Venice Biennale

From the streets of Venice, we report on the success of Northern Ireland's exhibit

In a city already teeming with art and culture, you'd be forgiven for thinking that there is little more room for artworks on Venice’s walls. But for five months every two years the Tintorettos and Titians which grace the city’s countless churches, chapels and galleries sit alongside the off-the-wall offerings of some of the world’s biggest and best emerging and established contemporary artists for the Venice Biennale international art exhibition.

A scene from the Egyptian exhibiton, depicting scenes from everday lifeSince its creation in 1895 the Biennale has become the world’s biggest arts showcase, comparable in many ways to the Olympic Games or World Cup. This year artists from more than 70 countries have been selected to take part, including Northern Ireland for only the third time in the event’s history.

The festival is centered around a number of venues - principally the city’s public gardens - where around 30 countries have permanent pavilions. Other exhibitions are held at the Arsenale, Venice’s former shipyard, now a military naval base and only opened to the public for the Biennale.

The British alumni of the Venice Biennale over the past 100-plus years are a who’s-who of the country’s artistic talent - everyone from Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon to Gilbert and George and Tracey Emin have taken part.

The big names are also out this year for the UK, with Turner Prize winner and Hunger director Steve McQueen and Velvet Underground co-founder John Cale taking part.

With only three Biennales now under its belt, Northern Ireland may be a relatively junior member of the UK party, yet has managed to punch well above its weight, with a 2007 show from Londonderry artist and double-Turner nominee Willie Doherty and respected local curator Hugh Mulholland .

More than 40,000 people visited Doherty’s video installation in 2007 and so far this year Belfast artist Susan MacWilliam’s exhibition has already attracted an average of 1,000 visitors a day since opening to the public last week.

The Northern Ireland show is being staged in the same building as that of the Republic of Ireland, Susan MacWilliampolitically a positive image for visitors from around the world. It is also fortuitously located off one of Venice’s busiest tourist thoroughfares, ensuring a steady supply of ‘passing trade’.

MacWilliam’s video installations, based around the paranormal, are perhaps well suited to this city of ghosts and spirits, and certainly their otherworldly qualities complement the thematic remit of this year’s Biennale - Fare Mondi, or ‘Making Worlds’.

In truth the label is probably notional, for the sheer diversity on offer at this year’s Biennale defies categorisation. With so many artists exhibiting, the works on offer range from the relatively mainstream to the utterly indescribable.

Consciously or not, a little something of the national character of each pavilion is captured in the works - whether it’s the V8 Interceptor car from the Mad Max movies parked outside the Australian pavilion, or the stark lines of a kitchen cabinet suite in the otherwise empty and cavernous German pavilion.

In the Egyptian pavilion, the everyday minutiae of life on the street - scenes of a couple kissing while being watched by a semi-circle of cats; a cyclist delivering bread; friends talking on a balcony - are brought to life through wicker sculptures, in an exhibition suffused with warmth and humour.

The Polish entry Guests features shadows of workmen, painters and cleaners glimpsed through frosted glass windows, in a stark comment on the semi-invisibility of migrant workers in our midst – artists, it seems, might not seek to judge, but like the thousands of journalists passing through the Biennale they are commentators all the same.

A scale replica of the V8 Interceptor car from the Mad Max movies outside the Australian pavilioThe sheer diversity of offerings at the Biennale is the event’s real forte. No two exhibits are the same, and each event in the Biennale’s long history has rarely failed to astonish with something new.

Even hardened veterans of the Biennale, with decades of art criticism under their belts, gaze in wonder at this year’s show, or gather in excited and noisy huddles under the tree-lined paths of the gardens to compare notes.

There is something about the Venice Biennale, even for a first time visitor, which takes a hold of you right from the outset. Perhaps it is the sense that what you are seeing is the best contemporary art that the world has to offer.

To the man in the street such a gathering might have a whiff of cultural elitism about it, and certainly it does attract the crème of artistic talent from around the world. But it is easily a more powerful and rewarding experience than simply visiting a gallery, an experience which lingers in the mind long afterwards – or for the next two years at least.

Michael Thomas