Sometimes called the “Olympics of the art world,” the Venice Biennale is more than 120 years old and draws over 500,000 visitors to view new work by artists representing their home countries. Alongside the main show are numerous satellite exhibitions, parties, performances, and all the bustling energy of the Italian tourism hub.
It’s massive, international, overwhelming, and one of the most talked about art events of every odd-numbered year.
The 2019 Venice Biennale—officially named the 58th International Art Exhibition—is curated by Ralph Rugoff, director of London’s Hayward Gallery. Titled “May You Live In Interesting Times,” it will run from May 11 to November 24. The title is inspired by British MP Sir Austen Chamberlain’s 1930s evocation of the phrase, based on a supposed ancient Chinese curse, and his observation that “there is no doubt that the curse has fallen on us. . . . We move from one crisis to another. We suffer one disturbance and shock after another.”
Rugoff saw an echo of this statement in the 2019 climate, with the endless crises in the news cycle and interconnectedness of the world. He states that this year’s edition “will not have a theme per se, but will highlight a general approach to making art and a view of art’s social function as embracing both pleasure and critical thinking.” (The Biennales started having themes in 1972, so not having one is a radical move.) He selected 79 contemporary artists to present new work in two exhibition sites, which comprises the main exhibition of the Biennale—and is different from each country’s national exhibition. Read on for details, and everything else you need to know about the Venice Biennale.
Where does the Biennale take place?
The national pavilions are centered in two locations just off the typical Venice tourist path: Giardini and Arsenale. Giardini, at the eastern edge of Venice, is where the Biennale started back in 1895—as the Esposizione internazionale d’arte di Venezia—and now features around 30 permanent pavilions. Surrounded by lush parkland, the pavilions include structures by leading architects like Alvar Aalto, who designed Finland’s pavilion with a prefabricated plan in 1956, and Josef Hoffmann’s fusion of the classic and modern for Austria’s pavilion in 1934.
In the northeast, Arsenale is a former production and shipyard site that hosts more than 20 national pavilions. Ghana’s pavilion, by architect David Adjaye—the man behind the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.—will debut at Arsenale this year. Other countries are exhibiting in palazzos around Venice or on islands in the Venetian Lagoon.
Other affiliated events (aka collateral events) and exhibitions pop up in galleries, historic spaces, and venues around the city—all identified by the Biennale’s symbol, a red square with a white lion. Other less official happenings are timed to draw art-going crowds.
Each participating nation has a pavilion, but the nature of that structure can vary. The pavilions at the Giardini are permanent (they’re also used during events like the Venice Architecture Biennale). Each is managed by their respective countries, who choose the artist to represent them at each Biennale, and was likely built by an architect representing that nation.
Countries can also move around. When Switzerland left its national pavilion for the new one in 1952, Egypt took over the old building. Due to space limitations and the costs of construction and maintenance, new pavilions aren’t built frequently. A newer addition is Australia’s boxy pavilion, designed by Denton Corker Marshall and completed in 2015 (a rebuild of the country’s previous pavilion). Countries at the Arsenale site, however, usually use an existing building as a temporary space.
How much does the Biennale cost?
Regular tickets are 25 euros (US$28) and can be bought online in advance. The ticket includes entrance to both Giardini and Arsenale on two different days, which don’t have to be consecutive. Students can get discounts. Biennale Cards for the whole length of the exhibition are also available, ranging from 65 euros (US$73) to 2,000 euros (US$2,245), for a high-roller limited-edition card that includes a guided preopening tour, invitation to the gala, and other perks. Outside of the two main exhibition areas, many of the other events around Venice are free.
How do I get around?
Public transportation is a good choice as both Giardini and Arsenale have their own stops on the Venice vaporetto, or water bus. Once inside, be ready for walking in between the pavilions and exhibition spaces, and wear comfortable footwear for the gravel paths at Giardini. Accessibility improvements to the historic sites now include ramps, elevators, and stair lifts.
What’s new for 2019?
Along with the first presentation by Ghana, there are a few other newcomers among the participating nations. The Dominican Republic will also have its own national pavilion for the first time. Algeria, Madagascar, Malaysia, and Pakistan are making their first appearances at the Biennale. The financing of participation varies (usually some combination of government and private support), and artist selections are made by individual countries. Another notable first is happening at the Russian Pavilion, which is represented by St. Petersburg’s illustrious State Hermitage Museum. It’s the first time that an institution, rather than an artist, is being featured in a Biennale pavilion. The presentation will include art by film director Alexander Sokurov and theater artist Alexander Shishkin-Hokusai.
Also new is the Giudecca Art District, which will involve 11 galleries, a large garden for outdoor installations, and, for the run of the Biennale, pavilions for Nigeria, Estonia, and Iceland. Centered on the island of Giudecca across the Grand Canal from Venice, this district is designed as the city’s first permanent art quarter, with ongoing exhibitions and artists in residence to support creativity beyond the Biennale. Several notable art galleries are part of the initiative, such as Chiesa delle Zitelle, Starak Foundation, and Studiolacitta. One of the inaugural showings will feature a video by Aleksandra Karpowicz, member of the all-women October! Art Collective.
A change for Venice visitors this year is the new tourist tax of 3 euros for day-trippers. It’s scheduled to go into effect on May 1, right before the opening of the Biennale, and is aimed at raising funds to maintain the heavily trafficked city. The tax is typically incorporated in whatever method you use to get into the city, which might include airfare or train ticket.
Who is exhibiting this year?
Being selected for the Biennale is a prestigious opportunity, and the 79 exhibiting artists in the main show include big names like George Condo, Christian Marclay, Julie Mehretu, Carol Bove, Danh Vo, Jimmie Durham, and Teresa Margolies. Still, this year’s Biennale is tighter than the previous two in terms of the number of artists represented. Amid the 91 national participations are solo shows and group exhibitions highlighting the countries’ established and emerging creators. Martin Puryear is exhibiting in the United States Pavilion, and his installation is organized by the Madison Square Park Conservancy, which recently hosted his 40-foot-tall wooden sculpture in New York City. Cathy Wilkes, who incorporates domestic objects into her sculptural figures, is exhibiting in the British Pavilion, while Roman Stańczak is turning an airplane inside-out for the Poland Pavilion.
Among the more playful installations are Nida Art Colony’s beach for Lithuania in which performers lounge in bathing suits on the sand while visitors look down from above, and the surreal cave of fluorescent hair constructed by Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir (aka Shoplifter) for Iceland. Others offer an artistic response to their country’s past or contemporary issues. Serwan Baran, exhibiting for Iraq, is presenting a monumental painting reflecting on the violence in his country’s recent history of war, and for the first time Canada is presenting work by Inuit artists in its pavilion with an exhibition by the film collective Isuma. And after eight years away, India’s return to the Biennale features a Gandhi-themed exhibition with work by artists including Nandalal Bose, Atul Dodiya, and Rummana Hussain.
Besides the main exhibition and pavilions, what else is there to see?
There are concurrent exhibitions and events around Venice, some throughout the Biennale’s run, others for a more limited time. Particularly interesting are the temporary exhibitions in the city’s historic spaces. The Los Angeles–based MAK Center for Art and Architecture is presenting a site-specific installation by Todd Williamson featuring large-scale canvases on the decayed plaster and brick of the Chiesa di Santa Maria Della Pieta’s chapel. Edmund de Waal is exhibiting ceramics and books by exiled authors in a 16th-century synagogue in the Jewish Ghetto, a section of the city established in 1516 when it was decreed that Jews would live separately from Christians in Venice. The Church of San Lorenzo, which opened as the Ocean Space arts and ocean research center this March after years of being closed to the public, is hosting an exhibition by Joan Jonas looking at deep-sea life and the ecological precariousness of the seas.
Between exhibitions, visitors should look at the water, where they may spot boats with red sails instead of the usual family crests of Venetian sailors. These are part of artist Melissa McGill’s “Red Regatta,” which uses this color to draw attention to Venice’s environmental issues like rising sea levels. Although the piece is ongoing throughout the Biennale, the highlights are four regatta events (two in May, one in June, and another in September).
When’s the best time to visit? And for how long?
The opening of the Biennale in May is its busiest time, with the greatest number of parties and events full of collectors, critics, curators, and artists there to see and be seen. The crowds thin by early summer (at least, as much as they can for Venice) and the lines for the pavilions are shorter. However, the heat from June through August can be intense, making those walks between pavilions a bit sweaty. Autumn, near the Biennale’s close in November, can be a more relaxed experience. Also, keep in mind that many of the exhibitions close on Mondays, aside from select dates (May 13, September 2, and November 18).
It would take many days of aggressive art-viewing to see all the Biennale offerings. For the average visitor, a couple of days is enough to explore a few pavilions and installations, and maybe catch the water bus to a different, quieter island. The Venice Biennale lasts for six months, but institutions like the Museum of Glass on the island of Murano and the Lace Museum on the island of Burano celebrate the heritage of art in the Floating City year-round.