Entry 5: The 59th Venice Biennale

Between the ages of 8 and let’s say… 20, I was an avid watcher of Eurovision. Every year, during May, I would watch the semi-finals, followed by the finals. Every year without fail, I would discuss with my friends which countries had the best songs, and which had the worst. We would really chop it up, and talk about things such as stage presence, the tempo of the song and etc.

Now, we’re about 70 words into this mini-memoir, and you’re probably asking yourself, what does the European Song Contest have to do with the Venice Biennale?

Well, a lot. Because, in my opinion, the Venice Biennale is the Eurovision Song Contest of the art world. For anyone who doesn’t know, the Venice Biennale is a biannual event – it happens every 2 years. Each country’s art council selects an artist or artists to represent the country, and unlike Eurovision, no one gets the dreaded ‘nul points’.

Once selected, the work is showcased in the country’s pavilion which is their ‘mini gallery’. These pavilions are dotted across multiple locations in Venice with the two main locations being Arsenale and Giardini.

What makes the Venice Biennale different to say, Frieze or Art Basel, is it isn’t just paintings on white walls with some other things. No! It is an experience. It is anything and everything art, from installations to films to sculptures – countries really utilise the space and go all out. For example, Malta’s pavilion had molten steel droplets falling from the ceiling into basins of water. The artist representing Malta wanted to re-imagine Caravaggio’s The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist (painted 1608) as a kinetic, sculptural installation. Switzerland was represented by Latifa Echakhch, and the artist created these colossal, folk-like sculptures. France had a film along with an immersive installation. Zeinab Sedira transformed the French pavilion into a film studio and created a living room from her memories of living between Algeria, France and the UK. France wasn’t my undisputed no. 1 pavilion, but I adored it because I was allowed to physically interact with these various rooms – something as simple as sitting down, I was allowed to do that. In the first room were two dancers, and I was allowed to sit down in the installed set while they danced. I didn’t feel like my presence was intrusive or required, I felt more like an observer; I felt invisible to the dancers, and I enjoyed being in that unique position because the dancers weren’t focused on me, they were focused on themselves.

One thing that must be said as well about this Biennale is representation, and how it was at the forefront. Starting with female artists, there were more female-identified artists than ever at this Biennale. But it didn’t stop there, this was a phenomenal year for black female artists too. In this Biennale, we had two astonishing artists, Sonia Boyce and Simone Leigh who both won golden lions.

Sonia Boyce represented Great Britain and Simone Leigh represented the US. Sonia Boyce transformed Great Britain’s pavilion into this space that celebrated the contribution of Black British female vocalists. With regards to Simone Leigh, she transformed both the interior and exterior of the US pavilion to highlight the stories of black women. And in my opinion, the US had the best pavilion of this Biennale. Although, you could argue Belgium had the best pavilion or even Kenya. But for me, the US won it. The sculptures were unapologetically massive, and there was something powerful about these grand sculptures occupying these various rooms. These sculptures demanded our attention – they were in our faces. We couldn’t avoid their elegance and grandeur, and we certainly couldn’t avoid their blackness along with their history.  

Time is also an interesting aspect of this Biennale, and it relates to my final point, should the Venice Biennale be every three years instead of every two years? So, a Venice Triennale? Because this Biennale was a three-year wait, and during my time in Venice, many people I spoke to commented on how having an extra year made a difference. COVID devastated the art world, but COVID also allowed artists and curators to really flesh out their vision. But that’s the people I met, and in my honest opinion, pressure builds diamonds. If every human had three lifetimes to accomplish what they needed to do in one, then where would humanity be? Where would we be as a species today? Now, my response to my question is steeped in existentialism, and you could even argue I’m being facetious. But regardless, as an art enthusiast first and an art blogger second, if I’m coming to see your pavilion, I’m coming to see what you can do in a given amount of time and space. Yes, a year would make a difference, but would it make a significant difference? That’s the question we need to ask ourselves. Because if that ‘significant difference’ is quantified, and it’s only fractional, then keep that extra year, and let’s stick to two years. COVID was a very reasonable excuse for why the Venice Biennale was delayed, but now that it is back, I shall hope it is also back in 2024.

Photo credit: Featured Image by Andrea Avezzu (Courtesy of Venice Biennale)

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