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The Venice Biennale

By Sarah Shalgosky

I first went to Venice in 1986 as the most junior member of the Arts Council of Great Britain delegation to the Biennale. Twenty-five years ago, the significance of the Biennale was immense. With no internet, no cheap flights and no global art scene, the only opportunities to survey international contemporary art were the Venice Biennale, the São Paulo Biennale and the quinquennial Documenta in Kassel.

São Paulo and Documenta are post-war innovations but the Venice Biennale had been founded in 1895, largely as a vehicle for the applied arts. Initially, it was very much like the Great Exhibitions that showcased national innovations in design and spread across Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century. However, in the early years of the twentieth century the Venice Biennale developed a focus on fine art. Gradually, more and more countries started to participate and built their own pavilions in the tree-lined avenues of the Giardini on the easternmost tip of the south-facing waterfront.

My memories of that first trip are still very distinct. The British pavilion walls were painted a dull grey green and it was filled with the work of Frank Auerbach – vigorous paintings from which portraits emerge through extraordinarily tactile oil paint. The pavilions seem to have been built according to the political geography of the time. On the left of the British pavilion is the French pavilion which in 1986 was filled with the great striped paintings of Daniel Buren that anatomised and interrogated the space. The German pavilion, on the right of the British pavilion, remained closed during the preview week and the exhibition was only revealed on the day before the Biennale opened to the public. Sigmar Polke had painted the walls with pigments and minerals to create an enormous abstract painting that recalled the skies over Venice with flashes of silver, lilac, gold and turquoise.

In those days, it was possible to see the entire Biennale in two or three days. Beyond the pavilions in the Giardini there was the curated ‘Aperto’ (‘Outside’) exhibition. In 1980, the long rope yards in the Venice Arsenale had been taken over by the Biennale to introduce the work of younger artists from across the world to the festival. This was more exciting work – I remember seeing paintings by Lisa Milroy and John Murphy here for the first time and they were the first artists that I presented in the Mead Gallery in 1993. Above all, I remember the discussions. I suppose it was like being at a large, informal conference. Collected in one small city over a three day period are all the key international artists, critics and curators and everyone is keen to discuss the work.

Since 1986, dozens of other Biennials and Triennials have been established across the world. In Britain there is the Tate Triennial, the Folkstone Triennial and the Liverpool Biennial. Biennials are held in Sydney, Sharjah, Istanbul, Berlin, Kwangju, Havana, Glasgow, Moscow, Athens. New ones are constantly being developed to bring profile and development opportunities to cites. They have contributed to a global appetite for contemporary art. And Venice itself has got bigger too.

The Mead was part of this expansion when in 2001, my Assistant Curator, who was Welsh, felt that Wales required its own presence at the Biennale. She persuaded the Art Newspaper to give us the central pages of their Venice issue and we commissioned the artist Cerith Wyn Evans to create one of his text works for this spread. Written in Welsh, naturally, all the vertical strokes of the double dds, lls and ffs created a pattern across the page that resembled the typewriter drawings of Anni Albers.

Since 2003, Wales has had its own pavilion, as has Scotland and Northern Ireland and ... ArtSway – an artist studio complex from the village of Sway in the New Forest! The number of exhibiting nations, artists, projects and events is ever-expanding. Milton Keynes had a project last time. Beyond the pavilions in the cool gardens and the wide spaces of the Arsenale there are exhibitions in domestic, institutional and industrial buildings and open places throughout the whole city and region. It’s impossible to see everything in three days, let alone a week. Now, before you go, you need to research diligently a list of priorities. When you’re at the Biennale the prevailing greeting is, ‘What have you seen? Can I afford to miss it?’

To a certain extent, there is not the same urgency for curators to go to the Venice Biennale today – we can learn about international art practice from the internet, by going to the major art fairs and by the explosion of contemporary art in galleries across the UK. But Venice is where nations showcase their best. Artists are given a major opportunity to create something extraordinary and reading about it isn’t quite the same.

This year, Mike Nelson – who made the top floor of the Hayward Gallery in London look as if a wild animal had clawed its way out of an Edwardian suite of offices – has the British pavilion and it’s almost beyond imagination what he might do with it*. However, I won’t be going this year. Instead, my colleague, Liz Dooley, will be making her first trip to the Biennale. She is adept at research and she is fluent in Italian. She has successfully negotiated the almost impossible tasks of trying to find a hotel room at Biennale time in Venice and of getting accreditation to attend the preview days. Most useful of all, she regularly runs the journey between Coventry station and the University to come to work and is therefore supremely well equipped to see several hundred art exhibitions in three days!

(Sarah wrote this in April 2011, before the opening of the 2011 Biennale.)


‘Beyond the pavilions in the cool gardens, and the wide spaces of the Arsenale, there are exhibitions in domestic, institutional and industrial buildings and open places throughout the whole city and region.’

Sarah Shalgosky is Curator of the University’s Mead Gallery, situated in Warwick Arts Centre. Under Sarah’s direction, the Mead shows a programme of contemporary and modern art which is of national significance, and is particularly known for its commissioning of new work.

Sarah Shalgosky

Sarah Shalgosky

Curator of the Mead Gallery, Warwick Arts Centre

S dot H dot Shalgosky at warwick dot ac dot uk