As much a symbol of Venice’s power and wealth as a trading nation as the Doge’s Palace, the Arsenale was the engine house, the shipbuilding centre, a massive series of buildings and docks hidden behind fortified walls that at one time was the largest industrial complex in Europe, supplied with wood from a dedicated forest in the Montello hills.
Venice is fortunate in having this complex, much of which survives today. The high volume, robust, industrial buildings provide a variety of large flexible spaces in which to exhibit art during the Venice Biennale, as a counterpoint to the smaller, more intimate, pavilions in the Giardini and to soak up the tours of schoolchildren, students and others who come to visit.
The initial long building allows a parade of art, curated on the theme ‘May You Live in Interesting Times, separated with individual ‘rooms’ for more intimate works or video installations created by unpainted plywood partitions, while allowing views out through the metal windows and an escape into the courtyard alongside if you need to take a breath before continuing.
The variety, as usual, is astonishing, starting with George Condo’s ‘Double Elvis’ and continuing with Zanele Muholi’s bold black and white photographs which reappear at different places, while the exhibition moves from individual artists including Britain’s Anthea Turner, to national pavilions as it turns the corner and springs into adjacent buildings. How lucky these countries are to be here, in much more flexible spaces than those in the Giardini and most countries, like Italy, China and the Philippines, take full advantage of the opportunity.
And there is a secret. Although it is shown on the Biennale map and there are signs at Giardini della Vergini, not many people realise that beyond the sculptures along the waterfront there is more, with a waterbus every half hour that goes across to Arsenale Nord which is a growing arts centre and this year has a sculptural exhibition on the work of Beverly Pepper and Lorenzo Quinn’s amazing ‘Building Bridges’. We only found out about the water bus by asking one of the security guards.
It is great to see that, with the recent flooding, the Biennale was only closed for a short time and it is reported that no damage was done to the art, though water did enter some of the pavilions, and that yesterday over 2000 brave visitors came to visit. Its planned closure on November 24th will bring in an army of tradesmen to clear this year’s Art Biennale and then prepare in the spring for next year’s Architecture Biennale.