The Best of the 2013 Venice Biennale

Venice | © Livia Hengel
Picture of Helen Brady
Updated: 5 January 2017
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Running since 1885, the Venice Biennale is often described as the ‘Olympics of Art’ – the 55th edition of the Biennale launched on the 1st of June 2013, with exhibitions from 88 countries throughout the world taking over the floating city. We look at ten highlights of the 2013 Biennale; exciting National Pavilions from each continent who are featuring at this year’s international art event.
© Hareth Alhomaam, Buzz, 2012, video, 10.00, courtesy of the artist and RUYA Foundation. 

Iraq – Welcome to Iraq

The 2013 Iraq Pavilion at the Venice Biennale is only the second time that Iraq has held an exhibition at the international art fair in the past thirty five years. Welcome to Iraq features the work of eleven contemporary artists living and working inside Iraq. The space is designed to immerse the visitor in the everyday world of the country – the viewer can sit, read and learn about the culture of Iraq with books and comics included amongst the exhibits. Hospitality is an important national value, and this is reflected in each visitor being offered tea upon arrival and the space itself resembling a home. The exhibition highlights Iraqi creativity in all forms, at every level of society. Amongst the exhibitors are photographers, painters, film artists, draughtsmen and sculptors. After decades of war, Iraq now suffers from an almost complete lack of cultural infrastructure. Welcome to Iraq places its core emphasis on the country’s determination ‘to make do and get by’, an inventiveness borne out of necessity in extraordinary historical circumstances.

© Ariel Guzik and Jardins des Pilotes 

Mexico – Cordiox

Ariel Guzik’s latest invention, Cordiox, is the centre of Mexico’s entry to this year’s Venice Biennale. The country’s National Pavilion at the former, restored Church of San Lorenzo creates a singular sound space containing a complex sonic machine which will capture the visitor’s presence and create an impromptu soundtrack. Guzik has made subtle sound, vibrations and resonance in nature a focal point in his work. Through his highly sophisticated electromagnetic devices, the sounds emitted by plants, whales, sun rays etc. create a symphony of unexpected sounds that in normal circumstances the human ear cannot perceive. Applying the same philosophy and technical expertise, Guzik found an innovative way for the Biennale visitors to explore the most hidden corners of the old church – given the nearly derelict state of the construction in places – translating the natural ambiance to crystalline sound. When a visitor enters the former church, this alters the natural balance of the ambiance, creating new, unexpected music that is practically unrepeatable. Each new sound piece is unique to the visitor and the moment, making Cordiox simultaneously a fascinating personal experience and a magnetic force that could attract thousands.

Pavilion of Côte d’Ivoire.

Ivory Coast – Traces and Signs

One of the ten new participants to the 2013 Venice Biennale is the Ivory Coast or Côte d’Ivoire. Entitled Traces and Signs, the exhibition presents the work of four artists. Frédéric Bruly Bouabré is a self-taught artist, prolific writer and a leading figure in African contemporary art. Bouabré’s highly individual work is recognisable for its naïve style and fits well within the Pavilion’s theme to reinterpret and remap his disconnected vision of the world. Much like Bouabré, Tamsir Dia is also an explorer of signs. His paintings possess an ochre tonality indicative of sub-Saharan roads and landscapes, the pictures’ surfaces made up of layers reminiscent of colliding seismic plates. Wood sculptor Jems Koko Bi, a regular guest of the Dakar Biennial, presents abstract and figurative pieces dealing with power tensions and the human capital flight, while photographer Franck Fanny negotiates the gaze and looks to capture the rawness and realism of the present.

© Wang Quingsong 

China – 变位

For the 5th time since 2005, China brings a contingent of artists to represent them in their National Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale. The curator, Wang Chunchen, settled on the phrase ‘变位’, which means ‘changing tastes’. Whilst largely ignoring the term’s Christian roots, and in spite of there being no Chinese equivalent, Chunchen chose to adopt a word that evokes renewal as well as the rupturing of accepted boundaries to mirror the dramatic changes sweeping through not only the Chinese art world, but also through the country’s economic and social spheres. ‘Transfiguration’ also refers to the blurring between life and art, non-art and art. The seven artists selected by Chunchen will seek to reveal the sophistication, maturity and diversity of contemporary art in China through their works. Facing the constraints of a particularly challenging space (the China Pavilion is a converted shop building warehouse filled with antique oil tanks, poor lighting and limited space to exhibit), Chunchen’s medium of choice for the space is video projection. The artist’s backgrounds range from painting to video and photography to installation.

© Gianfranco Baruchello, La Soluzione E’ il Problema 1974/ Galleria Milano 

Italy – Vice Versa

Vice Versa is the title of Italy’s National Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale. Renovated in 2009, the 1800 square metre space will welcome the works of fourteen artists. The Padiglione Italia will be divided into seven areas, each environment featuring two artists who reveal through their installations a profound creative dialogue with one another, thus creating seven distinct juxtapositions of contemporary artworks. The curator, Bartolomeo Pietromarchi, chose the Latin phrase ‘vice versa’ as the theme for the Italian Pavilion in recognition of philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s theory, which asserts that to understand Italian culture one must necessarily identify a ‘series of diametrically linked concepts’ capable of describing its underlying characteristics’. Binomials such as tragedy/comedy, architecture/vagueness and speed/agility are but a few examples that highlight this peculiar dimension of ‘duality’, one of the most prominent aspects of Italian contemporary art. Vice Versa will therefore be presented as an exploration of the fundamental traits of Italy‘s cultural and contemporary artistic identity.

© Berlinde De Bruyckere, Liggende II, 2011/12, Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth 

Belgium – Kreupelhout – Cripplewood

The artist Berlinde De Bruyckere and curator J.M Coetzee will expand upon their joint 2012 project entitled All Vlees (All Flesh) for this year’s Venice Biennale. Their submission for the Belgian Pavilion will be entitled Kreupelhout – Cripplewood. De Bruyckere has conceived a new site-specific installation that builds upon her existing canon yet simultaneously makes strong connections to the historical context of Venice. The display will concentrate on the topic of metamorphosis and display sculptures as well as watercolours from recent years. De Bruyckere was chosen by the Flemish Minister of Environment, Nature and Culture for her ‘commitment to exploring universal issues of the human condition’, as well as the relationship of her art to the great continuum of history. With a great affinity and appreciation for the old masters, De Bruyckere’s pieces are often portrayed as damaged or distressed, and this adds to the vulnerability and empathy evoked by the pieces. A disconcerting concept of the body takes priority in De Bruyckere’s faceless sculptures; each figure is placed on a plinth or inside a cabinet posing the idea that deformation is transferrable as beauty.

© Bill Culbert, Crayfish (1987). Plastic containers cut in half, fluorescent tube. Laurent Delaye Gallery. 

New Zealand – Front Door Out Back

Photographer, sculptor and light installation artist Bill Culbert will represent New Zealand in their National Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale. This is the sixth time for the island country since their first entry in 2001. Entitled Front Door Out Back, Culbert will utilise the complex architecture of the Istituto Santa Maria della Pietà (La Pietà); making use of the differing lighting conditions and distinct spatial auras. The pieces consist of worn out furniture that has been pierced by fluorescent lights, creating a notable dichotomy of old and new which can be interpreted as both playful and violent. In one work, padded chairs hanging like chandeliers have been penetrated by beams of light, and strike the viewer as a humorous decoration while also insinuating a past aggressive act. Works like this are juxtaposed in Culbert’s oeuvre by neater images such as ‘Hut’, a figuration of fluorescent tubes that are instantly recognisable as a house, but which provide no shelter. Critics and art writers have commented on the relevance of Culbert’s style within the setting of Venice: an old city with an abundance of history that is both illuminated and overrun by tourism, with visitors looking for quick and shallow summaries.

© Courtesy the artists: Khaled Zaki, Mohamed Banawy 

Egypt – Treasuries of Knowledge

Khaled Zaki and Mohamed Banawy will represent the Egypt Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale. Treasuries of Knowledge begins with Zaki’s flowing sculptures and Banaway’s abstract mosaics but ultimately intends to touch on much bigger issues. Inspired by this year’s Biennale theme ‘The Encyclopaedic Palace’, Zaki, in his double capacity as curator and sculptor, wanted to represent the human cycle on earth, one that is marked, beginning to end, by the thirst for knowledge and the search for the truth, looking to unveil the secret powers of the universe – ‘the good and the evil’. For Banawy, mosaics represent evolution and change, a map and a destiny where one can carve their own path, metamorphose, or destroy. He replaces smooth stones with scratchy ones, much like one can plant a tree or start a demonstration. Behind the clay hides creation, and behind the mud hides mankind – making the artist an extension of his Egyptian Heritage, and the universe that surrounds him.

© Joana Vasconcelos/vasconcelostrafariapraia 

Portugal – Trafaria Praia

Portugal is perhaps one of the most exciting National Pavilions at this year’s Biennale. Joana Vasconcelos has been selected to represent the country and will display her piece Trafaria Praia, in which a Lisbon ferry will be transformed into a floating pavilion and artwork. The work addresses the similarities between the two cities in question – Lisbon and Venice, and acts as a metaphorical circumvention of the power struggles that mark international relations today. It examines three specific comparisons that the geographical locations share: water, navigation and the vessel. The ferry boat will be coated with blue and white tiles to reproduce a contemporary view of Lisbon. The colour theme continues into the interior of the boat, where the textile installation will occupy the whole deck. Tentacles of blue and white crochet will turn on and off slowly, giving the visitor the sensation of travelling in the interior of a ‘living organism’ according to Vasconcelos herself. The quarterdeck will display a stage in which various Portuguese art-related public programmes will take place. Activities such as conferences, debates and live music, will serve to inform the international public about Portuguese culture. The ferry boat itself will sail around the Venice lagoon at regular intervals daily.

© Richard Mosse, stills from The Enclave (2013). Courtesy the artist 

Ireland – The Enclave

Richard Mosse will represent the Irish Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale with The Enclave, which will feature a multiple-screen film installation along with a series of photographs and a monograph. The new work was shot on 16mm infrared film in eastern Congo and is spread out across eight channels. Mosse’s practice bridges the relationship between contemporary art and documentary journalism as he culminates a three year exploration of the strife to be found within the Democratic Republic of Congo. A collaborative effort, Mosse, along with composer Ben Frost and cinematographer Trevor Tweeten, immersed themselves as a collective of journalists within armed groups experiencing first hand the calamities of the war zone including systematic assault, massacres, and sexual violence. Mosse brings these subjects to light with his use of discontinued military film, Kodak Aerochrome – originally utilised by the military to detect targets in camouflage. This specific kind of film transforms the green landscape into vivid, psychedelic hues. The result is one that is contradictory yet similar to the experience itself – startling, shocking and surreal.

The 55th International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale will take place from 1 June – 24 November 2013 at various locations throughout Venice.

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