There are plenty of Canadians at the Venice Biennale, and here's why

It's the world's biggest art fair, and it opened this weekend. But who makes the trip to the Venice, and why does it matter?

Go inside the world's biggest art fair as artists, curators, volunteers and more reveal why they made the trip

The Venice Biennale is open to the public May 13 to November 26. (Getty Images)

The Venice Biennale opened this weekend, but if you've never been, you might have some questions. Questions such as: what the hell is the Venice Biennale? Going off the name alone, you'd be right to guess it goes down in Venice every other year. It's been that way since 1895, actually (save for a six-year gap during the Second World War). But aside from those Wikipedia factoids, the main thing you need to know about the Biennale is that it's the biggest contemporary art show on the planet — a sort of Olympics of international art, minus the boredom of competitive water polo and the bother of the IOC.

The world comes to Venice during the Biennale, and more than 85 countries are showing work representing their nations this year. (The Canada Pavilion, for example, is hosting a new exhibition by Geoffrey Farmer.) That's in addition to a massive main exhibition, "Viva Arte Viva," which involves 120 international artists — including Canada's Kananginak Pootagoook, Jeremy Shaw and Hajra Waheed.

So who goes? It's all a giant tourist draw which runs through the fall, and during the 2015 edition, more than 501,000 people visited. But before the masses arrive, the city's art-filled parks and pavilions and palazzos are already crawling with visitors. The Biennale hosts a preview for the "international art world" —  a guest list that runs from Ai Weiwei to people who stop to take selfieswithAiWeiwei. And in that mix of artists and curators and celebrities and dealers and museum directors, there are plenty of Canadians. Who are they? And why do they make the trip? CBC Arts interrupted the sleepless schedules of a few key players to ask just that. They replied via email to give you a glimpse of what the Biennale is all about.

Vancouver artist Geoffrey Farmer's watery exploration of repressed grief and trauma A way out of the mirror is shown in the Canadian Pavilion. (Megan Williams/CBC)

Mia Nielsen, head of cultural programming (Drake Hotel Properties

How many times have you taken in the Venice Biennale?

This was my fifth! 

Why are you at the Biennale this year?

The Drake sponsored Geoffrey Farmer's exhibition at the Canada Pavilion (we've sponsored the last nine Canada Pavilions). Venice is a great place to take the pulse of contemporary art. Each edition brings new discoveries — international emerging artists, senior artists representing their home countries, new exhibition formats/technologies. [...] Of course, it's Venice, so the spaces are incredible. It's all truly inspiring. I take some of these discoveries and bring them back, through exhibitions/installations to our locations. 

Why does the Venice Biennale matter?

Unlike other notable international exhibitions, Venice is interesting for its national format. Countries from all over the world are represented by a single artist or small group, a tradition that has been maintained every two years for over a century. It allows the viewer to broaden their scope, to make connections with places they may not otherwise be able to visit or have a connection to. The Canada Pavilion is well placed in the Giardini (the main location for national pavilions) so it's a great opportunity for Canadian artists to have their work seen by international audiences.

What's your favourite discovery so far?

I loved Geoffrey Farmer's installation for Canada and the Pavilions for Austria, Brazil and France. The Arsenale exhibition was also very good. But I was absolutely blown away by the Intuition at the Museo Fortuny. This is an old palazzo, immaculately curated by Daniela Ferretti and Axel Vervoordt. Just about the whole of human history is represented here, in a space that still has a sense of being a 19th century residence. Here you'll see an illuminated manuscript hung alongside a video installation or a surrealist masterpiece placed next to a Greek bust. The works come together to explore intuition — a form of knowledge that can not be explained in words. It was a stunning collection of works illustrating a profound theme, no doubt something I'll be thinking about for a long time.
 


 

Laurel Saint-Pierre, curator

How many times have you taken in the Venice Biennale?

Many times. I first attended when I was 19, then later when I started working for galleries and museums it became a more regular thing. I don't always come for the opening, which can feel like a marathon, but I try to come if I can over the course of the exhibition that runs into late fall.

Why are you at the Biennale this year?

I'm here to support colleagues that work so hard to make the Canadian presentation the best it can be and to see what is happening internationally. I hope to also make new and interesting connections. On my first night I had dinner with an Italian curator colleague who lives in Shanghai, the directors of two Dutch museums, some Hong Kong-based French artists exhibiting here, the director of an art fair in South Africa and a Turkish artist who lives in Amsterdam and Berlin I had met a few years ago that I'd like to work with. That is what makes the Biennale great — these new and sometimes unexpected encounters.

What's your favourite discovery so far?

The German pavilion (Anne Imhof) and the French pavilion (Xavier Veilhan with Christian Marclay) are standouts for me so far. Both are at once sculptural and performative, and sound is key, but they could not be more different. And of course Geoffrey Farmer who has taken apart our pavilion. But there is still a lot to see. Great showing by Canadians this year beyond the national pavilion, from Evan Penny to Jeremy Shaw to Hajra Waheed to Kananginak Pootoogook to Skawennati.

As a maker of exhibitions, I also love visiting and lingering in the exhibitions produced for the Palazzo Fortuny. This year I participated in a performance there by Marcos Lutyens that involved hypnosis and was part of an exhibition on intuition that includes works and artifacts that span several millennia, presented in the evocative former home and studio of Mario Fortuny.

An actress performs in "Faust" by German artist Anne Imhof during the press preview of the 57th International Art Exhibition Biennale, on May 9, 2017 in Venice. (Getty Images)

 

Matthew Evans, artist

Why are you at the Biennale this year?

I and my collaborator, Shinobu Akimoto, came to attend the reception and lend our support to the legendary Taiwanese-American artist Tehching Hsieh, who is representing Taiwan this year.  He is the "advisory board" for our own art project, Residency For Artists On Hiatus (RFAOH), which we would also like to promote while in Venice.

Why does the Venice Biennale matter?

The Venice Biennale is the oldest, most revered art fair of its kind. It's a great chance to get a sense of what types of questions are engaging artists from around the world, not just in wealthy G8 countries but also smaller, nations that are perhaps on the peripheral of the art map. It is also a chance to reconnect with art world friends from different Canadian cities and elsewhere whom we don't get to see that often.

What's your favourite discovery so far?
After two full days we're only about half through, but we really loved Erwin Wurm at the Austrian pavilion (He's so funny; we're longtime fans). New Zealand artist Lisa Reihana has a riveting work in the Arsenale that flips the colonial narrative of the South Pacific. [...] Lee Mingwei has a beautiful relational project as part of the main exhibit, and Geoffrey Farmer's work at the Canadian Pavilion was sincerely amazing! Canadians should be proud. And last but not least, Tehching Hsieh's exhibition is splendid.

General view of the installation of Taiwan-Paris artist Lee Mingwei at Corderie dell'Arsenale during the opening of The 57th International Art Exhibition on May 9, 2017 in Venice, Italy. (Getty Images)

Émilie Grandmont Berube, owner and director of Galerie Trois Points

Why are you at the Biennale this year?

I was here to support Olivia McGilchrist (who just opened a show at the gallery in Montréal!) who is part of "An Ocean's Archive," a group exhibition presented by the Lightbox group and My Art Guides, just right by the Arsenale. I think being in Venice — especially during the preview week — allows wonderful encounters, with both the art and the people! 

What's your favourite discovery so far?

Most of the works that moved me were actually video pieces. I'm thinking of the wonderful work of Carol Bove and Teresa Hubbard/Alexander Birchler, but my greatest discovery would be the work of Candice Breitz in the South African pavilion. She explores the power of storytelling in relation to historical and contemporary waves of forced migration in such a strong and moving way. I am still taken by this work days after.


 

Zachari Logan, artist

Why are you at the Biennale this year?

I was in Venice for a very short period of time, just two days, one a day trip on the train from Verona where I have been for one and a half weeks installing my own exhibition at Isolo17 Gallery. I was invited to the Canada Party and attended a project on the island of Torcchelo, but because of the timing of my own exhibition in Verona, I missed out on all the previews. However, I may be back in Europe for a show in September, and I will definitely attend then if I am back here before it closes.

Why does the Venice Biennale matter?

I think VB matters because it is a meeting place. It is about dialogue — a space for the international art community to present visions of the world based on cultural perspectives together in one place. This is unique. It brings together leading artists, curators, writers and collectors in ways that art fairs aren't able to do.


 

Laura Demers, volunteer

Why are you at the Biennale this year?

This is my first time at the Venice Biennale. I've been here since May 2 and will be staying until the 16 to help out with the Canadian Pavilion and related events. I'm a volunteer for Geoffrey Farmer's pavilion. As a young artist, I hope to get acquainted with the international art scene, meet other artists and art professionals at various stages of their careers and gain experience working in a large scale event that involves all kinds of discourses.

What's your favourite discovery so far?

Other than the people and the pavilion I've been working for, I've really enjoyed the French Pavilion turned into a sound studio — the Hajra Waheed installation at the Giardini and the German Pavilion and its groundbreaking performance. I've yet to see the pavilions outside the Giardini, but am looking forward to seeing the Iraq Pavilion.

Works from the life-long project called Sea Change by Montreal artist Hajra Waheed showing in the main pavilion of the Venice Biennale. (Megan Williams/CBC)

William Huffman, marketing manager (Dorset Fine Arts / West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative)

How many times have you taken in the Venice Biennale?

I've been part of this every-two-year adventure since 1997...so it's a 20-year anniversary and 10 Biennale later.

Why are you at the Biennale this year?

For the first time its 122-year history, a Canadian Inuit artist has been included in the program. Cape Dorset's Kananginak Pootoogook (1935–2010) has 10 works on paper pulled from five North American collections in the Arsenale venue. My organization, Dorset Fine Arts, is responsible for the creative estate of Pootoogook, so we've been working hard to ensure that this milestone is sufficiently celebrated. The other Arctic first relates directly to the Canadian pavilion. Earlier this year, I accompanied Geoffrey Farmer to Cape Dorset — a visit that was motivated by his interest the story of Peter Pitseolak High School, which was destroyed by fire in 2015. While there he asked permission from the community to recover a handful of artifacts from what remained of the destroyed structure, and these metal items have been incorporated into his pavilion project. Geoffrey has assembled them in a sculptural vessel and repurposed the pieces to act as a fountain. In appreciation, the artist has committed a portion of the sale of artwork from the pavilion to rebuilding the school's library — which is super cool! It's such a thrill to see Cape Dorset and its creativity embedded in this year's Biennale and I certainly look forward to what this might mean for the future of that community and Inuit art in general.

Why does the Venice Biennale matter?

Well, I wish the Biennale didn't matter as much as it does. It's an expensive one shot, every-other-year thing and something that is so hyped and frenetic can often be difficult to navigate. Nonetheless, La Biennale is a vital hub for showcasing visual art, networking and discovering new creativity. There is really no other visual arts platform where important international collisions can happen the way that they do in Venice. I know firsthand that deals get brokered, and for those of us serious about doing art world business, lots gets done during those handful of preview days before the public opening. Also for me, it's the only place that I can liaise in-the-flesh with some of my global colleagues — I don't get to Moscow or Shanghai or São Paulo all that often, but we all get to Venice during La Biennale.

View of the Kananginak Pootoogook installation at Arsenale. (Cheryl Rondeau/Courtesy of Dorset Fine Arts)
Untitled by Cape Dorset Inuk artist Kananginak Pootoogook, the first works of an Inuit artist ever to be displayed at the Venice Biennale. (Megan Williams/CBC)

Janet Bellotto, Toronto artist and associate professor/associate dean (Zayed University, Dubai)

Why are you at the Biennale this year?

Multiple reasons: here for the book launch of "Our Ocean Archive," published by Lightbox, where my work is represented. [I'm also] speaking at a symposium, "An Ocean Archive," to discuss the various themes in the book. Also, here to research Arab artists as Associate Editor of Tribe-Dubai, and to write an article for dART magazine. As in many other trips I hope to start up some new potential collaborations, be happily inspired by some of the presentations, reconnect with peers from around the world and see as much as possible in my favourite city.

What's your favourite discovery so far?

This is a hard one as there is still so much to discover, so I'll have to name a few: the blind tour by the Catalonia in Venice; the Tunisia National Pavilion "The Absence of Paths" that has a few kiosks around where you can get a kind of state-free passport, but also the work at the Diaspora Pavilion. The films at the Swiss Pavilion on the story of Alberto Giacometti and his absence at the Biennale, where the film talks about the tragic story of his lover Flora Mayo. It's also important as it is the first representation of Giacometti in the Swiss Pavilion — as he refused to be represented there throughout his career.


 

Corrie Jackson, associate curator (RBC)

Why are you at the Biennale this year?

RBC is the presenting sponsor for the third year in a row of the Canadian Pavilion, supporting the National Gallery of Canada and this year, the work of Geoffrey Farmer. I'm here representing that support, and to celebrate Geoffrey's contribution to the Biennale.

What's your favourite discovery so far?

That I could feel this kind of pride in the idea of Canadian art. I've always seen Canadian art as being exceptional in is breadth, and truly engaged in international conversations by its own nature of being Canadian — and the many perspectives and ideas that encompass that word. However, seeing strong Canadian works by Kananginak Pootoogook alongside internationally celebrated artists like Alicja Kwade from Poland, or the young artist Achraf Touloub from Morocco, expands the conversation around Pootoogook's work and the art being created in Cape Dorset. It made me think about the importance of next generation of artists coming out of the Cape Dorset region, and their representations of home, belonging and history as an important voice in this international moment.

Visitors walk past the artwork "Pars pro Toto" by Polish artist Alicja Kwade, on May 10, 2017 in Venice during the press preview of the 57th International Art Exhibition Biennale. (Getty Images)
View of the installation by Achraf Touloub at Corderie dell'Arsenale during the opening of The 57th International Art Exhibition on May 10, 2017 in Venice, Italy. (Getty Images)
Geoffrey Farmer's project at the Canadian Pavilion. (Getty Images)

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