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Artisans: The Venice Biennale enriches an already rich experience

On a whim, two years ago, I took a friend up on an offer to visit her in Venice, Italy over the summer. She was studying for a Masters in Art, a program through New York University, and rented an apartment in Dorsoduro. The Venice Biennale was happening during this summer, making the trip rich in contemporary international art as well as the centuries-old Renaissance and Venetian art for which the region is famed.  The Biennale, so named because it occurs every two years in Venice, is a world famous, international art show. I loved the idea of seeing this show, one I’d always wanted to attend but probably wouldn’t have booked a ticket to Venice solely based on it occurrence. Having my friend living there was all the additional enticement I needed, and I’d have my very own Master of Art guide to the exhibitions.

On the very first night I arrived, we went to Bikini Bar, where the Icelandic artists exhibiting in the Biennale were playing a gig. I found out later that they are relative pop stars in their home country and I was doubly impressed that they were twice talented. All well dressed and hip, they played songs of their own making, the one that stands out in my memory was about being afraid of teenagers. I remember laughing a lot and realizing how surreal this experience was. I was attending an Icelandic pop group’s private concert (there were about twelve of us there) that they decided to play while in town for the exhibition of their art. This bar, like many in Venice, I’d come to learn, was a stone building hundreds of years old, on a canal, long with small, interconnected rooms, that opened to a central courtyard in the rear. There were gardens and fountains, tables and the art elite stationed there. We ordered an Aperol spritz and settled in. Not a bad first day at the Venice Biennale.

Icelandic pop stars welcome me to Venice

La Biennale

The show takes place in two different locations in Venice: the Giardini, the gardens where the permanent structures for the Biennale are located, and the Arsenale, where the famous Venetian ships were once built, now a network of spaces for the art displays. I enter the Giardini first, welcomed by a giant, metal Earth surrounded by metal chairs of all designs. I realize quickly that these buildings have designated country names on them, to the right, Venezuela marks the door of a building, to the left, Spain. I begin to understand. Each Biennale, an artist representative exhibits at their country’s space. I begin to wander.

Chair collection surrounds a giant globe in the Giardini entrance

Venezuelan house

The Denmark house stands out in my mind; a mid-century Danish designed bachelor pad, complete with beautiful Scandinavian furniture and a surprisingly erotic art collection is there for viewers (voyeurs?) to wander through. This home is half James Bond, half Dwell magazine (and a bit of Hustler magazine too) and there was a floating man’s body in the pool out front. Face down. I won’t feign to be able to analyze most of the art I saw, because not only am I unqualified, there was so much that I could barely absorb it all. I toured through the Danish house twice, needing more time to truly see every aspect of the display.

The Danish House

The Egyptian and Serbian exhibits stand out in hindsight too. The Egyptian room had incredibly high ceilings, the use of which was employed by twenty-foot high rattan woven figures looming over the public as it walked through. These giant figures were congregating as if in conversation, elsewhere they bent over balconies, fed feral cats, sold items at market, rode bicycles with goods on their heads. The effect made you feel small, like a fly on the wall of a world much bigger than you, a place you cannot touch. The figures were beautiful, but the scale made you bow down to them.

The beautiful and eerie Egyptian exhibit

The Serbian exhibit is the one that really rocked me though. In a darkly lit space, tiny video screens played loops of barbershops, man after man filing through the seats to have their hair trimmed. Piles of felt blankets filled the room, wide and stacked tall, made of the hair collected in those shops. The hair of 240,000 people made 1,200 square meters of human hair felt. I cannot really tell you why this hit home, except to say that I worked in a salon for a very long time, watching the resource we all grow on our heads just get tossed in the trash. And yes, I realize it’s kind of creepy to talk like this.

Serbian haircutting exhibit

Felt blankets made of hair clippings

At the Arsenale, two exhibits made my day. First, inside the long, shipbuilding building, was a small round room into which you peeked to see endless number of lights. There was a buzzing, a whir, and lots of humming. On the outer wall, the artist’s statement described that there were toasters, televisions and other household appliances that have constant running lights. I found this especially funny because my sister and I ransack every hotel room we’ve ever been in to cover up all those lights. Those little lights keep me up all night long.

Lastly, my girl Miranda July, who I love in every way possible, had an exhibit on the grassy grounds between the Arsenale buildings. Following a pathway over little hills and surrounded by trees, July made white, clay tablets, podiums, and seats on which messages were scratched in a young handwriting. I took photos of the three progressively larger seats: The Guilty One, The Guiltier One, The Guiltiest One, written on the front of each (I have two older sisters). One for one sister: This is not the first hole my finger has been in, nor will it be the last, written on a tall, thin tablet with a hole in the center. One for my other sister: This is my little girl. She is brave and clever and funny…Her heart will never be broken… and on. This exhibit was such a surprise, for I am a great fan of July’s books and movies, and to see her work there was like having a friend appear before me.

Miranda July's outdoor exhibit

I spent only three days wandering these exhibits, but could have spent weeks. It’s happening again right now, through the 27th of November, and you should go if you’re nearby. It’s the perfect excuse to see Venice and to eat all the gelato you can.

Arsenale interior

Knotted maze for us to climb through

Bird seed chandelier

Octopus coming out of the wall

Windows in the Arsenale

I can't explain this.

It's me.

Editor's Note: Have a question or comment? Leave a message in the comments below.

Lauren BellLauren's interest in travel and food started young; she spent her childhood dreaming of living abroad, speaking foreign languages, and discovering the food of other places. While she's spent her time working toward attaining those goals, she has also gotten properly distracted at home in the US. She's lived all over California and New England: seeking out small farms, delicious eateries, and creative chefs and artists. She's enamored of all things artisanally made- be it food, wine, art, crafts...anything small scale, by hand and with love. She's the artisanal admirer. In an effort to emulate her talented friends, she has learned to make cheese, ran an urban, edible schoolyard garden, cooks, cans, and bakes pies. She dreams daily of moving to Europe to do the same there. Until then, she travels frequently, at home and abroad, works as a pastry chef, sells wine and cheese, and helps run a farm-to-table restaurant. She lives in Brooklyn with her Siamese cat, Henry.

  • http://www.TravelforRookies.com Luisa

    Awesome article and a great description of the look and feel of the Venice Biennale. I see that you partook in the fun aperitivo sessions too!! Spritz all the way! It’s true that 3 days aren’t enough but the best part of Biennale is the week before it opens up when each country has their pre-opening gala and open happy hours. That’s where it gets really fun with prosecco and art gazing! You were lucky enough to visit your girlfriend at the time you went to visit but if you still want a local’s perspective-type guide book, I recommend Venice for Rookies which is written by an American who moved to Venice four years ago. If you don’t have a friend living in Venice, this guide is close enough since it gives you the scoop on where locals eat and what to see and do in the short time you are in Venice. http://www.TravelforRookies.com is the site where you can check out the guide book.

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