Venetian Vision

by Mark Calderwood

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It might be the worst of clichés to describe the Venice Biennale as the Olympics of the art world- but it is entirely accurate.

Since its inception, the Biennale has been the epicenter of contemporary art; one of the largest and undeniably the most prestigious cultural event in the world. It’s the place to see the cutting edge of art, meet artists, critics and dealers from the multi-billion dollar art market, an opportunity for national prestige and cultural politics…and the place to be seen. Venice is not the only international art event- but it is the pinnacle.

For Australian artists in particular, Venice is the opportunity to interact with the global arts community, and to gain international recognition for their work. As well as being the peak of their career, Biennale representation cements Australia’s place at the forefront of contemporary art.

Since the renaissance, La Serenissima had drawn a steady stream of travellers, lured by its history and romance, its impossible beauty and singular architecture. In particular it was a beacon for artists- Titian, Tiepolo, Canaletto, Turner, painters who turned water and stone into colour and floating light: a roll-call of Venice’s pilgrims is shorthand for fine art and high culture.

Venice took advantage of this prime position in 1895, founding the Esposizione biennale artistica nazionale, exhibiting artists from14 countries (by invitation) and establishing itself as the cultural destination par excellence. Attracting discerning tourists from around the world, the Biennale was an instant success; so much so that it quickly outgrew the modest Palazzo dell’Esposizione that had been built in Napoleon’s historic Giardini, still one of the Biennales main venues.

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The solution came in 1907 with the first national pavilions built in the Giardini, dedicated spaces for each country to demonstrate its cultural clout. Belgium lead the charge that same year, with more following steadily as the Biennale grew into a worldwide event. Over one hundred years the Giardini became a fanciful architectural park, with thirty pavilions built in evocative ‘national’ styles from Neoclassicism (France, 1912) to Modernism (Brazil, 1964), culminating in contemporary bubbles of steel and glass (Korea, 1995).

In 1988, Australia beat sixteen countries to the last available pavilion site: prime canal-side real estate envied by many. Architect Phillip Cox quickly designed a temporary structure to house the Bicentenary exhibition that year…but as ‘temporary’ stretched into decades, plans for a permanent Australian Pavilion were made, to mark the 21st year of Australia’s Biennale participation.

Elaine Chia, Director of Venice Development for the Australia Council, relates that the brief was careful not to impose creative restrictions. ‘Simple yet powerful,’ she says, ‘and sits well within the landscape.’

‘The Venetians were very open to our design aesthetic, so it was an opportunity to really claim the site.’

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‘It had to be clean and concise’ says John Denton, of Melbourne practice Denton Corker Marshall, answering the brief that called for 250 square metres of exhibition space. Experts in designing cultural spaces including the Melbourne Museum and Museum of Sydney, DCM refined the concept to a‘white box contained within a black box’, envisaging the Pavilion as an art object rather than a building.

It is a striking, perhaps timeless addition to the Giardini, where the Architecture Biennale also takes place on alternate years. Handsome and sculpturally bold, clad in black Zimbabwe granite, its simple form is punctuated by large apertures that subtly suggest a camera obscura.

Chia is elated that the Pavilion makes such a distinct contribution to the international dialogue of architecture. ‘It’s the only 21st century structure among all this historic architecture,’ she beams. ‘It’s the latest chapter in the story of the Biennale, a story punctuated by a mix of styles that reflects the times.’

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‘And it makes such a statement about who Australia is in 2015- a young nation but not stereotypical, sophisticated and forward looking. The old Pavilion had the flavour of Australian art looking out at the world- this is the world’s turn to look at us.’

Chia is even more pleased that despite having to bring in materials via canal, the project was completed on time and within the budget of $7.5 million. It’s a not inconsiderable sum, considering public funding for the arts is often contentious. But showcasing our art on the international stage reaps rewards that go beyond simple economic benefits, including international prestige, cultural diplomacy, and participation in the global economy of ideas- a forum where Australia is a known heavy hitter.

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Moreover, Chia points out that $6.5 million of the price tag came from 82 private donors, including actor Cate Blanchett and investment banker Simon Mordant AM, Venice Biennale Commissioner since 2013 and driving force behind the new Pavilion. ‘It’s incredibly rewarding that so many got behind this,’ she says, noting that private philanthropy is essential to the future of public art. ‘It’s a positive sign that a growing number of passionate people are willing to get involved in taking Australian art to the world stage.’

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Although monolithic on paper, the Pavilion responds with sensitivity to its historic setting. Where it presents an assertive aspect across the canal, approached through the gardens it is self-effacing, revealing only discreet glimpses until one stands before it. Unlike the haughty facades of older pavilions, this democratic approach sets the stage for viewing the art in the understated interior, a liminal space for appreciation, thought and discussion.

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And there’s much to think about in Wrong Way Time, the representative exhibition by South Australian artist Fiona Hall, AO. With a career spanning four decades- and almost as many artistic media- Hall has established herself as an artist of versatility, ingenuity and imagination, galvanised by what Biennale curator Linda Michael calls as ‘an electric sensitivity to the currents of our world.’

‘This is an intense time for an artist,’ says Michael; and with Wrong way time, Hall responds with equal intensity to the murky undertow of global politics, financial inequity, the destruction of natural resources, the destruction of hope. Michael describes the exhibition as a gestalt, ‘hundred of parts that appeal to our human impulse to make connections.’

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‘There is some earlier work in the exhibition, but it is made new again within the larger context.’ Still one of the most relevant is Tender (2006), a museum vitrine filled with native bird’s nests delicately woven from shredded dollar notes. The question of what price our fragile environment and endangered habitat is achingly clear.

One of the most powerful new works is All the king’s men, hanging, contorted heads knitted from strips of military camouflage stretched painfully over wire armatures, repeated again and again like an agonised prayer. These confronting husks are not about the trauma of conflict, so much as crafted from it.

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Although Wrong way time registers a future that is far from rosy, its life-affirming creativity runs offsets its pessimism, and hints at the possibility of turning back. Every piece of Hall’s installation is about connection and consequence: each word and action has repercussions that can bring about the worst or the best of human capability.

While Michael feels that the Biennale has moved past national lines, with participating country’s curators now contributing their perspectives to an overarching theme, she is gratified by the new Pavilion. ‘It’s a very responsive space,’ she says, ‘almost Spartan but flexible, with generous proportions ideal for exhibition.’

Michael is confident that the space will bring out the ‘the enormous sense, heart and soul’ in Hall’s work, and show it at its best.

‘The art world is a tough judge, and artists are open to all kind of responses in Venice. Art has a different meaning, and a different value, to everyone who sees it.’

Some standouts among Australia’s representatives at Venice:

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2013: Simryn Gill’s Here, art grows on trees famously repurposed the Pavilion itself as part of her site-specific exhibition. Gill removed half the roof, letting light and rain, birds and fallen leaves become part of the work, tying together seemingly unconnected fragments of a crumbling world using the vulnerable, fragile cycles of nature.

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2009: Shaun Gladwell created a powerful statement of Australian landscape and culture with his MADDESTMAXIMVS, spinning the outback imagery of the iconic films into poetic but no less stark video works. The recurrent lone black figure caught between blood-red dirt and unforgiving sky echoes the paintings of Sidney Nolan as much as George Miller’s Mad Max trilogy.

Alongside Gladwell and working across a range of media, Vernon Ah Kee, Ken Yonetani, and Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro showcased the breadth and pluralism of Australian contemporary art.

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2003: Patricia Piccinini transformed the Pavilion into a family home, a haven for native creatures never quite found in nature. Hyperreal and hypertactile down to the texture and smell of human skin and hair, her sculptures are as vulnerable and tender as they are disturbingly strange- and question on several levels what ‘normal’ is, what family is…and why some lives are valued more than others.

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1995: The selection of photographer Bill Henson for the Biennale’s centenary marked a bold stride into the heart of global arts culture. The first artist working in technological media to represent Australia, the mysterious chiaroscuro and breathtaking emotion of his ‘cut screen’ photographs rivaled Venezia’s magnificent renaissance art on its home turf, and set photography’s place as an historical yet continually experimental contemporary genre.

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1990: Australia brought Aboriginal art to an international audience for the first time. At once traditional and contemporary and critically compared to Rothko, Rover Thomas’ dot paintings centred on the Indigenous experience of the Australian desert landscape: a living presence, personal, familial, deeply spiritual and ingrained in the psyche.

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1954: Australia launched its Biennale career with expressive new ideas about Australian life and landscape. William Dobell’s accomplished portraits and Russell Drysdale’s haunting paintings of an inhospitable land were already well known to European audiences; but it was perhaps Sydney Nolan’s iconic paintings that cemented Australia’s international reputation: possessed of a unique culture, sophisticated and connected to Europe, but with its own stories to tell.

Published Il Tridente, 2015.

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