (Which is not to say that I did not love every minute of my time there.) Venice is a place of wonder and astonishing accomplishment, but perhaps overflowing is a word only too fitting to use to think about this anomalous habitat. Here, water particles are omnipresent, being ingested into the city, buildings and lungs.

Even the most luxurious of hotels along the Grand Canal show signs of defeat against the salty, green liquid. (Could its unique opacity be due to the centuries of paint and plaster suspended within it?) And a number of the presentations at the Biennale seemed to echo my thoughts on the transitory materiality of life and the states of matter through which it moves unceasingly. Perhaps it is being in Venice that heightens already existing thoughts on the precarious position of the world at large, on the cusp of dramatic change, a case study to learn from.

The very core of the biennale sees objects and bodies from across the world brought in on a two-yearly tide. Whilst the Giardini’s country pavilions are themselves now permanent monuments to ideologies, cultural heritages and materials, they too were once shipped in along routes which art works and the art world now follows. The Serbian pavilion carries its original name ‘Yugoslavia’ carved in stone above the entrance, whilst ‘Serbia’ sits in fresher metal letters to one side, displaying its historical layers without any need for archaeological digging.

I could write about many of the exhibitions and works to discuss this earthy sensibility further; the Republic of Zimbabwe pavilion with a sandy beach sitting atop the gallery’s Italian stone floor, or the Bahamas pavilion imagining snow and ice and pushing matter to its material limits in inhospitable environments, or the joint Lithuania/Cyprus labyrinth of a pavilion ‘oO’, that allowed you to tunnel underneath Venice’s waterways and into Lithuania and then on into Cyprus within its concrete shell to question the nature of physical and suggested borders, or the delight that was Camille Henrot’s ‘Grosse Fatigue’, winner of the Silver Lion for promising young artist, which told a history of the universe through browser windows moving from nothing, through creation, to a place where iphones meet frogs meet sponges meet female hand models with brightly coloured, geometrically painted nails holding Faberge eggs. But there was a work that whilst contributing to the ideas expressed in this writing, was also an exhibition that put a spring in my step during the long biennale days, which deserves to be focused on in more detail.

This was the Cymru yn Fenis Wales in Venice pavilion presenting Bedwyr Williams’ ‘The Starry Messenger’. Beginning with a theatrical scrim of terrazzo floor print taken from the Venetian convent that the work is housed in, the work asks viewers to look into the makeup of this old building and consider its rocky particles and its function as a place of contemplation. Behind this curtain is a model observatory, complete with the sound of a weeping man emanating from a small door in its side. We’re asked here to observe the observer, and in doing so are flung into space, the sparkling floor becoming now star scape rather than rock bed. A doorway leads off to the left, into a dark space with a lightly illuminated water feature, part moonlit river at night, part futuristic hotel lobby. My journey almost ended here, as with my eyes not yet acclimatised from the Italian mid-morning sun, I didn’t see the pin pricks of light coming from the adjacent corridor, but luckily I was redirected. Beyond the starry tunnel was a room of expansive geometric boulders, softly lit in a myriad of colours – a very polite rave. So far on Williams’ journey I’ve been a marble chip, a human, a few celestial bodies, a riverbed, and now something more like Stonehenge. I leave the room under an oversized, clear-topped table with what could be the contents of a Sarah Sze installation on top of it, and on to some tiered seating where a video brings everything together. The sometimes mud-covered and sometimes mosaicked main character of the video (Williams) repeats the transformative journey through various physical states, being extracted, shaped, positioned, crushed and melted, speaking of Venice’s glass industry as well as the politics of production more generally. From here I end up in a store room, and I think something’s gone awry or perhaps it’s not finished yet, and then I catch the sound of recorded audio coming out from behind a shelving unit and I’m brought back to earth and reminded that I’m still in the work. And then I’m spat back out into the street, to continue my journey.

Supported by a bursary from a-n The Artist Information Company.