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The 15 Must-See Shows at the 2017 Venice Biennale

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The 15 Must-See Shows at the 2017 Venice Biennale
For more than a century, the art world has descended on Venice for its biennale, the world’s oldest arts festival and the model for countless others. This year’s installment promises to be no exception. The 57th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, which opens this weekend and runs through November 26, has Venice pulsing with art. National pavilions from 86 countries are spread out over the Giardini and Arsenale while blockbuster satellite art exhibits beckon at the city’s leading museums and foundations. We headed to Venice to find the best of the best of the 2017 Biennale and its offsite art exhibits. These are the 15 installations and shows not to miss this year.
By John Newton, AFAR Ambassador
Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia
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    1. British Pavilion
    Phyllida Barlow is known for creating sculptures on a monumental scale, and the British Pavilion can barely contain her installation folly. Classical columns of reclaimed wood soar into the building’s roof while other pieces made of timber, concrete, and fabric overwhelm their galleries. With their huge scale and varied materials, the works in folly are somehow both ominous and whimsical at once.
    Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia
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    2. Finnish Pavilion
    The Aalto Natives is simply unlike anything else you will see at the Biennale—an absurdist musical with catchy pop songs, a savior with a cardboard box for a head who refuses to be trapped in a world of virtual reality, and an animatronic talking egg. To describe it as a meditation on Finnish identity and the condition of contemporary mankind generally is true enough, but it doesn’t begin to capture the experience of this odd and wonderfully unique installation.
    Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia
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    3. French Pavilion
    French artist Xavier Veilhan is known for working in several different media—sculpture, film, painting—and so it’s fitting that his installation sits at the intersection of two arts: architecture and music. The interiors of his temporary recording studio evoke modernist design, but the pavilion comes to life when it hosts visiting musicians: More than 100 are scheduled to perform and record at the pavilion during the Biennale.
    Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia
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    4. German Pavilion
    Few pavilions have more buzz about them than the German one. Here, Anne Imhof has choreographed a performance, observed through a glass floor, featuring gaunt dancers and even two Doberman pinschers. The audience is unwittingly drawn into the routine, as they follow the movements of the performers beneath their feet. With a limited schedule of performances, this is one you will have to queue up for, but it is worth the wait.
    Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia
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    5. Japan Pavilion
    In Turned Upside Down, It’s a Forest, Japanese artist Takahiro Iwasaki subtly celebrates the connections between the island-city of Venice and the island-nation of Japan. A delicate wood model of the Itsukushima temple, and its mirror image below an imagined waterline, hangs suspended in the air. It, as well as the title of Iwasaki’s installation, evokes the Venetian legend that the entire city is built on a forest of trees.
    Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia
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    6. U.S. Pavilion
    For many artists and audiences, abstraction is often viewed as apolitical while realism is associated with socially engaged art. Los Angeles artist Mark Bradford’s paintings have long undermined that too-easy dichotomy. His installation for the U.S. Pavilion is a journey from hell to heaven, encouraging viewers to reconsider issues of power, control, and authority. An enormous, claustrophobia-inducing sculpture pushes viewers to the edge of a room, while a grim sense of decay pervades the central rotunda. The effect is intentionally unsettling.
    Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia
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    7. Transnational Pavilions
    Curator Christine Macel has created nine different “Transnational Pavilions” for this year’s Biennale that consider the role of art from a variety of perspectives—highlighting, for example, artists’ attempts to build communities, preserve craft traditions, and play the role of shamans. Some of Macel’s pavilions are located in the Giardini itself, but those at the Arsenale take advantage of the soaring spaces of the shipyard to powerful effect. The Earth pavilion (pictured; artwork by Michel Blazy) includes responses to environmental issues, while Colors provides a bright conclusion to Macel’s engaging overview of current contemporary art.
    Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia
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    8. Italy Pavilion
    Italy’s contribution to this year’s Biennale consists of three different works focused on the idea of magic. The first consists of what appears to be a large lunar outpost, or perhaps a scientific laboratory, devoted to preserving the relics of martyrs. This is followed by a video installation by Adelita Husni-Bey that envisions an imagined utopia. You’ll approach the third section of Italy’s pavilion through a dark forest of columns before ascending a staircase that lines the entire back wall of the space; we won’t spoil the magic by telling you what you’ll see when you reach the top of the steps.
    Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia
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    9. Mexico Pavilion
    Artist Carlos Amorales also enters the world of fantasy at the Mexico Pavilion with a collection of some 1,000 whistles that form the letters of an imagined alphabet, with each letter having a different tone. Musicians perform Amorales’s abstract score, hung on the surrounding walls, while a video recounts the tale of an immigrant family arriving in an unfamiliar city. While many artists approached the issue of migration in this year’s Biennale, Amorales’s film is particularly effective—and devastating.
    Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia
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    10. Offsite Exhibits You Need to See
    Robert Wilson: (pictured) American theater director and playwright Robert Wilson’s multi-room installation, the dish ran away with the spoon everything you can think of is true, is sponsored by Illy at the Magazzini del Sale. Through July 16

    Damien Hirst: After a long hiatus from the public eye, the British artist returns in a big, bold way in a satellite exhibit sponsored by the Pinault Foundation at two locations, the Punta della Dogana and the Palazzo Grassi. Through December 3

    Mark Tobey: The Peggy Guggenheim Collection has assembled the first retrospective in two decades of works by the abstract expressionist (and the second American to win the International Grand Prize at the Biennale, in 1958.) Through September 10

    Hieronymus Bosch: Six Venetian works by the Flemish artist are on display at the Palazzo Ducale and highlight the artist’s mastery of dream symbolism. Through June 4

    Michelangelo Pistoletto: Catch a vaporetto to the Basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore to see works from one of the central figures in the Arte Povera movement. A new installation, Suspended Perimeter — Love Difference, in the middle of the church is the centerpiece of the exhibition. Through November 26

    Philip Guston: The Gallerie dell’Accademia celebrates an American painter with a deep fondness for Venice. Through September 17
    Courtesy of Illy
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