Blocks of ice from the Bahamas, cardboard bed clothes from Iraq and a thumping Vatican heartbeat will help the 2013 Venice Biennale
attempt to capture the “unruly” world of art.
The rich diversity of unexpected sights and sounds at the world's largest non-commercial art exhibition are partly a result of sheer numbers, with shows from 88 countries installed across the canal city in time for this week's opening.
More than 150 artists are taking part in the Biennale, which has been running since 1895 and continues to attract artists, art-lovers and collectors from across the planet to Venice.
“Every two years we try to capture the world - and then the world is unruly,” said Biennale curator Massimiliano Gioni.
Ten countries - including the Vatican and the Bahamas - are participating for the first time this year with their own dedicated pavilions in a fair that runs until November.
“The national pavilions are fantastic because they give us a glimpse of the diversity of the world...a world of exceptions,” said Gioni.
The Holy See's pavilion, in the Arsenale or old shipyard site, is a far cry from the Renaissance masterpieces of the Vatican.
While the three rooms are based on the relatively orthodox themes of “creation”, “uncreation” and “recreation”, the use of video and a pervasive thumping heartbeat soundtrack add a thoroughly modern element to the installation.
Another Biennale newcomer, the Bahamas pavilion holds a surprise for anyone who was expecting the warmth and sunshine of a Caribbean island.
Nassau-born artist Tavares Strachan's show includes a 14-hour video of his recent trip to the North Pole and two freezer pods containing blocks of ice - one of which he brought back from the Pole and another made to a specific formula so that it would resemble polar ice as closely as possible.
“I grew up on an island that was 24 miles [38.6 km] by seven miles. It was tiny. So if you got on a bike and you started riding, you hit the edge and you were like...'what else am I going to do?' And so exploration for me was kind of a natural part of the way I thought about the world,” said Strachan.
The Encyclopedic Palace
Gioni themed the 55th iteration of the Venice show on the “Encyclopedic Palace”, a design filed at the U.S. Patent Office by eccentric Italian-American Marino Auriti in 1955 for an imaginary museum, 137 stories high, that would house all wordly knowledge in one place.
Auriti's ambition was destined never to be realized, but the Biennale has set a more realistic goal, giving an introduction to art which is rarely seen abroad.
“I hope that we are going to be an introduction to Iraqi art,” said Iraqi artist Furat al Jamil, one of 11 artists involved in the Iraqi pavilion which is set in a traditional Venetian apartment overlooking the grand canal.
“These are samples. Modest samples but genuine and very sincere,” as she showed her “Honey Pot”, a sculpture made of suspended honeycomb frames dripping into a broken antique pot to convey sweet melancholy and the possibility of healing.
Furat's colleagues Yaseen Wami and Hashim Taeeh have furnished the opulent apartment's bedroom entirely in cardboard, right down to the bedclothes. Cartoonist Abdul Raheem Yassir's politically charged illustrations hang from the walls, near Jamal Penjweny's series of photographs “Saddam is Here”.
“It's an opening up of communication between this very fragile developing art world and the rest of the world,” said Iraq Pavilion curator Jonathan Watkins.
Many exhibitors have also come to Venice unofficially or without the support of their national governments, to bask in the light the art world shines on the Biennale.
Chinese dissident artist Ai Wei Wei is represented twice in Venice this year, despite being unable to attend in person. His mother came to Venice in his place to unveil his new piece, a series of sculptures called S.A.C.R.E.D depicting his detention in 2011.
The Venetian setting brings another dimension to Ai's new piece, said art gallery director Greg Hilty, who collaborated on the project installed at the Church of St Anthony.
“If you saw this in a museum you would appreciate the minimalism, you would appreciate the politics,” Hilty said. “But the church connects it to the stages of the cross, it connects to the lives of the saints, it gives it a more universal story or meaning.”
The Biennale continues to attract artists and viewers partly because of its own history, says Jeremy Deller, the Turner prize-winning artist chosen to represent Britain.
“This is as good as it gets really, for an artist,” said Deller, whose show starts with two huge scrolls inscribed with lyrics of a song by British singer David Bowie hung either side of the main door.