Every two years since 1895, Venice has hosted the Art Biennale, a contemporary visual art exhibition. The Biennale is now a major international Art Expo that features contributions from around the world as well as attracting over half a million visitors to the city.
While there are official Biennale locations all across Venice, the main locations are the The Giardini, which houses 30 permanent national pavilions, and The Arsenale, where an exhibition of invited artists takes place. The Arsenale also houses many countries that do not have a permanent pavilion, including Ireland, which is represented this year by Jesse Jones with her work called Tremble Tremble.
Tremble Tremble is an artwork that fuses film and performance and has been devised in collaboration with renowned Irish theatre actor Olwen Fouere. The piece is inspired by gender politics and, in particular, the Repeal the Eight movement. It represents a ‘bewitching of the judicial system’ and imagines a reclaiming of power (and presumably reproductive autonomy) by a giant, angry and empowered female. Projected onto multiple screens, including large sheer curtains that are dramatically introduced and removed as part of the performance, the piece is powerful and beautifully filmed.
Another striking and ambitious video installation is by Lisa Reihana for the New Zealand pavilion. In her piece entitled Emissaries, she re-imagines a famous large scale illustration called Les Sauvages de la mer Pacifique. The illustration is from 1804 and was widely reproduced as an exclusive wallpaper throughout the early 19th century. It depicts paternalistic views of ‘exotic’ Pacific peoples and various encounters with them from the accounts of European explorers who accompanied James Cook on his voyages to the Pacific. The video installation uses multiple projectors to project seamlessly a rolling vista that mimics the illustrative style of the original wallpaper and is composited with live-action video footage of actors recreating, or reinterpreting, various scenes. These interactions between explorers and indigenous peoples raise questions about colonialism and the way history, and indeed cultures, are represented.
The Italian Pavilion was divided into three sections. First, an unusual laboratory installation, where artist Roberto Cuoghi molded wax Christ-like statues that are then left to decompose and disintegrate in odd-plastic tunnels before finally being hung on a long dark wall in eerie configurations. The next section is a video installation by Adelita Husni-Bey and finally, and arguably most impressive is a piece called Senza Titolo – la fine del mondo by Giorgio Andreotta Calò. His work is composed of two parts. In the lower part, scaffolding divides the hall into aisles leading to a metal stairway to the upper part of the installation. Here, the exposed timber roof-frame is mirrored by a thin layer of water (so still it appears like glass) that covers the platform supported by the scaffolding. There is a mirror at the opposite end of the room, which creates an optical illusion of an endless void. The overall effect is jarring but breathtaking.
Other highlights (in the main Giardini and Arsenale exhibition space) were Mark Bradford’s USA pavilion, which was overgrown with organic and oversized works which somehow reflects the political chaos and uncertainty at home in America; an installation of traditional Mapuche Kollong masks from Chile; and the stark sound and light installation from Latvia‘s Mikelis Fisers.
Elsewhere, Erwin Wurm’s Austria Pavilion encourages audience participation… but art can be dangerous — while we were there, a woman needed medical attention after falling from a small box we were instructed to stand on. Faust, the winning pavilion from Germany, was not in performance while we were there.