Once a noisy, hyper-active, bustling centre of activity with between 1500 and 2000 people working in naval centre of one of the greatest trading cities of its era, today the Arsenale di Venezia appears externally quiet while the waters flowing through it are calm and serene. Inside this huge complex is another world of high activity where artists have taken over the massive industrial spaces for the 57th Venice Biennale and the old historic buildings are full to overflowing with some of the best contemporary art from around the world.
It is fascinating both to see the art on show and also to explore the historic buildings, and the best exhibits are those where the artist has responded to the huge scale and robust industrial character of the historic buildings or to the settings which includes outdoor areas and gardens.
In addition to the main spaces of the Corderie and Antiglierie, which primarily show works by selected artists around a series of different themes, there are also national pavilions, an overflow from the Giardini, the largest being New Zealand, and then a step up to the immense pavilions for China and for Italy with the great advantage of scale and volume from the original naval industrial buildings compared to the size of the national pavilions at the Giardini. Perhaps, not unexpectedly, the Italian pavilion is one of the most impressive in terms of the space and of the art installation. New Zealand wins the prize for the most impressive technology with its multi-screen digital film related to Captain Cook’s explorations.
Perhaps the artist who connects the 21st century to the history of the Arsenale is German artist Michael Beutler with his installation “Shipyard”, an architectural structure which, with imagination, could be many things from the shape of a Venetian ship to a floating boat house in the Far East, joining different cultures and different societies together across the seas.
Many of the artworks have links to issues of modern society including immigration, the environment, military conflicts and struggles for national identity.
The Biennale closes this week. Once the carpenters, electricians, art-packers and transporters have finished their work, the building will go into hibernation for the winter until they come alive again in 2018 for the Architecture Biennale. Something to look forward to….