This has been a year of exploration for me, starting with my decision to transition from the Guadalupe Culture Arts Center to the Rivard Report in January. Back then, the month of June and a planned family sojourn in Italy seemed a long way off, but the months flew by.
Two weeks ago, I found myself traveling to a tiny collection of islands off the eastern coast of Italy for my first-ever visit to the world’s most important international contemporary art fair. After a series of flights, water taxi rides, and a long walk through the winding city of lagoons and bridges, I made it to my destination: The 2017 Venice Biennale.
As an artist, I felt a sense of arrival, not unlike what a priest must feel the first time he sees the Vatican. I’ll never plan another trip abroad without measuring my interest against returning to a future Biennale.
Awaiting my trip to the art mecca of Venice was something that I had longed for since middle school when I discovered my passion for contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. My art teachers spoke of Venice as the Promised Land with the omnipresent influence of the Biennale. I made it my mission to travel there one day.
I was raised in Claremont, Calif. and came to San Antonio to study art and art history at Trinity University. Like many graduates, I fell in love with San Antonio and decided to stay. Speaking of love, I also met my partner, Juan Leon, at Trinity. For months we looked forward to our travels to Italy with my family. Alas, a visa complication arose for Juan, who is from Colombia and on the path to becoming a U.S. citizen, and he could not travel outside the country. The trip, then, was purely a family affair. I met up with my parents Dirk and Linda, younger brother Nathan, Aunt Sally, and Uncle Jack in Italy. We are a family of artists, musicians, and writers. We knew this trip would be enriching.
The idea of a destination international art exhibition came about in 1893 among a small circle of artists and art lovers at the Café Florian in Venice’s Piazza San Marco. Led by then-Mayor Riccardo Selvatico, a proposal was put forth that in April 1895, Venice would open an international exhibition of the fine arts to be continued biennially. Now, 122 years later, the Venice Biennale is still the most significant international contemporary art exhibition in the world.
This year marks the 57th International Art Exhibition, entitled VIVA ARTE VIVA and curated by French curator of the Centre Pompidou Christine Macel, who is only the fourth woman to curate this exhibition. Macel presided as curator of the fair’s group shows. Each participating country selects a curator for its national pavilion.
Every other year, the massive exhibition kicks off in early May and continues through the close of November. A €25 ticket ($28.50) allows visitors to power through the Giardini and Arsenale venues, which include 120 artists from 51 countries. The Biennale, depending on the year, focuses on art, music, theater, film, architecture, and dance. Art, the Biennale’s original and principal exhibition subject, is this year’s focus.
Be prepared: Exploring the exhibition grounds takes at least two days at breakneck speed. Maintain a quick pace, and you will be able to visit all of the stylized national pavilions as well as the group shows in the historic naval warehouses on the eastern edge of the island.
I found the Venice Biennale deeply personal in illuminating the pulse of contemporary art around the world. I operate FLAX Studio, a workshop and showroom space in the Southtown Arts District, which is designed to shed light on emerging creative talent in San Antonio. As a result, I am constantly looking to the top global exhibitions for guidance. I also participate in San Antonio’s two largest monthly art walks every First Friday and Second Saturday in the district. I often find myself studying art and cultural hubs throughout the world, including New York, Berlin, Paris, London, Tokyo, Mexico City, and Barcelona. For one unforgettable week, I experienced the allure of Venice.
By the way, this month we have the serendipitous juncture of First Friday and Second Saturday sharing the same weekend. That doesn’t happen very often.
Day 1: The Giardini
My family and I arrived at the Giardini gates on the eastern tip of the island at 10 a.m. sharp, to ensure we were the first ones inside the shaded garden area to explore some of the original pavilions created by artists from Belgium, Hungary, Great Britain, Germany, France, Greece, Israel, and the United States, among others. This year the German Pavilion artist Anne Imhof won the Golden Lion for Best National Pavilion, so we immediately got in line to enter. After a 15-minute wait outside the space, with two Doberman Pinschers closely watching us from behind a small gate that surrounded the pavilion, we were granted entry. Ominous tones filled the room of glass and steel structures, with blank-faced actors writhing on the floor.
Almost as impressive as the artworks displayed are the buildings in which they are housed. Each is uniquely designed to reflect the country’s sensibilities at the time of creation – often stylistically at odds with the contemporary work inside. For example, the neo-classical French Pavilion housed a minimal, unfinished wood interior installation that felt as though you were stepping inside an acoustic guitar, viewing its architecture from the interior and experiencing the sound from within. The space was replete with fictional and non-fictional instruments and a recording studio to be used periodically by guest artists throughout the run.
The oppressive Venetian summer heat is only remedied by thought-provoking art in chilled pavilions, standing in the breezeway of a lagoon, or visiting one of the booths selling savory pastries, coffee, and cold spirits. After about seven hours, we hit our art saturation point for the day and took a water taxi to our Airbnb for an afternoon nap.
Day 2: The Arsenale
In stark contrast to the Giardini, with its lush garden area dotted with a mix of Renaissance, Gothic, and Victorian architecture, is the portion of the Venice Biennale called the Arsenale. Within the Arsenale, a collection of shipyards with touches of Byzantine-style architecture, the art exhibition is housed inside two large warehouses. Originally constructed to produce the naval power of Italy during the 15th and 16th centuries, the Biennale’s Arsenale building is the largest surviving pre-industrial production center in the world. Constructed centuries ago from wood, bricks, and iron, the space is well suited for contemporary art installations.
The artwork exhibited in the group show had a synergy and power that the isolated pavilions lacked. The Arsenale was organized in nine conceptual chapters: Artists and Books, Joys and Fears, Common, Earth, Traditions, Shamans, Dionysius, Colors, Time, and Infinity. The mix of installation, sculpture, painting, photography, video, sound, and light captured the overarching theme of humanism.
“Art bears witness to the most precious part of what makes us human, at a time when humanism is precisely jeopardized. Art is the ultimate ground for reflection, individual expression, freedom, and for fundamental questions.” – Christine Macel, curator of the 57th International Art Exhibition
Day 3: Satellite Shows
For those of us with an insatiable appetite for art, there are always satellite shows specifically installed during the Venice Biennale flight. Of the hundreds of unofficial shows available, the two that came highly recommended and that I was able to visit were at the Punta Della Dogana and Palazzo Fortuny.
The Punta Della Dogana was the original Sea Customs House for Venice until French billionaire François Pinault came along and purchased the estate from the city and transformed it into a world-class contemporary art space that includes a café and gift shop. Originally built by Architect Giuseppe Benoni in 1682, it continued to be used until the 1980s when it was abandoned and left in disrepair for 20 years. In 2007, the Pinault Collection restored the historic space and transformed it into a slick contemporary art museum under the direction of architect Tadao Ando.
The foundation opened its doors to the public in 2009 and has programmed exhibitions in concert with the Venice Biennale. This year featured a solo exhibition in two locations (Punta Della Dogana and Palazzo Grassi) by Damien Hirst entitled Treasures from The Wreck of The Unbelievable. The massive show of video installation, sculpture, and photography tells the fictional tale of an ancient wreck and the discovered precious cargo. One of the most impressive pieces was a monumental sculpture of a woman encrusted with intricate filigree of colorful coral – all completely made of bronze. Noted as his most ambitious and complex project to date, this show took Hirst almost 10 years to complete. His work traverses contemporary belief systems and ancient myth, leaving you lusting for lost treasure.
The Palazzo Fortuny was the former residence and atelier of the famed Spanish artist and intellectual Mariano Fortuny. Donated to the city in 1956 by his widow Henriette, the museum now hosts exhibitions that coincide with the Venice Biennale. This year showcased a multi artist show titled Intuition, co-produced and curated by the Vervoordt Foundation. The space uniquely feels like a living cabinet of curiosities filled with an eclectic mix of prehistoric artifacts from Africa, scientific journals of greats including Galileo, and modern and contemporary art. Moving throughout the space I was unable to distinguish Fortuny’s household treasures from the temporarily installed work without the help of the paper guide. I found myself sitting on his couch reading one of his library books sitting beneath the Duchamp bearded Mona Lisa. I experienced communion with art in a new and intimate manner.
What I experienced can’t be found anywhere else in the world at any other time than the Bienniale, when Venice is transformed into the world’s capital of creativity.