Along the Piazza San Marco in a 16th-century structure that houses the Museo Correr, is where Shirin Neshat unveiled her black-and-white portraits of the citizens of Azerbaijan. Entitled The Home of My Eyes, her 2015 series features 55 photographs of the country’s diverse population. The artist, then inscribed calligraphic Farsi text, derived from her conversations with the subjects’ responses on their home and from poems by the 12th-century poet Nizami Ganjavi, who once lived in what is present-day Azerbaijan, on the images. “It’s very difficult for an artist to find people who believe in them, especially people who are dealing with stories that are so personal, so political,” Neshat told the crowd. “I hope you find humanity in this room.”
The exhibition, one of dozens on view in Venice for the 57th Biennale Arte, which runs through 26 November, captures the sentiment of several of the works on view; it touches upon the personal and the political, striving to use art to build connections. For a first-time visitor to the biennale, the experience can be daunting. “Try to see as much as possible, but don’t overwhelm yourself,” said a Brazilian art dealer. “You’ll never be able to go to everything.” Even for veterans, trying to experience all the art on in Venice is impossible, but that’s what makes it so special. Everyone’s biennale is his or her own.
Installation view of The Tunisian Pavilion, The Absence of Paths at La Biennale di Venezia, photography by Luke Walker
The Venice Biennale is akin to a world’s fair of art; countries select a representative artist or artists for each edition, who then conceive of an installation or exhibition for the country’s pavilion. The Biennale is split between two main areas — the Giardini and Arsenale. Each has its own general exhibition space. In the Giardini, several countries — the United States, Britain, Venezuela, Russia, Germany and more have each erected their own pavilions. In the Arsenale, countries rent out cookie-cutter spaces for their exhibitions. The rest of the participating countries that don’t have a spot at the Giardini or Arsenale rent out spaces throughout the city. On top of that, there are myriad satellite exhibitions around the city.
While 65 per cent of the artists in Viva Arte Viva, the Biennale’s central exhibition, are male, a number of female artists presented strong work in the Biennale. German artist Anne Imhof won the Golden Lion for “Faust,” a performance piece that involved an army of zombie-like hipsters wandering around a glass encased structure. The piece comments on power, who holds it, and how in this social media age we are all being watched and observed — could our phones be windows into class cages? During the preview, the German Pavilion garnered endless lines.
Nearby, sculptor Phyllida Barlow filled the British Pavilion with enormous abstract sculptures. Large columns sprouted from the floor, while boulders of concrete dangled from a cross that stuck out of an abstract wall. At the Australian Pavilion, Tracey Moffatt’s My Horizon investigated migration through a series of large-scale photographs that investigated the personal plight of a lone woman dressed ‘50s-era black maid uniform, and the journey of refugees. Nonagenarian artist Geta Brătescu’s contribution for the Romanian Pavilion reflected on two themes: the studio and reflection on female subjectivity. At the Swiss Pavilion, three artists — Carol Bove, and Teresa Hubbard / Alexander Birchler — paid homage to Alberto Giacometti, one of the country’s most famous artists who never represented Switzerland, in a show called Women of Venice, after Giacometti’s body of work. Teresa Hubbard / Alexander Birchler’s film, Flora, a touching portrayal of Giacometti’s former lover and muse Flora Mayo, was one of the most captivating works of the entire Biennale. Egyptian artist Hassan Kahn’s Composition for a Public Park uses sound to create an immersive experience where the artist suggests a connection between voice, sound and the horizon, winning him the Silver Lion for Promising Young Artist.
Installation view of Vik Muniz, Individuals, 2017, glass, from 107 to 170 cm each (height), from 30 to 50 cm each (diameter), courtesy the artist and Berengo Studio. Photo courtesy of Francesco Allegretto
A few minutes away from the Giardini at the Arsenale, the United Arab Emirates presented the work of five artists — Nujoom Alghanem, Sara Al Haddad, Vikram Divecha, Lantian Xie, and Dr. Mohamed Yousif — in an exhibition titled Rock, Paper, Scissors: Positions in Play. They each added a different element to the installation, which looks at the idea of playfulness in as an influence in one’s art practice. Dr. Yousif hung a row of oars that slightly rotate, while Al Haddad contributed crocheted works that hang from the ceiling or sit in a corner.
At the South African Pavilion, Julianne Moore and Alec Baldwin took on the identity of forced migrants in a work by Candice Breitz.
In the main exhibition at the Arsenale, Saudi artist Maha Malluh assembled a mosaic of colorful audio cassette tapes made for women by religious leaders to teach them how to act on bread trays to spell out Arabic words, like “fitna,” to refer to temptation, and “jihad,” which means struggle. Cuban-born, Puerto Rico-based octogenarian artist Zilia Sánchez displayed her beautifully morphed abstract canvases. Meanwhile, American artist Charles Atlas’s The Tyranny of Consciousness, which won him a Special Mention, shows drag queen Lady Bunny as she talks about politics, the environment and her life.
Beyond the Giardini and Arsenale, a number of exhibitions and pavilions exhibit everything from Damien Hirst’s Treasures From the Wreck of the Unbelievable, where a towering sculpture, Demon With Bowl, takes over the Palazzo Grassi, to the Native American Pavilion at Garden of Ca’ Bembo, Fondamenta Sangiantoffetti, where Oscar Tuazon — who participated in the Standing Rock protests to fight for clean water — and Nicholas Galanin executed a circle of wood pylons reclaimed from the lagoon, inviting artists to decorate one to spread the dialogue on clean water. Ancient artifacts were exhibited with 1950s modernist works by Jewad Selim and white oil-on-linen paintings of troops in Mosul by Belgian artist Francis Alÿs in the Iraq Pavilion at Palazzo Franchetti. In the same building, Saudi artist Abdulnasser Gharem displayed a giant stamp of glass that reads “IN ACCORDANCE WITH SHARIA LAW” at the Glasstress exhibition.
Shirazeh Houshiary, Alar, 2017, glass, 145 x 44 x 115 cm, courtesy the artist, Lisson Gallery and Berengo Studio. Photo courtesy of Francesco Allegretto
The Biennale opening also served as a chance for the art world to come together. Nadia and Rajeeb Samdani invited a few hundred of their closest friends aand colleagues to Belmond Hotel Cipriani to reveal the opening of their new sculpture park in Sylhet, Bangladesh. The next morning, Alserkal Avenue held a breakfast at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection to announce their partnership with the institution to support an internship there for student or young professional from the United Arab Emirates. “To build a cadre of arts professionals that can support and nurture cultural production in the UAE, a global perspective, and the ability to share the region's rich arts and culture scene is essential,” said Abdelmonem Bin Eisa Alserkal, founder of Alserkal Avenue. “We are honored to join hands with the Peggy Guggenheim Collection to provide young, UAE-based professionals with the opportunity to pursue their passion for the arts."
At a time when there is so much turmoil in the world, the Biennale unifies us through art. Its visitors to laugh, cry, think and observe the art that is a reflection of what is going on around us.