When the 56th Venice Art Biennale opens to the public on May 9, visitors will be able to tour submissions from 89 countries spread across the city, where some of the world's top curators have chosen ambitious, often highly political and socially oriented artworks. The big question is whether anyone outside the art world will care.
While other facets of the global art scene can attract broad curiosity—the auctions for their insane prices, the art fairs for their giant parties, the gallery openings, simply because anyone in the vicinity can attend—Venice's Biennale presents a much higher bar for entry. For starters, it's difficult to claim that this is for the citizens of the city, who've dwindled to around 60,000. There’s also the difficult subject matter that many of these pavilions address, occasionally in a manner that, if we’re being generous, is less than crystal clear.
But those hurdles come with the territory and shouldn't overshadow an event that does, at the end of the day, deserve the public's attention. By grappling with concepts and issues—climate change, genocide, income inequality, religious freedom, race relations—many of the Biennale's artists offer a welcome alternative to an art world dominated by $130 million sculptures and modernist paintings locked away in Swiss freeports.
This isn't to say that the Biennale is one big Oxfam appeal. Far from it, and in fact the Biennale is prized by art world insiders for launching trends (and artists) that eventually trickle into museums, galleries, and auction houses. The following are 10 of the most promising pavilions, installations, and events—see them in Venice through Nov. 22.
Christoph Büchel for the Icelandic Pavilion
Büchel, an artist represented by the prestigious Hauser & Wirth gallery, is turning the ancient church of Santa Maria della Misericordia into a mosque for the Icelandic pavilion. Titled THE MOSQUE: The First Mosque in the Historic City of Venice, Büchel worked with the city’s Muslim community, which, until now, has never been permitted to build a public mosque in Venice. While organizers emphasize that this is an art project / “ongoing place of activity for the Venice Muslim Community” and not, technically, a public mosque, it will be interesting (to say the least) to see how this plays out in the public sphere.
Group Show, Republic of Armenia
In a monastery on the tiny island of San Lazzaro, the Republic of Armenia has organized what amounts to a giant memorial to the Armenian genocide, which has its 100-year anniversary this year. The show, dedicated to 16 contemporary artists from the Armenian diaspora, is titled “Armenity,” which press materials claim “implies the notion of displacement and territory, justice and reconciliation, ethos and resilience.” It’s set to be a powerful, somber installation, which will most likely go over poorly with the Turkish government, which officially denies that the violence was genocide, when as many as 1.5 million Armenians were massacred.
Vik Muniz’s Lampedusa
Muniz, a commercially successful artist known as much for his auction prices as the art school he built in one of Rio’s favelas, has crafted a scale-model, 45-foot-long (functioning) paper boat (actually made out of wood) emblazoned with a newspaper article from October 4, 2013, that details the drowning death of migrants near the Italian island of Lampedusa. It has already been a lightning rod for controversy—expect it to pop up everywhere on social media very, very soon.
"Proportio" at the Palazzo Fortuny
Nothing is particularly controversial about the upcoming Propitio show at the Palazzo Fortuny, a gothic mansion-turned exhibition space . But it’s backed by Axel Vervoordt, the powerhouse art dealer/decorator/curator, so you know that the mix of Old Master paintings, contemporary art, archeological artifacts, and whatever else he’s drummed up will set trends for years to come.
Joan Jonas, U.S. Pavilion
The adjective most often used to describe Jonas, who turns 79 this year, is “pioneering,” and in a sense that’s accurate—she was at the forefront of the video and performance art movements in the 1960s and 1970s and is credited as a leader of feminist art. But she’s kept going in the 40 years since she was a “pioneer,” and in the U.S. pavilion, Jonas will create a totally new installation that includes drawings, video, objects, and sound.
Céleste Boursier-Mougenot, French Pavilion
Boursier-Mougenot is probably best known for his sonic installations, whereby he turns everyday objects and sounds (car engines, dripping water) into something musical. The practice itself isn’t so remarkable (beauty in the everyday) but Boursier-Mougenot has a keen sense of spectacle—at his Barbican show in London, for instance, guitars mounted in pits of sand were plucked by live songbirds. So while the release for the French pavilion is opaque—he plans to “transform the French Pavilion into an oneiric and organic island”—you can be sure that it will be something wild.
Ursula von Rydingsvard in the Giardino della Marinaressa
Not every installation is sponsored by a country. The Yorkshire Sculpture Park in Yorkshire, U.K., will install a series of six massive artworks by New York's Ursula von Rydingsvard. The abstract, bronze artworks will sit for the next six months in the lovely, open-air park that just so happens to be the main walking route between San Marco and the Giardini.
Group Show, United Arab Emirates Pavilion
In a refreshing break from most countries’ single-artist shows, the Princess Hoor al Qasimi, president and director of the Sharjah Art Foundation, has organized a retrospective “1980–Today: Exhibitions in the United Arab Emirates” that addresses the historical scope of the UAE art scene. Al Qasimi (her father is the Emir of Sharjah) is a fixture in the art world; she’s on the board of MoMA PS1, the International Biennial Association, Gwangju, the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin, and others, which means you can bet she’s corralled a string of ultrahigh-quality work from UAE artists.
Simon Denny for New Zealand
Berlin-based, New Zealand-born Simon Denny is having an art-world moment. His consumer-product driven, hyperslick art and sculpture is currently the subject of a solo exhibition at MoMA PS1 in New York and will make up the content of two installations at the Biennale. The first is at Marco Polo airport (which New Zealand claims is a first), and the second will be in the Monumental Rooms in the Biblioteca Nationale Marciana in Piazza San Marco. Both deal with digital information in a “post-Snowden world,” so get ready for a tech-heavy emphasis on surveillance.
Maria Papadimitriou, Greek Pavilion
And now for something completely different. Maria Papadimitriou, an Athens-based artist, has recreated the interior of a taxidermy shop in the small city of Volos, in Greece. Titled "Why Look at Animals? AGRIMIKÁ," the show has the courtesy of asking the question so that you don’t have to. Whether there’s an answer remains to be seen, but this element of discovery, hit-or-miss installations, and plain weirdness is part of what makes the Biennale so much fun.