The Venice Biennale is home to literally hundreds of different exhibits, the majority of which are spread out around the city. As anyone who's ever been will tell you – visiting them all is impossible. That's why we put together this handy guide to 10 of the best.
The Venice Biennale is simply the grandest art event on earth. It was the first of its kind to exist, and pulls artists, art lovers and art collectors from all over the planet to this history-rich floating (also sinking) city. For its 56th edition, Nigerian-born curator Okwui Enwezor chose the title “All of the World’s Futures” – and, in inviting 139 artists from 53 countries to exhibit, he certainly didn't disappoint.
The result is a politics-laden event with hundreds of artworks addressing such global concerns as neoliberal systems, postcolonial realities, and the struggles of feminism. As such, the selection is rather more serious than humorous or uplifting, but everything this year felt both magnificent and profoundly relevant. While the main attractions are surely the international pavilions at Giardini and Arsenale, there's plenty more great art to see in the national pavilions and various collateral shows spread across the Venetian landscape. And, because it’s almost impossible to see everything in a few days, we’ve selected 10 shows absolutely not be missed.
With “Canadassimo,” guest curator Marie Fraser conceived a fun and colorful exhibition that pokes fun at blind consumerism and the unnecessary accumulation of objects, all while focusing on the transformation of materials. Here, the BGL art collective offers an up-close-and-personal experience, starting with the recreation of a Quebecois convenience store fully stocked with typical Canadian household products. So far, so simple – but there's a catch, and once that's been spotted the exhibition continues with two more levels of bewildering installations. These include the workshop of an eccentric tinker and a gigantic pinball wall connected to a complex system made out of recycled items which visitors are given real Euro coins to play (or not).
Great Britain (Giardini)
Sarah Lucas’s “I SCREAM DADDIO” is an exciting and irreverent combination of her usual topics - the body and quotidian - and gender themes, all brought into a new realm of art forms. For this year's Biennale, the London artist created installations that both arouse and amuse, with her typical wry humor and panache shining though. Here, her trademark stuffed stockings have a majestic, glistening appearance, while her fags (cigarettes) are stuck into all new orifices. Right by the portico we’re confronted with the first monumental “Deep Cream Maradona” sculpture, whose phallus aims straight to the sky. Everything else in the elliptical exhibition room is stimulating – from the bright yellow walls, to the in-your-face casts of genitalia, to the diversity of practices. With this exhibit, it really feels like Lucas brought the rebellious spirit of the YBAs back.
“Why Look at Animals? AGRIMIKÁ” is the name of the Greek exhibition in which artist Maria Papadimitriou has almost entirely recreated a shop that sells animal hides and leather in the city of Volos. In addition, the artist presents a film featuring the elderly and candid owner of the shop telling a thrilling story of his decade-long business in relation to the history of modern Greece. The captivating movie is far more than just a recollection of memories linked to concerns around ethics, politics, history and economics, however. Through the protagonist’s personal accounts, the audience actually begins to question the relationship between humans and animals, as well as the concept of humanity in contrast to the nature of wildlife.
This year, the Belgian pavilion refused a traditional national format and instead chose to present “Personne et Les Autres” – a bullish international group show that challenges Eurocentric views on art. With artists invited from Asia, Africa, South America and Europe, the exhibition focuses on the cultural results of colonial encounters, and is careful not to sugarcoat the past. Vincent Meessen offers a refreshing film that explores the largely unknown participation of Congolese intellectuals who helped shape the last international vanguard of modernity via the Situationist International. Then, to place those achievements in context, Congolese artist-photographer Sammy Baloji presents his fascinating photo-documentary work on how malaria mosquitos were used as a tool in the politics of division in colonial Congo. The fact that the pavilion itself was built at the zenith of Belgium’s colonial power, meanwhile, makes it all the more interesting.
Keeping in mind that censorship in the county is pervasive, the Chinese works on show at the 2015 Biennale are incredibly ballsy in their open dealings with religion, politics and sexuality. The large-scale photo of topless men at the entrance of the pavilion already gives the feeling of entering a more open China, taken from Wen Hui’s documentary about contemporary dance involving farmers from a poor rural area. “The Caochangdi Workstation,” meanwhile, is Wu Wenguang’s project about a documentary-making collective that trains locals to make works aimed at bringing socio-political reform, while Lu Yang finishes it off with a mesmerizing installation and video of bare-chested men clad in nimbuses to represent various religious icons. With a powerful soundtrack provided by Music For Your Plants, the high-energy video makes you ponder whether those icons aren’t all a little too similar.
Iceland (Santa Maria della Misericordia)
This incredible piece of interventionist art – simply called “The Mosque” – was brought to the Biennale with the aid of the Muslim communities of both Venice and Reykjavik (where there is an ongoing campaign to build the city’s first mosque). Despite the fact that the “artwork” itself is not as tangible as most of the other works in the main pavilions, the underlying message here screams a much more concrete answer to the questions posed by this year's overall curator.
Venice is a city that has thousands of Muslims and a very clear Islamic influence in both its architecture and dialect, however the city has never permitted a mosque to be built in its historic center. This work did just that – by turning a disused 10th century Catholic church into a mosque for the duration of the Biennale. The juxtaposition of the prayer carpet orienting to Mecca, or the qibla wall, with the architecture of the church is a really powerful message of hope.
Angola (Palazzo Pisani)
The pavilion that won the Golden Lion at the last Biennale is again on point with the group show “On Ways of Travelling.” Curated by Antonio Ole and held at the gorgeous Palazzo Pisani, the five young artists explore themes surrounding postcolonial reflections on identity via large, expressive installations, sculpture works and video. The piece that stands out most is Binelde Hyrcan’s “Cambeck,” a video performance of four kids playing adults in their sand car. Beautifully shot on the beach, the short movie tells their future hopes and perceptions of the world with innocent humor that’s both disarming and incredibly eye-opening.
My East is Your West (Palazzo Benzon)
This is surely the triumphant surprise of the Biennale. The group show not only manages to unite India and Pakistan (two notoriously antagonistic nations) through art, but it does so with a jaw-dropping installation that explores the very essence of a divided people. Lahore-based Rashid Rana surveys the concept of presence by treating us to various technology-rich concepts across five rooms, including a live stream video link that will transport visitors to Lahore (and vice versa). Meanwhile, Mumbai-based Shilpa Gupta presents her new series of works covering four years of research into the the world’s largest security barrier between India and Bangladesh. Through photography, sculptures, drawing and text-based pieces, Gupta works with goods and bodies that trespass security and political barriers to expose the absurdity of politics.
Cyprus (Palazzo Malipiero)
The solo exhibition “Two Days After Forever” sees artist Christodoulos Panayiotou questioning the invention of archeology and how the relevance of historical narratives is defined. Adopting a wide range of practices, the artist looks into how tradition is made by working with discarded stones (considered debris in an archeological excavation process) to make sculptures that could seemingly belong in any archeology museum. In other works, he questions the concepts of classification and authenticity further by producing custom-made shoes from fake designer bags bought on the streets of Venice. Amusingly, two rooms of the palace are filled with shredded Cypriot banknotes, which immediately calls to mind Scrooge McDuck and the ultimate worthlessness of money, while also emphasizing the transformative capacity of art.
Iran (Calle San Giovanni)
Walking through the Iranian pavilion (housed in a Cannaregio warehouse) is like taking a trip from the Middle East to India, right through Central Asia, and there's a wealth of artworks in this group show that deal with both local and global issues – all without excessive finger-wagging. Among older and newer works you'll find Pakistani Bani Abidi’s print installation Security Barriers A-L (2008) that takes a subtle and stylish look at the divide imposed by security systems; Indian artist Hema Upadhyay's enchanting cabinet Silent Shadow (2015) that deals with the phenomenon of migration and its ontological origin; and Huma Mulji’s controversial Arabian Delight (2008) – an installation making use of a mummified camel tangled in a Pakistani suitcase that's a humorous take on the increasing “Arabization” of the country.
Written by Will Furtado for Highsnobiety.com