Venice Biennale: What Not to Miss

Russian Pavilion. Photo © Lorenz Seidler

Venice’s 55th Art Biennale opened on June 1 under the direction of Massimiliano Gioni, the Italian-born, New York-based director of the New Museum.  Every two years the Biennale invades Venice’s winding streets, solidifying it as the most exciting place to experience contemporary art in Italy.  While much time is spent debating the successes and missed opportunities of the numerous pavilions and collateral events, it can be a daunting task for your average art lover to understand what’s worth viewing.  We’ve surveyed our Venice docents, some of whom lead our Biennale walking tour, to find out what the 5 must see spaces are for the 2013 exhibition, which runs through November.

1. As a starting point, it’s essential to visit the Central Pavilion, which lays out Gioni’s concept for the entire Biennale. This year’s curatorial theme, The Encyclopedic Palace, sprawls over both the Giardini and Arsenale with more than 150 artists from 37 different countries.  What to look for while in the Central Pavilion? Contemporary art expert Nadia Mazzon suggests The Red Book of Carl Gustav Jung, Rudolf Steiner drawings, the large and whimsical collection of 250 sculptures by Fischli and Weiss, and the beautiful surrealist drawings and paintings.

2. Mazzon also suggests stopping by the Russian Pavilion, with its reinterpretation of the Danae myth.  Vadim Zakharov’s exhibit is an inventive and interactive piece that allows for high engagement with the public. Design Boom has some incredible images to give a virtual preview of how viewers are stimulated to participate in the installation itself, with its golden coins that rain down.

3. Venezuela’s pavilion was roundly cited by our docents for its inclusion of graffiti urban art.  Titled “Urban Art. The Aesthetics of Subversion,” a young collective of Venezuelan street artists and graffiti writers bring youth and vitality to the pavilion.  Light installations, as well as traditional graffiti writing provide a nice contrast to the more traditional artforms shown in other pavilions.

4. Outside of the Giardini and Arsenale exhibitions, the Venice Biennale brings collateral events to spaces across the lagoon. Art historian Susan Steer is particularly taken by the Marc Quinn show on the island of San Giorgio.   Showing more than 50 works by the British artist, don’t miss the embryo sculptures which, still partially encased in marble, seem to reference Michelangelo’s Slaves.

Romania – Alexandra Pirici and Manuel Pelmuş
Romanian Pavilion. Photo © Latitudes-Flickr

5. As a nod to the seeming increase in performance art in this year’s Biennale, art historian Monica Vidoni was particularly fond of the Romanian Pavilion. Consisting entirely of performance art, Vidoni describes her experience,  “When I went there were six performers, lined up on a row, on their backs, cycling in the air,” describes Vidoni,  “They then got up and stood in a row. Then they began adopting extreme facial expressions.  This went on for a while. I liked the essential quality, the simplicity of it.”  In fact, each day the performance artists are recreating a piece of the Biennale’s history in an experience entitled An Immaterial Retrospective of the Venice Biennale.  An intriguing, and sometimes frustrating, artform from a viewer’s perspective, by acting out sculptures, paintings, and installations from past expos, the artists turn a mirror on the Biennale itself.

We’ve made our list of places not to miss during the Biennale, now tell us….what were your favorites?  You have until the end of November to explore for yourselves.