To be honest, some of La Biennale di Venezia kinda sucks. But Venice’s biannual international art festival spans back to 1895, consistently reinventing itself on odd years, so it can’t be perfect. Nonetheless it tops the list of reasons for returning to this fabled city of canals.
The Biennales’ permanent grounds are on a couple of Venice’s easternmost islands—a kilometer along the Grand Canal from Piazza San Marco (the medieval Times Square)—but there are free installations throughout the city and they’re rarely busy.
First: Where to Stay
If you’re not rich and prefer a genuinely Italian experience, stay in Cannaregio. (Venice does NOT need to be expensive, so ignore advice telling you to ride the train out to nearby cities in the evenings.) Utterly Venetian, Cannaregio is the last real neighbourhood in the centre of town with lots of permanent residents — mostly Venice is peopled during the day by commuters — conveniently close to the train station. The outer islands are lovely too and can be less expensive but also a pain to get to. Speaking of which . . .
How to Get Around
Walk or ride the vaporetto, the public waterbus service. It’s cheap, efficient and dependable; definitely the best way to see the city without bankrupting yourself. Buy tickets well in advance for the best value but be warned: the machines are complicated as hell.
Thinking of romance? Many gondolas seat four or more. So careful you don’t end up sharing yours with strangers. (Gondoliers English is flexible when loading and shoving off.) I’ve never been on a gondola, despite multiple visits to Venice. It’s more fun counting the pissed-off young women sitting face to face, while gormless boyfriends pathetically snuggle between awkward poses at the end of their selfie-sticks. Meanwhile everyone’s choking on fumes from my vaporetto.
Okay, Now the Exhibition
You don’t have to know anything about art to experience and enjoy the Biennale’s many installations. Countries from around the world have permanent pavilions and lots this year was highly political, which is fine if it’s beautiful.
I had four star moments this year. First was the Japanese exhibit, featuring thousands of keys dangling from boats, nets and the ceiling within a deeply red environment.
The Australian exhibit managed to be both angrily political and audaciously clever, while still requiring genuine talent to execute, all playing with the themes of masks and clocks.
And I had a proud hoser moment. The Canadian pavilion was uniquely, hilariously apolitical or, perhaps, anti-political.
It’s a one-way journey, beginning in a rural déppaneur, complete with lotto tickets, smokes, beers and shitty cottage foods. EXCEPT that all of those products are constructed and not real. The packages have lenticular coverings for sharper definition afar and on film, but quite fake up close. Cool! After walking through the back of the shop, you climb some stairs on a recently erected scaffold. The whole thing looks unfinished and that was clearly the point. I felt like I was in Buddy’s workshop in Bobcadgeon. Buddy built an insanely complicated suite of small sheet metal channels that take your coins for a 100m journey around a silly route and ultimately into a wall of screws where they accumulate. Pointless but fascinating, addictive and gradually impoverishing.
The Italian suffix “issimo” is the superlative form, akin to “est” in English. Canadassimo was the name of the exhibit. So it’s like our artists were making the most Canadian exhibit possible or maximum asses out of us. Either way, well done!
Or save the €25 & Take in the Free Exhibits
The Iranian exhibit—free—was better than any I paid for during both weekends I attended the Biennale this year. Call me demanding, but every piece required skill to create. I was gob-smacked by a series of huge hyper-real paintings called Instant Forever. At first, each piece looked like people waiting for a bus, all gazing calmly in the same direction. Pretty but so what?
Upon scrutiny the paintings seemed to change; hundreds of minute and parallel chinks of scraped paint became noticeable. A revelation hit. Instant Forever appeared to be executed (as it were) a microsecond after deep impact and one more before oblivion. Note the subjects all curiously looking towards the same source of light, some of them resolute, some fearful. Now look at the closeups, showing implications of monstrous sucking wind, which is about to evaporate everything.
When a static painting changes before your eyes, obviously you’re the one that’s changing. You can’t put a price on that, not just because it was free. Discussion of it went down well with friends at a cheap and delicious pizzeria back in Canareggio.
The 2015 iteration of the Biennale just ended on November 22 but another will launch in 2017.