Now that you have met the field school participants through their individual blog posts, I will reflect on some of the time we spent on the Venice leg of our journey after the initial two weeks in New York. The original intention of this field school was to duplicate the structure of the Paris/Documenta 2012 trip, where we had first spent two weeks in Paris (studying assigned artists and the themes of urban transformation, modernity, and the rise of modern art in the French capital) followed by a visit to one of the most significant contemporary art exhibitions in the world-- Documenta-- held every five years in Kassel, Germany.
Combining a trip with two very distinct art centers and art histories allows students to study both the similarities/overlaps in the themes of art production and circulation in the two locales, along with considering how a global art scene is created through information exchange, curatorial influence, and the search for a greater vision for the role and influence of today’s art world. The Biennale—the world’s most influential art exhibition held every two years in Venice—was the focus of our visit to Italy. As part of the pre-trip courses at KPU, each of the students had been assigned a national pavilion (loosely related in some way to their assigned New York artist and art movement) to study and tour while on the ground in Venice.
Arriving in Venice from New York was certainly a bit of culture shock for many of the students on the trip. For beginners, we were welcomed with a heat wave and the daunting task of getting to our Venetian hotel from the airport via a bus and then a vaporetto (water taxi) and finally a walk though the labyrinth of small medieval streets to arrive at our final destination. Air conditioning is both a luxury and a rare find in Venetian hotels, and so our group was forced to acclimatize quickly (with the help of fans, we eventually found some comfort). Once settled, we were then able to get our bearings and plot out our visit to the Biennale over the remaining week.
Our first task was to tackle the Giardini—the historic and traditional exhibition venue of the Venice Biennale. First laid out by Napoleon Bonaparte during the French occupation of the Republic of Venice in 1807, the garden was to become an open public and cultural space for the enjoyment of locals. After Napoleon departed and the unification of Italy’s larger cities took place in the mid to late 19th century, Venice used the Giardini as a space of national exhibition, attempting to forge a modern identity for the ancient city. Importantly, these early exhibitions were concerned strictly with art, and so the founding of the International Exhibition of Art in 1895 (eventually to become what we know today as the Venice Biennale) was the world's first modern, open, and international art exhibition, inviting tourists to come and see the best of the world’s contemporary art. The garden today contains thirty permanent national pavilions, while the remaining nations represented at the Biennale are housed at the second venue of the Biennale—the Aresenale, a complex of former armories and ship yards near the Giardini—or in temporary spaces, leased to countries and artist groups seeking access to Biennale audiences, scattered throughout the city. The peculiar tension between old and new art worlds is therefore played out throughout Venice for the duration of the Biennale, as the temporary contemporary art exhibitions of the event compete with the medieval and Renaissance art that has shaped and created a particular vision of the city throughout history. Read more about the history of the Venice Biennale here.
Visiting all of the Biennale is an almost impossible task, but we were determined to give students ample time and space to explore the exhibition at their own pace and with their own particular interests in mind. Outside their own assigned pavilions, we asked students to see the main pavilions at the Giardini and Arsenale, and explore the off-site venues at their leisure, keeping in mind this year’s Biennale theme—"All the World’s Futures" (more on that in the next blog post). But one pavilion we all wanted to visit together was the Canadian pavilion, located in a somewhat isolated spot between the looming Great Britain and Germany pavilions (as in all things, location is a sign of status at the Giardini).
Having visited the Biennale in past years (and blogged most recently on the 2011 Biennale when the chosen artist to represent Canada was Vancouver artist Steven Shearer) I was especially interested to see how the pavilion had been transformed. A great deal of buzz had already been generated back home with the selection of Quebec City’s artist-collective BGL (made up of artists Jasmin Bilodeau, Sébastien Giguère and Nicolas Laverdière) and their Canadassimo concept for the space. On the National Gallery of Canada’s official website for the Canadian pavilion, the following statement by guest curator Marie Fraser helps describe the idea:
“Canadassimo offers a strange path through the Canada Pavilion, which has been completely transformed. Beneath the scaffolding that partially obscures the building’s façade – creating the impression that the exhibition is still under construction – is the entrance to adépanneur, one of the small neighbourhood convenience stores found across Quebec that sell tinned goods and other household essentials. Beyond this typically chaotic and shabby shop is a loft-like living space: though far more organized, this area is evidently the preserve of a recycling enthusiast. Next comes what BGL has dubbed “the studio,” a place crowded with countless objects of all kinds, including stacks of tin cans covered with dribbles of paint. Having made their way through this bizarre living/working domain, spectators can relax for a while on a terrace that offers a marvellous view over the Giardini.”
We arrived at the pavilion and were immediately struck with how very “under construction” the place felt. Entering the pavilion, many of us however felt immediately at home when we explored the Canadian convenience store installation with all of the recognizeable Canadian name brands we had grown up with. From the small town convenience store through into the spaces of the makeshift studio, we were met with hundreds of cans of paint and the interior spaces of a living workshop. It is almost impossible to take in the space in its entirety, but it certainly represented some sense of the creative process that is often lost on audiences when visiting an art exhibition. Upstairs to the tree-house, we were delighted to find both a great view of the Giardini, but also the feel of the nature and environment many of us associate with home (wilderness and technology-- very Canadian indeed!). Invited to drop coins into a large gaming contraption built at the apex of the pavilion, we were a bit disappointed that they did not accept Canadian pennies (“they jam the system” one attendant told us without a hint of irony), but we still had a moment of play and got to experience some of the whimsy that is at the heart of BGL’s installation. Afterwards we all went in groups or individually to begin our exploration. More reflections on the curatorial vision of the Biennale, and other adventures of the field school in the next post!