The Venice Biennale

July 27, 2007 by

Europe, Travel News & Alerts

Venice tours and things to see and do

Venice hosts the 52nd Biennale in 2007

Editor’s Note: The 52nd Venice Biennale runs June 10 – November 21, 2007

Venice brings to mind a glorious past of glamorous parties in Palazzo lining the Grand Canal: champagne flowing, voices chattering, rich fabrics rustling.

This year, I was lucky enough to be in Venice during the opening of the 52nd Venice Biennale. There were parties, there was champagne (fabrics, sadly, do not rustle much these days). I was privy to the glamour of it all from a lumbering vaparetto on the Grand Canal. But even getting a glimpse of people mingling on the rooftop of the Peggy Guggenheim Gallery, gossiping in the party-dressed Rialto Market and networking at the Palazzo Giustinian Lolin made me feel I was in Venice at a special time.

This time the theme of the International Art Exhibition is “Think with the Senses – Feel with the Mind”. Art in the Present Tense. The importance of the exhibition to the world art community is best seen in the huge pink and green tome of a catalogue – two volumes – which every second person seems to buy and will then have to get home somehow, probably by paying excess baggage.

The main exhibition is in the Italian Pavilion at the Giardini, the heart of the Biennale. The Giardini is the very tip of Venice, the green space where everyone flocks to sit in the sun and get away from the madness of the narrow streets and teeming canals. The vaparetto stops there or you can walk from San Marco along the waterfront. About 100 artists from all over the world are included in the pavilion exhibition with another set up at Arsenale – since 1999, in agreement with the Italian Navy, the Biennale has put time and money into restoring some of the important buildings in that historic area, where the ships that secured Venice her rich merchant past were built and launched.

Venice Biennale Guatemala Pavillion

The Guatemala Pavilion

At the Italian Pavilion, it was great to see all these different artists exhibiting in the one building. My favourite was Sophie Calle (France) paying homage to her mother who died between Sophie being invited to exhibit at Venice and the exhibition opening. The simple exhibit and the intention that, through this, her mother was here in Venice with her, were very moving.

One of the unique joys of the Biennale is the national pavilions spread through the Giardini. Permanent buildings which usually focus on one artist from the country that owns the pavilion. The buildings themselves are often architecturally interesting – in particular the Scandinavian Pavilion which is very light and white with a floating roof, and the Australian Pavilion which is crouched in the trees and feels very Australian. I also liked the Hungarian Pavilion with its splendid roof and gold curved entrance. They speak volumes about the cultures they come from. And it’s a great mix of countries which have the 29 Pavilions including Serbia, Denmark, Hungary, Uruguay, Korea, Romania, Egypt, Austria, Venezuela.

But I have to confess I found the art disappointing. Each country nominates one or two artists to fill the pavilion and if you don’t like that work, then it’s a quick survey and a hike to the next country’s offering. And there was little that moved or surprised me. Has art moved on at all in the last few decades? I saw some very competent painting and video installations, but weren’t people doing this years ago? Perhaps better? And is competent the most insulting word you can use about art? I apologise.

For me, the most engaging was Sophie Calle’s installation in the French Pavilion. She invited 107 women to analyse or comment on a letter she received ending a relationship. Some people wrote, some danced, some voiced their advice to Sophie. Although, as my traveling companion said, he wished someone had just told her to get over it. (I should confess here to being a big Sophie Calle fan – can you tell?)

The most interesting exhibitions for me were those off-site, dotted around Venice in palazzos, and churches and other buildings including the Arsenale. And this is where I think the Biennale really makes Venice come alive for half a year every second year. What a great way to explore Venice – by following confusing maps (every map of Venice is confusing) to hidden buildings full of unexpected art. And putting contemporary art in a city so saturated in art history is genius.

Venice Biennale Hungarian Pavillion

The Hungarian Pavilion

I confess I did not by any means see everything but I was definitely enticed by all the posters around the city advertising exhibitions from famous artists such as Joseph Beuys and Bill Viola, to exhibitions by the less world-dominating countries such as Iceland and Armenia.

I think the most interesting for me was the exhibition at Palazzo Zenobio. Here there is a mixed bag of Scottish, Australian, English and South American art. The variety and the passion of some of it is wonderful. And the diversity: the Australian artist had reconstructed his childhood home in the garden, the Scottish artists were using paint and maps, newspapers, fabrics to construct imaginary landscapes and explore meaning, and the South American works included installations such as the library of blank white books, a soft white room of cotton, and large-scale painting. One piece from Guatemala in particular was beautiful – a wood and resin sculpture of a woman situated in the main room upstairs in the palazzo. Reflected in the grand mirror and surrounded by the faded grandeur of the room, the piece was both layered in meaning and beautiful. And, forgive me, but sometime I like art to be beautiful, and also understandable without having to read a heavy academic essay explaining it.

Then there was the video installation of a man being shaved. Is it just me or do lots of people have difficulty understanding video art? Although I did like the colour-saturated, quite strange video in the Russian Pavilion at Giardini. And the narrow viewing boxes constructed for the video installation in the Hungarian Pavilion. None of it made me stay and watch for more than a few minutes though. But what would I know about art… Just what I like, as they say. And how that infuriates an artist!

The Biennale is on until mid-November and if you were thinking of going to Venice, go now. You don’t have to be an art connoisseur to get something out of the Biennale; if nothing else you will find parts of Venice you might not have seen otherwise, and be welcomed inside buildings that may have locked doors at other times of the year.

I was surprised by how uncrowded the venues were, how cheap it was – a lot of the off-site things were free and entry to the Giardini including all the Pavilions was only 15 euro – and how clear the listings and maps were. Although I’m sure if I’d tried to read the full catalogue my brain would have exploded.

-Philippa Burne

Planning a trip? Check out Viator’s things to do in Venice, Rome tours and what to see and do in Italy. If you need a place to stay, check out Hotels in Venice on

2 Responses to “The Venice Biennale”

  1. askin ozcan Says:

    No visit to Venice is complete without reading THE SECOND VENICE by Askin Ozcan – a truly humorous fantasy! Outskirts Press ISBN 1598000888 . 154 pages $16.95 sold at major internetshops and through bookstores.

  2. Adam Says:

    I was there in 2003 (must have been the 50th, though) and had totally different impression about the venues, they were absolutely crowded and I felt really uncomfortable.

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