The Biennale has a separate exhibition from (by my count) each of 89 Countries from around the world. Plus many other exhibitions and collaborations. The Biennale Giardini has pavilions from 30 countries, all purpose built over the last century. It really is astonishing to think these buildings have stood here for so long, and continue to do so, for the sole purpose of the Biennale. Already I need to come back in two years time if only to see how the buildings are transformed each time. (I’m especially interested in the Canadian Pavilion which was half dismantled to install an exhibition entitled A way out of the mirror by Geoffrey Farmer. The work is based on a collision, in 1955, between a train and a lumber truck (driven by Farmer’s paternal grandfather). The installation contains 71 brass planks, in memory of the debris left by the accident. But the main feature is a massive water feature, which squirts sporadically up, through and over, what is left of the original building. I was left more interested in what happened to the building than the art work. I’ve since learnt that it will cost $3 million to restore it to it’s original 1957 design. Wow.
I managed to see the work of about 22 of the Countries participating.
Both the Korean and British Pavilions have had a fair amount of press, but neither caught me particularly. Having said that Cody Choi‘s Proper Time was, for me, an example of how hard it is to really stop and properly appreciate everything (and believe me, I tried). It is a room of clocks. Floor to ceiling, all four walls. Each clock has a name, (birth) date, nationality and profession on it, and the hands are all moving at different speeds. But it was really crowded, and not that big (there are over 600 clocks), and, while I was fascinated and quite struck by the room, I had neither time nor brain space to really appreciate what the thought process behind this was. I have since learnt that each clock represented an individual from around the world that Cody Choi had interviewed, and the clock speed was determined by the amount of time it takes that individual to earn enough to afford a meal. I want to go back now I know this and spend time with those clocks.
Anne Imhof’s Faust, in the German Pavilion, looks stunning, but I am sad to report that I was not savvy enough in my preparation to discover that the four hour installation piece only runs at certain times. And I strongly suspect, on reflection, it was running when I arrived at the Giardini, but finished by the time I got to that Pavilion. Gutted. The only thing I can report was that the experience of a building with glass floor and ceiling really messed with my brain, and I did experience the heart stopping feeling, half way across the floor, when my brain suddenly thought I was about to step onto the ground it could see, about 4 feet below the glass I was walking on.
But it was probably Women of Venice in the Swiss Pavilion that I enjoyed most this afternoon. Central to this exhibition is the absence of the Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti. During his life time he refused to exhibit in the Swiss Pavilion, despite the fact that in 1952 it was his brother that erected the pavilion. He classed himself as an international artist, and in 1956 exhibited his famous Femme de Venise in the pavilion of his adopted country, France. Incidentally, these original plaster sculptures have just been reunited in the Tate Modern’s recent retrospective of Giacometti’s work. It was the first time they had been seen together since 1956, and having seen this just a few weeks ago to have a chance to see this Swiss exhibition was perfect.
Having only really taken a serious interest in visual art over the last 2 or 3 years, it is so very good for my confidence and outlook on life to feel I know something, have some prior knowledge and experience. This is a big part of the reason for my whole project. To study something outside the insular world of classical music that has been such a large part of my life thus far. Even my musical studies were marred by outside events, so the whole concept of studying, learning and retaining, on top of finding new artistic skills myself, is all very exciting, if a little overwhelming at times. But I digress.
The Swiss exhibition is curated by Philipp Kaiser (It is unusual, I read somewhere, to appoint a curator and not an artist), and the starting point for the artists: Giacometti’s sculpture and his troubled relationship with Venice. Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler have collaborated since 1990, using the lens to tell stories, weaving connections between social life, memories and history. The film installation Flora came about after finding a photograph of, and rather damning reference to, Flora May (in James Lord’s 1985 biography of Giacometti) with whom Giacometti had a, very little documented, love affair when they studied together in Paris in the 1920’s. As it turned out Flora’s son David, now aged 81, only recently found out more about this relationship. Although his mother had mentioned to him a friend called Giacometti when he was younger, he had not calculated it as something of interest. It was only when his wife googled Flora May and found reference to Lord’s biography and consequently saw the photo of Flora and Giacometti (she called him ‘Jack’; to him she was ‘the American’) alongside Flora’s sculpture of Giacometti, the result of a student project where they paired off to make busts of each other. The bust did not survive (nor the relationship), Flora destroyed all her art work when she was forced to leave Paris, and return to America, as a result of her parents cutting her off. Flora is a beautifully made film about Flora May’s life, with her son David as the central character. Putting to rights a woman’s history that was, thus far, only officially recorded as ‘Flora looks at her lover wistfully, as she had cause to do’ and ‘She is attractive but not beautiful, and there is something weak in her face.’, one man (Lord)’s rather sexist summation of a single photo of a little known woman.
Bust, is a reconstruction of Flora May’s original sculpture of Giacometti (copied from this one and only existing photograph, courtesy of the artists Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York and Lora Reynolds Gallery, Austin), and can also be seen in the Pavilion.
I love to imagine the delight of Flora May who, for circumstantial reasons, was never able to become an artist, being told that a copy of her work would be in the Venice Biennale 2017!
This exhibition is actually made up of two 30 minute films, shown on a double sided screen (I never quite computed, on reflection, how the other side of the screen was showing a different film, with different soundtrack, or that the films were not only related, but very much part of the whole, but hey, I loved what I saw!).
I went to check into my ‘hotel’ early evening. It’s a boat called Caicco Freedom, in the Saint Elena Marina. Ideally located a short walk from the Giardini, and through an area inhabited by locals, which is a lovely antidote to the tourist nightmares of this city. I was greeted by a bloke, probably in his late twenties, who spoke very little English. He showed me onto the boat (it had taken quite some time to locate the boat in the Marina), and showed me to my cabin. Fortunately my in laws lived on a narrow boat until very recently, so I am fairly well versed in the realities of boat living. The toilet system is not ideal, and nor, it turned out, is the shower (an extendable pipe from the sink, straight onto the floor). But, once they’d given me a suitable plug adapter so I could charge my phone (a nasty moment for a while), it’s all rather charming, and the walk to the boat around the marina is beautiful (assuming you don’t have a fear of water…*see earlier blog).
I thought I’d go all out, and go find a restaurant I’d seen recommended up at the Rialto Market. I admit I hadn’t quite taken on board that this was a little like ‘popping’ from Willesden Green to Sydenham for dinner. But it was on a boat down the Grand Canal, who was I to complain? The restaurant had closed down, the next two on my list were shut and the last fully booked! It’s an absolute tourist trap around there, so I ended up sitting on the edge of the canal, feet dangling barely above the water, eating the most delicious chips and mayonnaise followed by tiramisu ice cream. I am so very aware of the huge generosity in the money I have received, and I want to spend every single penny in a worthwhile way, so this suited my budget admirably!
It was late when I got back, and the combination of the walk from the boat stop (perfectly safe and well lit) and the Marina (the same, but, oh so much water…), made for a brave walk back to my cabin. Obviously it was fine, as my rational brain knew it would be, I wouldn’t have done it otherwise! The good nights sleep temporarily on hold until a shouting match/fight had calmed down on deck (directly above my head), and all was calm till an hour or so later when a boat came into the Marina way too fast and our boat banged around for a while. Fate, or just extreme good chance, as I lay there fighting off my anxiety about being on a boat, I was alerted by the light on my phone. It was George. This was a VERY rare and slightly alarming occurrence. He has a phone, but doesn’t use it, doesn’t even switch it on. So, inevitably, it said “Mum, I don’t feel well. Feel sick and shaky. I miss you” Eek. Heart breaks suddenly. He’s at Butlins, in Skegness, on a school trip, I’m in a boat in Venice… He’s already alerted the teacher, who was going to come back and check on him. We had a quick chat, Matt joined in, and shortly afterwards the message came through “Olds, please don’t message unless I message you. Im trying to sleep”… ‘Olds’…?!
To be continued.