If you like contemporary art, the Venice Biennale gives a great excuse to visit one of the most beautiful cities in the world. But bring comfortable walking shoes -- you'll have lots of ground to cover.
The 2019 Venice Biennale is being held in more than 50 different locations scattered throughout the city. If you expect to find all the locations -- or even some of them -- you need to know a little about Venice itself.
Venice is two mazes laid on top of each other.
In a standard maze, narrow passages lead to dead ends. Venice has plenty of those.
Then Venice adds a second layer of complexity. The original maze is placed on top of an equally challenging maze made of water canals.
Sometimes there’s a bridge. Sometimes there isn’t. Sometimes there’s a landing for water transportation; sometimes there isn’t. In addition, on sixty random days (mostly in winter), the most direct route might be flooded.
As a result, the way to where you want to go is never straightforward. Complicating this, all the maps I’ve found have too little detail to be helpful. In Venice, you can be lost a lot of the time.
That might not matter so much, since Venice is beautiful, and any section of it is worth exploring. But if you’re going to the 2019 Venice Biennale, you probably want to see art. And to do that you have to find it.
Do not ignore this tip!
You can do one thing that will make an extraordinary difference in your visit to the Venice Biennale: make sure you have a cellphone that can roam in Italy with a GPS map.
Before you go, call your cellphone provider, buy an international data plan, and make sure they take off the block on international roaming. If you don’t have a cellphone with a map, I recommend you get one before your trip.
When in Venice, try not to smirk. You’ll be the only tourist in town who can quickly find anything.
If you keep your phone on "airplane mode" except when you're using the map to navigate and when you're making calls, you will minimize roaming charges.
If you only have a day. What are you thinking? Change your plans! Venice is easily worth a week, and you want to be there three or four days minimum.
But if you really only have a day for this incredibly beautiful city, you need to make some choices. If you prefer realistic and religious art painted from 1500 to 1800, get a guidebook from a bookstore or the library, skip the biennale, and enjoy your time. You’ll have lots of great choices. Expect to pay about 4 to 20 Euros at each stop.
If you prefer architecture, you wouldn't do wrong to just wander around lost all day, traveling on water taxis at random and seeing what you can. Be sure to go inside buildings on your journey; the interiors are often stunning.
If you only have a day and you prefer modern and contemporary art, here are my recommendations:
1) The Biennale has two locations where you don’t need GPS. I'd go to them, just because the exhibits are close together and you can maximize your time.
Arsenale. Take a water taxi to Arsenale or San Pietro and follow the signs.
Giardini. Take the water taxi to Giardini or Biennale.The restaurant at Giardini sometimes closes early, so if you want something hot, check its schedule. The cafeteria stays open later with sandwiches and salads.
2) Don't miss a great museum that's not part of the biennale itself.
At the Salute water taxi stop, turn left. The white building is the Punta della Dogana. The gorgeous interior houses art from the François Pinault Foundation.
What's inside may challenge your ideas about art, but it will be worth it if you spend time with the pieces and the commentaries on them.
Palazzo Grassi, a second space, is located near water taxi line #1 S. Angelo or line #2 S.Samuele.
If you have more than a day. Get out your walking shoes and your cell phone with map service. Then enjoy your exploring! There's enough to fill at least five days.
When you buy your ticket to the Biennale, you'll get a map and a list of related exhibits around the city. You only need the ticket to enter the Arsenale and Giardini sections of the Biennale, so you'll only need a one- or two-day ticket.
If you don't have a phone with a map, find what you can and enjoy the time you're lost. It's a beautiful city.
It may be worth it to hire a local as a guide.
What day to visit. The 58th International Art Exhibition is scheduled to be open May 11 through November 24, 2019.
Most venues close either Sunday, Monday or Tuesday, so if you're in Venice one of those days, plan your excursions accordingly.
On Sunday almost everything is open, but check the biennale guide.
On Monday, the Arsenale and Giardini sections of the biennale are closed. But if Monday's your day, there are enough other places open to fill your time.
On Tuesday, the Punta della Dogana, Palazzo Grassi and Peggy Guggenheim Collection are closed.
Don't worry if you're in town any of those days; what's open will be more than enough to fill your day with great art.
One month before you leave. A month before you leave, go on a very long hike wearing the shoes and socks you plan to use in Venice. Your feet will thank you, especially if you need to make changes before you go.
Venice electrical. © Mark Dahle 2011.
Phyllida Barlow, Untitled (5/Arsenale)
Hans Josephsohn sculptures and Daniel Hesidence paintings (3/Arsenale)
Pawel Althamer, Venetians, detail of a room full of them (9/Arsenale)
Painting in the Arsenale, 2013 Venice Biennale
Background, Sri Astari, Dancing the Wild Seas, and foreground, Albert Yonathan Setyawan, Cosmic Labyrinth: A Silent Pathway, at the Indonesian Pavilion (ID/Arsonale)
Lara Almarcegui's installation at Spain's Pavilion (ES/Giardini)
Odires Mlaszho, Deutsches Worter Buch (Altered book) at the Brazil Pavilion (BR/Giardini).
Detail of The Feast of Trimalchio, Arrival of the Golden Boat, one of the two amazing staged photographs by AES+F at the back of Padiglione Venezia (P.VE/Giardini)
Installation at Poland's Pavilion (PL/Giardini)
Image from a video by Jeremy Deller at the British Pavilion (GB/Giardini)
The Russian Pavilion's installation, had golden coins raining down on women with umbrellas (RU/Giardini).
Wifredo Diaz Valdez, Time (Time) Time at the Urugua Pavilion (UY/Giardini)
Herre Methorst at Personal Structures (Palazzo Bembo).
Basket Maker, by Bassim Al-Shaker, at the Iraq Pavilion.
Rene Rietmeyer and Toshikatsu Endo at Personal Structures (Palazzo Bembo).
Here were my top choices, in 2011:
1) Future Pass: From Asia to the world was the best collection of contemporary art per square foot in the 2011 biennale.
2) My second and third choices weren’t part of the bienniale itself, they were the Punta della Dogana and Palazzo Grassi mentioned above.
The gorgeous interior of the Punta della Dogana houses art from the François Pinault Foundation.
At Palazzo Grassi two great videos by Francesco Vezzoli were being shown in 2011. Democrazy shows two political ads playing at the same time, a potent mix that is worth viewing multiple times. And Marlene Redux: a True Hollywood Story! is a hilarious parody of television entertainment news. It's a great, great example of multi-leveled video as art. If you aren't laughing, you might be offended. Either way, it'll be worth it.
This wax statue at Arsenale.
3) The Arsenale.
Highlights at the Arsenale in 2011 included Christian Marclay’s video The Clock and a James Turrell light installation. The Clock is playing at locations around the world, so you may have a chance to see it elsewhere. If so, pull up a chair and plan on being delighted and intrigued by a collection of movie clips that work their way through the hours of the day, one minute at a time. Sit as long as you like; it’s a 24-hour video.
In the India pavilion a highlight was riding on Gigi Scaria's Elevator from the Sub-continent.
4) The Giardini. The Padiglione Centrale had the largest collection of diverse artists. In 2011 it included The Others, Maurizio Cattelan’s 2000 pigeons.
Six of the 2000 pigeons above people's heads at the Padiglione Centrale in 2011.
Other highlights in 2011:
* The France pavilion had a great installation titled “Chance.” With all the metal rollers spinning noisily, you could hear it before you saw it.
Chance by Christian Boltanski.
* The Padiglione Venezia (P.VE), had a series of boats worth visiting (Vertical Seas by Fabrizio Plessi).
* My personal favorite could be guessed by anyone familiar with my photography; Gott liebt die Serba was an incredibly beautiful installation, and Gott Liebt die Serba 1 was very powerful as well. Both were in the Serbia pavilion.
Detail of Gott liebt die Serba, Venice Biennale 2011.
If you’re a fan of video, Finland (FIN) and Poland (PL) both had video worth checking out, and there was an interesting short animated film Quatrosopos in the Denmark pavilion (DK).
Venice Biennale 2011 video (Quatrosopos by Han Hoogerbrugge).
Detail of Imposition Symphony, 2011, a large mural by Stelios Faitakis on an outside wall of the Danish Pavilion in the Giardini section.
Venice building. © Mark Dahle 2011.
Venice wall. © Mark Dahle 2013.
Venice wall. © Mark Dahle 2013.