Part wunderkammer, part memory palace, this year’s 55th Venice Biennale is an introspective investigation into contemporary art. Through November 24, the Biennale will dance around the Renaissance as an “Encyclopedic Palace,” a conceptual skyscraper and memory palace based on a 1955 model by Italian-born artist Marino Auriti.
The Encyclopedic Palace is all about involvement within its exhibition of artwork by 158 artists and 88 country pavilions. After walking through the two main poles of the Biennale, the Arsenale and Biennale Gardens, you can’t help but hear and even feel the art. Yes, there’s video art, collectionism, outsider art, and lots of water/nature installations, but this year, performance and sound take the prize. Golden Lion recipient Tino Sehgal’s live artwork lingers almost unnoticeably in the Central Pavilion where two or three persons softly sing, hum and move together on the floor of the 2ndgallery. The Romanian pavilion is a tableau blanc that is “painted” by performers who cleverly act out paintings and sculpture from past Biennales.
The Polish Pavilion’s double bronze bells ring and reverberate on the hour for almost 20 minutes while Bottari, Korea’s quiet spatial-sound installation is like a spaceship of tranquility. At the Arsenale, Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson’s SS Hangover floats by the former shipyard with its live orchestra on repeat every day. And in the Castello area, the Mexico Pavilion takes the spectator through a sound journey in a deconsecrated church.
What is most striking about that this year’s Biennale is that even though the overall attitude is pensive and perhaps more toned down in previous years, there is an air of humor and fun. Kudos to Russian Pavilion’ Danaë by Vadim Zakharov a reinterpretation of the Greek myth where gold coins rain down on expectant female viewers and a well-dressed man sits on a saddle on the ceiling beam. And in a lovely palazzo just around the corner from St. Mark’s Square, New Zealand’s Front Door Out Back are a series of rooms decorated by artist Bill Cuthbert’s beautiful neon installations.
Curator Massimiliano Gioni is intent on collection. The central pavilion at the Biennale Gardens and the 16 galleries at the Arsenale are room after room of well-curated collections, like the salon-style Cindy Sherman gallery (artwork chosen by the artist) or the eerie dolls of Morton Bartlett in the Central Pavilion.
Ironically, Venice is not a floating bi-annual gallery party. It has become Italy’s most modern city—at least for contemporary art. Foundations-cum-contemporary art centers are making way for a new Venetian renaissance. French collector and mega-businessman Francois Pinault reinvented Palazzo Grassi into a decadent palace of contemporary art on the Grand Canal, and more recently a second contemporary art gallery, Punta della Dogana, designed by Tadao Ando, on Dorsoduro. Throughout the Grand Canal to the Lagoon, foundations like Palazzo Bembo, Fondazione Querini Stampalia and Fondazione Prada’s Ca’ Corner are featuring contemporary multi-artist exhibitions. Perhaps what best sums up Venice’s attitude toward contemporary is the colossal statue entitled "Breath" by artist Marc Quinn of Alison Lapper which sits near the Fondazione Cini on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore—expectant and ready for more.