Arts nexus Venice

Gondolas and the Italian navy. PHOTOS: SUPPLIED
Gondolas and the Italian navy. PHOTOS: SUPPLIED
Recently back from representing artist Yukhi Kihara at the Venice Biennale, Dunedin’s Milford Galleries owner Stephen Higginson takes us for a walk around the historic city and the event.

It is said Europe is drowning in its own history and nowhere is this more obvious and truer than in Venice itself. Part fact, part fiction, Venice is as much imagined as experienced. Its allure deepened and complicated by it being so obviously forever imperilled by the very water surrounding and defining it.

It sits in, and for centuries was isolated by, the shallow Venetian Lagoon: a conglomeration of 118 islands, separated by 177 canals, linked by over 400 bridges. Built quite literally to the water’s edge virtually everywhere, Venice’s roadways are the canals with absolutely everything brought in that way before being moved by the ubiquitous handcart along winding calles, narrowed further by the thronging and ambling, mesmerised multitudes of its beating heart: massing tourism.

Venice reeks of time passed and time present and it is this distinctive coalition which makes walking its uneven paths all the more unique and memorable.

The view from the Bridge of Sighs.
The view from the Bridge of Sighs.

The Republic of Venice began about 697. Slowly at first, its strategic location at the head of the Adriatic delivering to its doors the overland trade of Western Europe, Venice became the centre of maritime commerce linking Europe, the Byzantine Empire, the Middle East and Asia. It was the staging area for the Crusades and between the 9th and 14th centuries the world’s first international financial centre. It became the nexus of a powerful, autonomous mercantile empire which dominated Mediterranean commerce with 36,000 sailors, 3300 ships servicing the known world and monopolising all maritime trade.

Notably assertive and willing to trade in anything for a profit including pioneering the slave trade from Central (Slavic) Europe, the Venetian Empire developed a considerable appetite for cultural plunder which came to define its very character and ultimately its identity. In 828, relics of St Mark, the Evangelist, were repatriated from the sacking of Alexandria. The winged lion, the emblem of St Mark, quickly became its nautical pennant and completely synonymous with Venice. In 1204 the Fourth Crusade left Venice, purportedly for the Holy Land but instead subverted by backroom dealings with Venetian investors calling the shots it besieged and then sacked Constantinople. The famous four bronze horses overlooking St Mark’s were purloined then along with vast shiploads of gold, art and anything else worthy of plunder ending up in the engorged vaults of Christian Venice.

In the 15th century, it became the printing capital of the world and the paperback book was invented there, but Venice’s maritime and commercial monopoly abruptly ended with (Portuguese) Vasco da Gama’s voyage (1497-99) which opened a sea route to India and beyond via the Cape of Good Hope.

A very distinctive, diverse architectural style — termed Venetian Gothic — merging Byzantine and Ottoman influences developed. While it may not seem so, Venice is built primarily of brick on top of millions of alder, oak, larch and conifer tree piles, the absence of oxygen preserving the submerged wood. The lightness of brick was the engineering and architectural solution to the perpetual problem of subsidence for a densely built city atop alluvial silt. Clad in marble, Istrian limestone and the like, the fundamental utilitarian brick superstructure of Venice is largely hidden from immediate view.

As Venice’s commercial dominance slowly dissolved, its influence on art, architecture and literature conversely soared. A ceaseless parade of notables — Bellini, Casanova, Tintoretto, Titian, Vivaldi, Canaletto to name but a few — called Venice home down the centuries and more recently Stravinsky, Diaghilev, Ezra Pound and Joseph Brodsky. Its fame and unique identity inevitably led it to a new destiny of volume tourism, this completely replacing its earlier mercantile and nautical focus.

Lorenzo Quinn Building.
Lorenzo Quinn Building.

Venice Biennale

Self-aware that its art and architecture and very existence made it unique, the Venice Biennale was pioneered in 1895. It quickly became acknowledged the world over as "the Olympics of the Art World". The Venice Film, Dance and Music Festivals, Architectural Biennale, Venice Carnival and others were progressively added, repeating the successful marketing technique of internationally significant art-focused events to lure a constant stream of affluent visitors into its embrace.

The Venice Biennale 2022 is a gargantuan affair and surprisingly uneven: featuring 82 national pavilions, 40 official collateral events, and a sprawling conglomeration featuring over 200 artists titled "The Milk of Dreams", curated by Cecelia Alemani.

New Zealand-Samoan artist YukhiKihara with actress Tilda Swinton.
New Zealand-Samoan artist YukhiKihara with actress Tilda Swinton.
The opening day of the Vernissage week is a ceaseless parade of luxury labels, coats worn across shoulders and over-sized sunglasses with legions of women spouting enhanced lips like cartoon-fish. While some just seem to be in a hurry to be somewhere else, there are many who actually stop and look at what is on the walls and inhabiting the spaces.

The Venice Biennale takes place in two primary locations — the Arsenale and the Giardini — and in more isolated venues (of varying description) around the island as well. Yuki Kihara, representing New Zealand, is located in the Arsenale. The interest in her work is clearly substantial with huge attendance, institutional approaches and major feature articles appearing in the likes of the Guardian, Time, ArtNewspaper, CNN, and so on.

Close by is the Malta Pavilion (see It is a dark immersive space with a caged kinetic sculpture operating: molten steel droplets are being sequentially and randomly spat into seven basins of water. Referencing the beheading of St John the Baptist, this work uses the exhilaration and brilliance of falling light and the patter of sound as the liquid steel enters the water to build very profound sensations. A few doors along, the Chilean Pavilion (see is revealed to be not an art project at all: it is an ecological plea with spiritualist overtones, presenting a sphagnum moss pond as a metaphor for the loss of wetlands and the native peoples displaced there. Next is the surprising Slovenia Pavilion (see and Marko Jaske. Surprising because it's actually painting (with a surrealist agenda) where animals and strange creatures dominate over humans, this in a Biennale which is primarily filled with diverse media and cross-disciplinary work.

At the Italian Pavilion (see, one of the most consistent narratives present across many of the VB2022 exhibitions achieves perhaps its clearest expression: the subject is the archaeology of (recent) time. In this extensive example, which includes a lonely apartment with a crucifix above a worn bed, an early industrial factory is recreated with machines arranged row on row. If this is a destiny, it is revealed as soulless and exceptionally bleak.

The same narrative is evidenced in the British Pavilion (in the Giadini) and Sonya Boyce’s exhibition (see, curiously awarded the Golden Lion Award. Combining video, collage, music and sculpture, and a documentary technique, she is the first black woman to represent the United Kingdom. The judges commended Boyce for raising "important questions of rehearsal" and "in working collaboratively with other black women" adding "she raises a plenitude of silenced stories" .

Virtually next door, traversing very similar material and far more convincing in its reach and breadth of delivery is the French Pavilion (see which is transformed into a film studio and a screening room. Zineb Sedira blurs the boundaries between fiction and reality, between personal and collective memory. There is a compelling unity of humanistic purpose in Sedira’s autobiographical narrative as she explores the tensions and promises of freedom for an expatriate of Algeria in 1960s-70s France.

Simone Leigh’s 'Brickhouse''.
Simone Leigh’s 'Brickhouse''.
The outstanding exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia is undoubtedly Simone Leigh’s "Sovereignty" (see Representing United States, Leigh’s large-scale sculptural works comingle and hybridise disparate histories, architecture and the female body. Using the artistic traditions of Africa, ritual performance and themes of self-determination, Leigh builds an "architecture of possibility". She collapses time and simultaneously explores scale while abstracting the female body and evoking it as architecture. Convincing and anthropomorphic, Leigh’s meditative, observant works exude spiritual life and seem to possess great (interior) knowledge.

Elsewhere, politics encroach: the Russian Pavilion is poignantly and aptly empty, whereas the Ukraine Pavilion announces the beginning of each day with an air-raid siren.

All across Venice there are what is termed "collateral exhibitions". These include well-known Tony Cragg (on Murano) who regularly exhibits in Auckland, the exceptional "Homo Faber" (on San Giorgio Maggiore) which explores with considerable efficacy the importance of artisanship, the only regret being that an exhibition of such curatorial brilliance and thematic importance opened for less than a month and closed on May 1. The hyper-realistic, disarming sculptures of Carole Feuerman are dotted about Venice with a solo show also in San Marco. At Peggy Guggenheim there is an exhibition focused on surrealism and magic although it is almost impossible to view works properly because of the small and narrow environment with an inattentive audience rushing past all the time.

Carole Feuerman’s Justice and Serenity.
Carole Feuerman’s Justice and Serenity.

The vigorous, perplexing Marlene Dumas is on show at Palazzo Grassi and Anish Kapoor in two major exhibitions, one at Venice’s most important public gallery Accademia (see, the other at Palazzo Manfrin, the home of the Anish Kapoor Foundation. While there is little doubting Kapoor’s singular importance, his emblematic use of light-absorbing black pigment reveals him to be an optical magician with sculptures appearing two-dimensional front on but suddenly becoming three-dimensional as soon as the viewing angle is changed. This mastery of deceptive perception is also amply demonstrated by the huge, elegant and bulbous Pregnant White Within Me (2022) which emerges from a wall of the very same colour something like a perfectly formed breast from a body. Where does it begin?


Just off St Mark Square is a joint showing of (primarily) small works by Lucio Fontana and Anthony Gormley which promises more than it really delivers, although it does feature some very intriguing recent nylon stick models and an early characteristic, resolute figure Rise (1983-4) which demonstrates why Gormley has emerged as a significant figure in contemporary art.

Biennale facts

• The 59th International Art Exhibition runs from  April 23 to  November 27, 2022

• It is curated by Cecilia Alemani, the first Italian woman to hold the position

• It features 213 artists from 58 countries. Of those, 180 are participating for the first time in the International Exhibition.

• Of the 1433  works and objects on display, 80 are new projects conceived specifically for the Biennale Arte.

Venice landmarks 

St Mark’s Basilica

Venice is replete with countless remarkable buildings, over 200 palaces and 137 churches with St Mark’s Basilica arguably the most significant and certainly the most popular. (A word to the wise: a guided tour in the evening is the best way to see and experience it and to avoid the crowds and queues). St Mark’s Campanile is the tallest structure in Venice and the view from it across the disordered roofline of the city is compelling and very informative.

Doges Palace

Detail in St Mark’s Square.
Detail in St Mark’s Square.

Alongside St Mark’s is the Doges Palace where the Council of 10 reigned supreme, its prisons and dungeons awaiting their constant displeasures and numerous vengeances. The walk across the Bridge of Sighs (which first entered my imagination in 1967 virtue of Itchycoo Park by the Small Faces) is a journey where the savagery of its past is glimpsed and silence forever roars.

The Doges Palace is one of the true landmarks of Venice. Formerly the Doges residence and seat of Venetian government, it is a masterpiece of Gothic architecture, and filled with countless treasures. Everything about it being testimony to the wealth and power Venice once wielded.

In the Doges Palace, inhabiting the Palazzo Ducale is a suite of astounding, terrifying, and beautiful new works by Anselm Keifer, titled "These writings when burned will cast a little light" (see . These 14 floor-to-ceiling paintings incorporate materials as varied as zinc, lead, gold, clothes, shopping trolleys, submarines, sticks. Keifer’s breath-taking combination of paint and applied materials enables these works — openly acknowledging the 1600th anniversary of the founding of Venice — to vacillate back and forth between pictorial perspective and sculptural space. These multi-layered paintings are about the very particular and chequered history of Venice. Keifer converges the past and present into a frightening whole, where Venice becomes a portentous parable and the metaphor of all things so imperilling mankind and the world today. Staggering in scale and achievement, it is surely one of — if not the — most important exhibition delivered this century in both its narrative powers and artistic accomplishment.

Danieli Hotel

A few doors along from the Doges Palace is the prestigious Danieli Hotel. And it was there overlooking the lagoon in 1945 after the NZ troops had liberated Venice from the Germans that General Freyberg based the Officers Club. In front of it and all along the waterfront and in St Marks Square are stacks of raised platforms, ready to be utilised when the next high tide floods in (usually from October to late winter) as everyone knows it surely must. This occurrence now so common is known as the Aqua Alta. And it’s just a case of "when, not if" any more for a city which is sinking and a world where water is relentlessly rising.






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