54th Venice Biennale

54th Venice Biennale

Nothing like leaving it to the last minute, showing up in Venice the week of November 7 to visit the 54th Venice Biennale which was scheduled to close on the 27th after a six- month run.  A person doesn’t want to jump into these things.

As a first-time visitor to Venice and someone who has had the biennale on a must-see-list for a long time I must confess that I loved Venice, the biennale not so much.

Maybe to have taken the two on at once was a bit much as I was overwhelmed by the history and beauty of the city and underwhelmed by the art at the main site of the biennale, the Giardini.  Don’t get me started on the Canadian pavilion.

To begin with, skip the catalogue (imagine me recommending that!) or simply buy it as an expensive doorstop.  Instead, pick up the smaller, pocket-sized version to get a sense of what the biennale offers thus avoiding slogging through texts which offer little or no context for the main curated exhibition.  The smaller version also lists the country pavilions and artists.

This year’s theme, ILLUMInations, is pretty flimsy.  The curator’s attempt to link the work of 16th century painter Tintoretto “…a painter of light, a central theme of the entire exhibition” and using three of his masterpieces as the centerpieces of the main exhibition was weak theatre.  None of the essays in the catalogue make a convincing link between the art of Tintoretto and the main works in the exhibition.  In the country pavilions we visited there was no apparent connection with the biennale theme either.  Personally I would have preferred to view Tintoretto’s The Last Supper (1592-1594) in situ at the Basilica di San Giorgio.

Comparing the main site of the biennale, the Giardini, and the second site, the Arsenale, the latter was my favourite as it provided practical space for artists and visitors.  The imagination and effort that went into the restoration and renovation of a magnificent 12th- century shipyard makes Toronto’s urban renewal projects look pretty wimpy.

To be fair, trying to appreciate the work of 83 artists in the main exhibition, trying to visit 89 country pavilions scattered between the Giardini and the Arsenale and attempting to visit other off-site installations is daunting (read impossible).  So even after doing some research and setting some targets you do get sensory overload, things tend to blur after awhile and your feet – ouch!  What I have taken away from this experience is some new leads on artists of interest to me.

In the main exhibition I was introduced to the work of Llyn Foulkes and Omer Fast.  Need to do some research on Foulkes as I have not come across his work before.  What I liked about the pieces on display was the way he incorporated iconic American cartoon figured into his images – just the right amount of humor and cynicism about the state of American politics.

While I have come across Omer Fast before I must admit that I have not been paying attention.  This time I spent some time with his video installation, Five Thousand Feet is the Best, 2011, and was intrigued by the disconnect of linking scenes of the everyday in America with the simulated combat technology used in Iraq and Afghanistan via an American drone pilot – powerful stuff.

The pavilion that really stood out for me was Venice, featuring artist Fabrizio Piessi.  Mari verticali, 2010 (Vertical Seas), the installation by Piessi, takes your breath away as you enter the semi-circular space of the Venice Pavilion and are confronted by six towering gondola-shaped hulls in black steel rising out of the blue-lit semi-darkness and angled up as if to tip over on you.  Imbedded in almost the full length of each hull are vertical video screens showing rushing water at various speeds and consistency accompanied by the sound of rushing water at high volume.

The work of Mike Nelson has been on my radar so I did spend time in the British Pavilion ducking and stumbling my way through this site-specific installation, Magazin, Buyuk Valide Han, originally created for the 8th International Istanbul Biennial in 2003.  Nelson’s work puts in mind that of Ilya Kabakov and Canadian Reece Terris – a good future topic to write about.

At the Arsenal site Christian Marclay’s The Clock, 2010 lived up to its hype as an imaginative, well-crafted display of research and editing.  This seamless “film” depicting every minute of a 24hr day (synchronized toVenice time) draws together scenes from a wide variety of different movie types.  You marvel at just how many scenes within movies revolve around time and time pieces and you become fascinated with how many of these movies you recognize.  The magic of the work is the smooth transition of time and place from frame to frame.  Remarkably it all hangs together and keeps you riveted.  I loved it.

It is interesting to note that the National Gallery of Canada has partnered with the Boston Museum of Fine Art to purchase one of the six copies of Christian Marclay’s The Clock.  It will be on display at the National Gallery in February and at the Power Plant inToronto on September 21, 2012.

Even with this being my first visit to the biennale I agree with the critics that are suggesting that maybe the mother of all biennales is starting to show her age.  With all the other major international art exhibitions and art fairs going on, some are suggesting that the Venice Biennale has lost its relevance.  To support this argument it seemed to me that there were very few new artists being shown and to continually rely on older works of more established artists is a bit lame.  For example, while I am a huge fan of Maurizio Cattelan’s work, how many more times will his taxidermied pigeons (Turisti, 1997) be featured?  And really what does this piece have to do with “ILLUMInations”?

Maybe for my next trip to Venice I will simply enjoy the beauty and history of the city and spend more time visiting the Peggy Guggenheim Collection and the Francois Pinault Foundation’s Palazzo Grassi and Punta Della Dogana.  These collections are mind-boggling.


  1. Check out a conversation on YouTube with the curator of the Entre/Between Exhibition “Daina Augaitis y Antoni Muntadas & Entre/Between”.
  1. The new book, Fred Herzog Photographs, with articles by Claudia Cochmann, Sarah Milroy, Jeff Wall and Douglas Coupland, is now available.  

About George

My long-time interest in Canadian and international contemporary art has led me to write and reflect on the artists I've met, the exhibitions that I've seen and the catalogues that I've read (I've been told I'm the only person that actually reads exhibition catalogues cover to cover). My interest began in the mid-1960's when I was searching for easy credits and I stumbled upon "Art Appreciation 101", and the rest, as they say, is history...
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