A Floating Art Festival

by Elysian Magazine

La Biennale Di Venezia International Art Exhibition

By Abby Deering
Photographs provided

Since the Renaissance, Venice has been the seat of artistic and cultural exploration in Europe, so it’s fitting that the city plays host to the most glamorous international forum for contemporary art. When it comes to the global biennale circuit, La Biennale Di Venezia’s International Art Exhibition is a must on the calendars of the art cognescenti.

A gondolier navigates the Grand Canal in front of Ca’Giustinian, the Biennale’s headquarters.

Every two years for six months, the lagoon city transforms into a floating art festival. This year marks the 57th International Art Exhibition, open to the public from Saturday May 13 to Sunday, November 26.

Officially, the Biennale is held in two major venues in the southeastern part of Venice: the Giardini — a public garden created by Napoleon — and the Arsenale, a complex of former shipyards and armories built in 1104.

There are two major components to the festival.

First are the exhibitions by national pavilions, each with its own curator, hosting works by the country’s nominated artists.The Giardini houses 30 permanent national pavilions. Set amid the gardens’ tall trees, these architecturally unique structures have been built at different periods by the various participating countries.  Countries not owning a pavilion are exhibited in other venues across Venice. This year, over 89 countries are represented in the national pavillons of the Giardini, at the Arsenale, and throughout the city.

The second part is the themed international exhibition created by the Biennale’s curator. This year the honor was accorded to Christine Macel, chief curator at the Pompidou Centre’s Musée d’Art Moderne, where she has established the museum’s contemporary art department.

Over the course of the exhibition, there are also many fringe events throughout Venice as the labyrinthine city turns into a treasure hunt of satellite events, often giving inside access to some of Venice’s most historic and, frequently, off-limits buildings. From site-specific installations in tucked away piazze to performance art pieces in opulent palazzi, these official and unofficial “collateral events” run the gamut.


Christine Macel, festival curator chose the theme, “VIVA ARTE VIVA.”
(Photo by Andrea Avezzú. Courtesy of La Biennale Di Venezia.)

The title and theme Macel has chosen for the international exhibition is “VIVA ARTE VIVA.“ Macel describes this as “a Biennale designed with artists, by artists and for artists” with the title amounting to “an exclamation, a passionate outcry for art and the state of the artist.”

The exhibition features 120 invited artists from 51 countries — 103 participating for the first time.

Macel has put a focus on more art by women as well as a particular emphasis on work from the Middle East, Russia, Eastern Europe and Latin America.

In a statement, Macel said: “Today, in a world full of conflicts and shocks, art bears witness to the most precious part of what makes us human. Art is the ultimate ground for reflection, individual expression, freedom, and for fundamental questions. At a time of global disorder, art embraces life, even if doubt ensues inevitably. The role, the voice and the responsibility of the artist are more crucial than ever before within the framework of contemporary debates.”

The exhibition will be divided into a sequence of nine interconnected “transpavilions,” so-called because they echo the Biennale’s historical organization into pavilions, but are transnational, mixing artists of all generations and origins, grouped together based on a particular theme.

Navigating the Biennale can be overwhelming, but it doesn’t need to be. Rather than trying to slog through everything on offer, the best bet is to zero-in on three (max four) things a day. The transpavilions of the international exhibition are interspersed between the Giardini and the Arsenale. As you navigate through these, pick two or three national pavilions of personal interest, and perhaps round out or start your day with one of the collateral events.

For anyone considering the trip — (go during the fall, not summer) — here’s an introductory look at this year’s hotly tipped exhibitions and events:

A still from “Lake Valley,” by American video artist Rachel Rose. (Photo courtesy of the artist.)


Los Angeles-based painter Mark Bradford has been chosen to represent the United States in its National Pavilion, which will host the artist’s project, “Tomorrow Is Another Day.” This new, site-specific installation explores Bradford’s longtime social and intellectual interests, namely “his concern for marginalized people, both their vulnerability and their resiliency, and the cyclical threat and hope of American unfulfilled social promise.” In addition to his work on the pavilion, Bradford is starting a project this spring in which he will help prisoners in Venice sell goods they make in jail.

Mark Bradford, artist representing the United States in the American Pavilion.


“Archaic,” the highly anticipated exhibition from The National Pavilion of Iraq, will show the work of eight Modern and contemporary Iraqi artists in dialogue with 40 ancient Iraqi artifacts, spanning six millennia. Most of these artifacts have never left Iraq and will include medical artifacts, statues, toys and jugs. The ancient works come from the National Museum of Iraq, which was looted after the American-led invasion of the country in 2003. (The museum reopened in 2015). The exhibition, organized by the Ruya Foundation and curated by Tamara Chalabi and Paolo Colombo, interrogates the notion of the ‘archaic’, which has a dual meaning, simultaneously referring to an ancient cultural heritage and a fragile contemporary political entity. Drawing on this duality, the exhibition explores the opportunities and restrictions presented to artists in Iraq by the country’s momentous ancient inheritance.


David lachappelle: “lost and found”

Casa dei Tre Oci – Through Sept. 10, 2017

David LaChappelle is certainly one of the most irreverent, and arguably one of the most important contemporary photographers of our time. This expansive monographic show, featuring over 100 images, will explore LaChappelle’s career from the ’90s to the present day. And, for the first time in the world, the “New World” series will be shown: “Eighteen works that mark a return to the human figure and that revolve around themes like heaven and representations of joy, nature, soul.”

“Land Scape: King’s Dominion,” 2013. © David LaChapelle. (Photo courtesy of artist and Casa)

“Austism,” by Hong Kong-based artist Firenze Lai. (Photo courtesy of the artist.)

Damien Hirst: “Treasures from the wreck of the unbelievable”

Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana  – Through Dec. 3, 2017

“Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable,” Damien Hirst’s first major exhibition in Italy since 2004, has been ten years in the making. The artist’s massive shipwreck sculptures are “a tribute to the sculpture of ancient Greece and Rome, to the Aztecs, and to civilizations in China, Africa, India, Bali, and more” mixed with pop culture references. They will be on view at Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana, two contemporary art museums belonging to billionaire French collector and owner of Christie’s International, Francois Pinault.


The parallel events organized by the Biennale follow the same curatorial premise of VIVA ARTE VIVA: to place artists at the heart of the exhibition. One of the most exciting events developed this year is the “Open Table” series. Every Friday and Saturday during the six months of the exhibition, artists will host an Open Table (Tavola Aperta) and meet visitors over a casual lunch to hold a lively conversation about their practice. Another project, “Unpacking My Library” inspired by Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay published in 1931, allows the artists of VIVA ARTE VIVA to compile a list of their favorite books to share with attendees.

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