Palazzo Barbaro, Palazzo Cavalli Franchettii, Palazzo Falier, Palazzo Fontana, Palazzetto Tito

For me the most exciting exhibition venues at the Venice Biennale were the ancient palaces, particularly those located on the Grand Canal. The juxtaposition of sumptuous architecture can collide wonderfully with contemporary art. The well considered combinations, such as The Union of Fire and Water at the Palazzo Barbaro, where the work explores the palaces history, (both in Venice and its copy in Baku, Azerbaijan) creates a strong and moving site-specific installation. Almagul Menlibayeva and Rashad Alakbarov both work with sculptural and video installation. Here they examine the dynamic trading histories of Venice and Baku, exploring the two cities shared cultural experiences across time and place. The work draws contemporary parallels with other places and events and can be read and enjoyed on many levels without knowing the specific references. Well served by its relatively small size, this exhibition is intimate and manageable, yet large in impact.

Next door to Palazzo Barbaro in the Palazzo Cavalli Franchettii is the exhibition Glasstress Gotika. Organized by the Stage Hermitage Museum and the Berengo Studio, Venice. This is an altogether larger and more rambling exhibition, combining ancient glass objects from the Hermitage Museum’s collection with the work of contemporary international artists in one of the most spectacular palaces in Venice.  Over 50 artists were invited to respond to the gothic concept and work with the glass masters in the furnaces of Murano, contributing with installations and sculptures that were made wholly or partly from glass.

Some work well in this spectacular location, Kate McGwire’s seductive piece, Siren combines with the space beautifully, it’s black feathers on the rich wooden floor framed by a stunning window combine to create a sumptuous whole. Other works chime with pieces from the Hermitage collection, such as Adel Abidin’s The Reward, which refer to the armored masks displayed in one of the earlier rooms. Wael Shawky’s marionette puppets, Cabaret Crusaders, The Secrets of Karbalaa have another worldly, ancient and magical feel, made all the more intriguing by their inventive use of glass and contemporary subject matter. Pascale Marthine Tayou, Petaya Coyne and Erwin Wurm’s work also stood out for me.

Other pieces don’t work so well, begging questions about themed shows, was the material used simply to fit the theme rather than suit the artists, does it enhance or restrict both the work and the exhibition?

The site-specific installation Life-Bank by Belgian artist Koen Vanmechelen transforms the old Banca di Venezia on the top floor of the Cavalli Franchettii Palace. Gothic Garden a monumental installation dedicated to bio-diversity and the slow food movement includes ancient and rare seeds and interactive, multi-sensory spaces, which are intended to raise our awareness of our abuse of food production. This installation was a surprise and a fascinating find at the top of the building. It positively contributes a much-needed conceptual weight to the exhibition. Quirky and cool it begs questions of our choices and our futures. For me this installation related most pertinently to the Gothic theme.

Sean Scully’s exhibition Land Sea shows a selection of recent works, which relate to his memories of the lagoon city and hint at the luminosity of Tintoretto. Palazzo Falier, a simple and gorgeous location is a joy to be in even if your not convinced by the new work it is a glorious palace and the sofas placed overlooking the canal in one of the vestibules provide a welcome rest bite.

Where the work and it’s juxtaposition with the location is less well considered it’s still a delight to be in these decaying palaces of splendor, shabby sheik at it’s best, many with breathtaking canal side views. I wondered dreamily from one to the next, the glorious architecture washing over me, once in a while the memory is punctuated by excellent art, gems such as Graham Fagen’s Slaves Lament is one such stand out piece as are Peter Doig’s light drenched paintings.

The Union of Fire and Water, Palazzo Barbaro, San Marco 2840, Venice. Artists, Almagul Menlibayeva and Rashad Alakbarov. Curated by Saud Garayeva. To 22nd November.

Glasstress Gotika, Instituto Veneto Di Scienze, Lettre Ed Arti, Palazzo Cavalli Franchettii, San Marco, 2847, Venice. Organized by The State Hermitage Museum, Berengo Studio and Fondazione Berengo. Curated by Dimitri Ozerkov and Adriano Berengo.  To 22nd November.

Sean Scully, Land Sea. Palazzo Falier, Venice. To Nov 22nd.

Graham Fagen, Slaves Lament, Palazzo Fontana, Cannaregio 3829. To 22nd November.

Peter Doig, Palazzetto Tito, Cannaregio 3829, Venice. To 22nd November 2015.

Supported by a ‘Go and See Venice’ bursary.