If you’re heading to Venice this summer, be sure to leave a few hours free to explore the historic Arsenale in Castello – just a few minutes’ walk from our beautifully furnished Palazzo Castello Terrazza apartment. Founded in 1104, the Arsenale was once the greatest medieval shipyard in Europe; home to 300 shipping companies and employing up to 16,000 people, it was capable of producing a new warship every day. Closed to the public for most of the year, the vast site is currently hosting a large number of exciting exhibitions and installations for the Biennale; we’ve picked some of our must-see favourites below.
NEW ZEALAND PAVILION
Projected onto a panoramic wall in one of the Arsenale’s huge warehouses, ’In Pursuit of Venus [infected]’ is a mesmerising cinematic re-imagining of 19th century French scenic wallpaper, depicting Captain Cook’s voyages around the Pacific. Almost 250 years after Cook’s travels, New Zealand artist Lisa Reihana has employed 21st-century digital technologies to recast and reconsider the wallpaper from a Pacific perspective – using real actors to play out a series of narratives against an animated background. Depicting colonialist conquerors interacting with native peoples of the Pacific Ocean, the installation interrogates the gaze of imperialism, and highlights the complex interconnectedness of history.
The Tunisian pavilion features three kiosks issuing “Freesas” – fake travel documents representing an idyllic world where “human beings may flow freely from one nation to the next”. To validate their freesa, each visitor has to stamp their document with a thumbprint and agree to “endorse a philosophy of universal freedom of movement without the need for arbitrary state-based sanction”. A commentary on the mounting refugee crisis, each kiosk is manned by young Tunisian men who have tried to cross the mediterranean multiple times, but have failed to reach the other side. Because of the special circumstances of the Biennale, the men have been granted one-month tourist visas; once their visas expire, they will be replaced by migrants from Bangladesh and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Visiting the Italian Pavilion is a dark and disturbing experience. Titled “Il Mondo Magico” (The Magic World), the exhibition features the work of three artists linked by a common thread of imagination, ritual and fantasy. Roberto Cuoghi’s ‘Imitazione de Cristo’ (2017) is a particularly striking installation resembling Dr. Frankenstein’s lab, where machinery turns out human-scale devotional figures that are then stored on beds in futuristic igloos. In the final chamber, visitors walk through an almost pitch-black maze of scaffolding to ascend a staircase that provides a birds-eye view of Giorgio Andreotta Calò’s disorienting mirage – a room-length trough of water that reflects the ceiling’s vaulted rafters into its surface.
This year’s Georgian Pavilion takes the form of a typical Georgian house that artist Vajiko Chachkhiani found abandoned in a rural mining town. Inside the building, Chachkhiani has simulated a never-ending rainstorm that falls relentlessly from the roof and drenches the furniture; the wallpaper is peeling, the floor is covered in puddles, and an unpleasant smell of mildew emanates from the crack in the door. Over the course of the Biennale, while the exterior will remain unchanged, the interior will decay and rot – offering a thought-provoking commentary on how traumatic events can alter and affect a person internally, even though they appear unchanged externally.