Among prestigious contemporary art events, Venice’s Biennale is widely considered the greatest show on earth, give or take a couple of competitors in Basel and Kassel. It’s a mind-bending, breathtaking, occasionally baffling odyssey through what the cognoscenti consider to be important statements by some of the most influential contemporary artists alive. And it’s set in one of the world’s most romantic cities—a town so awash in fantastic art that it risks sinking.
Comparing Venice to Atlantis may be a stretch, but it’s hard to argue with the city’s undisputed status as an artistic gem. Around almost every canal corner awaits another place of beauty: a palace, a church, a basilica, a gallery, a bistro, or even a bar. Architecturally, Venice is unique. Artistically it is flamboyant, commissioning some of the world’s most audacious, scandalous works. All of which makes the Floating City the perfect setting for new sensations and titans of the art world alike to strut their stuff.
Running until November 26, the 2017 edition of the Biennale Arte features 86 official entrants. Some are housed in the Central Pavilion and 29 national pavilions built by participating countries in the Giardini, the expansive gardens built in the Napoleonic era. Others inhabit the massive stone factories of a sprawling former shipyard called the Arsenale, where the Serenissima fleet was built. Numerous ancillary official installations and hundreds of associated events and shows in museums, churches, galleries, and palazzos round out the show.
As one might expect when the who’s who of the international contemporary art scene gather, everything from bizarre performance art and intellectually out-there installations to profoundly moving multimedia memoirs and hallucinatory abstract journeys are on display. You could happily spend a month exploring what’s on offer, but most visitors will have only a day or two to check the Biennale off their Venice list between lining up for tours of the magnificent Basilica San Marco and making photo-op pilgrimages to the Rialto Bridge. A 48-hour multiple entry pass to the Giardini and the Arsenale is perhaps the best way to tackle the fair, starting with the nine trans-pavilions that collectively encompass the show’s main theme—Viva Arte Viva—conceived by Christine Macel, chief curator at the Musée National d’Art Moderne at Paris’s Centre Pompidou.
Viva Arte Viva features a multi-generational collection of artists from all over the world, from Olafur Eliasson to Salvatore Arancio. Still, this theme is only scratching the surface. Contemporary art heavyweights fill many national pavilions, from British sculptor Phyllida Barlow and American abstractionist Mark Bradford to German performance artist Anne Imhof, awarded the Biennale’s Golden Lion prize for best national pavilion. Canada is represented by Vancouver’s Geoffrey Farmer, who has filled our pavilion with an intensely personal installation intersecting diverse stories of collision and reconciliation, entitled A Way Out of the Mirror. (Vancouver has another presence, thanks to Luxembourg representative Mike Bourscheid.) All in all, Venice’s bellissimo Biennale is an extraordinary total immersion into a world where art truly comes alive.
Read more from our Arts section.