Diary of a Venice Champion

A Biennale week is to be savoured and anticipated and every two years I launch into Venice with vigour and a vengeance. In addition to my usual mad itinerary, this year I joined the “Champions”, a group of patrons formed by the Australia Council. They offered a week of special events around the opening of the 58th La Biennale di Venezia that granted privileged views and cultural experiences for many things otherwise unseen.

Here are just 5 of the many wonderful moments I had the good fortune to experience during my Spring Biennale visit.

  1. Brion Sanctuary

Happy to break from the madding crowd, I chose the Australia Council programme’s option to visit the tiny town of Vito di Altivole, Treviso with a band of merry and like-minded Champions. Here, set against the backdrop of the Dolomite mountains and nestled surreptitiously into the fields of the Po valley was Carlo Scarpa’s exceptional Brion Tomb and Sanctuary situated within the grounds of the local cemetery.

Built during the 1970s as a commission for the Brion family, founders of an electronics empire, its suite of distinctively designed buildings include a striking chapel and a meditation pavilion. It is said that Scarpa wanted to make “a certain kind of architecture that could emanate a sense of formal poetry”1 . Scarpa thoroughly succeeded through his melange of Japanese and modernist influences, fluently and masterfully expressed in concrete with a hint of copper and ceramic.

The Brion sanctuary is an impressive architectural essay that gently envelops attendees with a tangible stillness casting its indelible presence as a temple of contemplation.


2. Glasstress

A must-see during the Biennale is the Glasstress project by glass-master Adriano Berengo. I never fail to delight in the unexpected creative forms that are forged in this collaboration between Berengo and renowned contemporary artists.

For the first time these ambitious visions were displayed in the industrial premises of the Berengo Studio on Murano amongst old glass furnaces and factory spaces. The Champions were given a ringside seat, previewing the Glasstress exhibition with a private tour by curator Koen Vanmechelen, who unveiled 10-year anniversary highlights by Tracey Emin, alongside new work by Erwin Wurm and Ai Weiwei.

  1. Giardini

The Champions had a secret weapon in the battle against FOMO and fatigue; close to hand were curator led tours to take them to Giardini, the heart of the Biennale.  Amongst those sharing their considerable intellectual prowess were institutional luminaries including Geelong’s Jason Smith, QAGOMA’s Geraldine Kirrihi Barlow and AGSA’s Leigh Robb. Mirka Mora’s angels spread their wings all the way to Venice as Heide’s Kendrah Morgan was my guide, enriching us all with her acute insights. The angels must have been smiling too as Kendrah brought us to the pavilion of Mirka’s compatriot, France’s Laure Provost’s who shares a similar cheeky humour and quirky sensibility!

  1. Arsenale

This year the Curatorial Director, Ralph Rugoff, chose the approach “May You Live in Interesting Times” in bringing together the work of 130 artists across the spectrum of video to installation to painting and performance. Rugoff deviated from his predecessors through his idea of showing the same artists in both the Giardini’s Central Pavilion and the Arsenale, creating a powerful echo and resonance within this most visceral of Biennale experiences.

Artists with African heritage staked a claim as being amongst the most striking curatorial participants: Njideka Akunyili Crosby was a breakout star bringing the focus back to painting  and a buzz surrounded Henry Taylor’s  (USA) raw narratives whilst Arthur Jafa won the artist’s Golden Lion for his installation and video, The White Album.  The Ghana pavilion, also situated within the Arsenale, was a clear favourite amongst critics, featuring the magnificent metal seal (bottle caps) wall installations of El Anatsui, the absorbing video of John Akomfrah and portraits by the nation’s first female photographer Felicia Abban.  Beyond Ghana, there were other notable works featured in the national pavilions in the Arsenale, such as Jitish Kallat’s cascading fog projection, Covering Letter 2012 situated in the Indian Pavilion. Then there was Eva Rothschild in the Ireland pavilion…and the list goes on. There is truly so MUCH to see…its richer than the magic and flavours of Messina!

  1. Museo Fortuny

I am not able to leave La Serenissima without a pilgrimage to my all-time favourite house museum, Palazzo Fortuny. Here, on the first floor, a cabinet of curiosities awaits where no natural light passes through the suite of rooms that are covered from end-to end in Mariano Fortuny’s celebrated hand-printed textiles from the early 20th century. Each visit to this sensory realm is never the same.

On this occasion, the versatile and remarkable talents of the polymath, Mariano Fortuny and those of his artist father formed the central exhibition The Fortuny: A Family Story. Orientalist paintings, portraits, classic canal scenes and Symbolist narratives were punctuated with examples of Fortuny’s innovative clothing designs expressed through his elegant and timeless fabrics.

Sophie Ullin – Art Advisor
0407 360 513 / the_artprism
Author of The Venice Book: A Personal Guide to the City’s Art & Culture, Thames + Hudson