Without a doubt, Biennale di Venezia, or the Venice Biennale, is the world’s most venerable contemporary art event. Drawing over half a million people to the floating city every other summer, it attracts both die-hard art lovers as well as curious travelers. The 2019 edition, the 58th, opened in mid-May and closes on November 24. But fear not if you haven’t made it yet, as fall is actually a fabulous time to visit… Temperatures have cooled, the summer crowds have gone, pavilions aren’t as packed, fellow attendees aren’t jostling for coveted opening party invitations—but the art remains. And what art there is. From huge installations to intricate paintings, the pieces on show are spectacular and well worth seeing with your own eyes. We’ve rounded up some must-know pieces of intel for you to plan a last-minute trip.
Venice Biennale History
Founded in 1895 as a way to honor Italian art, the Venice Biennale has remained the mother of all art events. (Many argue that today’s art fairs and exhibitions, like Miami Basel and Frieze, are modeled after what Venice figured out over 120 years ago.) But the works at the Biennale are not technically for sale. Rather, the primary goal here is to celebrate the importance of art in history while looking forward to the future of contemporary art.
Theme & Curator
Biennales in recent years have had themes, but this year’s curator, Ralph Rugoff, who is also Director of London’s Hayward Gallery, deviated and insisted on going theme-less. He did, however, offer a title, and a good one at that… “May You Live in Interesting Times,” is a reference to an age-old idiom regarding trying times, particularly as it relates to politics, government and current events. You’ll notice that many works of art on display have political overtures relating to such topics as the refugee crisis, Brexit, and the Trump administration.
The way that art is displayed at the Biennale might seem somewhat confusing at first. It’s easiest to think of the exhibitions in four parts:
Venice Biennale Exhibition
Considered the centerpiece of the event, the Biennale exhibition was curated by Rugoff himself and features works by 79 artists he hand picked. The pieces are split between the Giardini, a leafy park in the east of the city, and Arsenale, a former shipyard (the two venues are about a ten-minute walk from each other). The artists shown here work in a range of mediums, from paint and sculpture to photography and video installations, and come from across the globe. Must-see works: Danh Vo’s deeply personal installation; the disturbing work by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu; Liu Wei’s Microworld series of sculptures; and Alex Da Corte’s videos.
The 90 countries participating in the Biennale this year have their own pavilions, many of which are located in either the Giardini or Arsenale, while others are in palazzos around the city and on islands in the lagoon. A key difference here is that the artists displayed in their pavilions were picked by their home countries rather than Rugoff, and are set in various types of buildings, many of which are as interesting as the artworks themselves. Must-see pavilions: Ghana, whose earthen, rounded space was designed by architect David Adjaye; United States featuring works by Martin Puryea, an artist who looks at race; and Lithuania, a man-made, indoor beach installation with “sunbathers” who double as opera singers and spontaneously burst into song.
Various local and international organizations take the opportunity of the Biennale to put on exhibitions around the city. (Look for the red square with white lion logo as a symbol that it is an official part of the Biennale.) Must-see exhibitions: Lorenzo Quinn’s impossible-to-miss Building Bridges consisting of 50-foot-tall resin hands coming to peaks outside the Arsenale; the Edmund de Waal show at Scuola Canton; and the highly controversial shipwreck that held hundreds of migrants who perished when it sank, from artist Christoph Büchel.
Iconic Venice Institutions
Finally, but definitely not to be overlooked, are the shows hosted in the city’s most famous and revered monuments. Must-see stops: Gallerie dell’Accademia, showing works by George Baselitz; San Giorgio Maggiore featuring a magnificent sculpture by Sean Scully; the new Giudecca Art District; and the group show at Punta Della Dogana. The Frieze website offers an excellent review of shows to see.
The Venice vaparettos, or water buses, make stops at both Giardini and the Arsenale and your hotel concierge will be able to help arrange transportation to the further-afield venues. For some autonomy and to help you plot out your days, consider purchasing this guide and planner before you arrive. The show’s hefty catalogue can also be purchased online once you return home, but if you pick up a copy in Venice, you’ll be doubly grateful when Luggage Forward handles your suitcase’s trip home!
The Venice Biennale is open Tuesday through Sunday and closed on Mondays (except for November 18, 2019). The Giardini and Arsenale pavilions are open from 10am-6pm. Tickets to the Giardini and Arsenale areas are €25; exhibitions not held in these two areas offer free entry. All tickets can be purchased on site upon arrival, but advance ticket purchases are available online. Visitors can book guided tours through the Biennale website.
If you can’t make it to Venice before the end of November, rest assured that plans are undoubtedly already underway for the next iteration, to open in spring/summer 2021. Or, for another special event in the city, consider visiting during next year’s Carnivale.
(Photo credit: 58th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, May You Live in Interesting Times. Photo by Andrea Avezzù. Courtesy La Biennale di Venezia)