The Venice Biennale’s 11 Best Pavilions
Each year, the Venice Biennale’s national pavilions provide a platform for countries around the world to showcase their most relevant and influential art. This year, as the 51 pavilions scattered across the Giardini and Arsenale opened their doors, we sought out the highlights you can’t miss—from breakout artist Anne Imhof’s performative takeover of the German pavilion to Tunisia’s interactive meditation on global migration.
Phyllida Barlow, “folly”
Curated by Delphine Allier and Harriet Cooper
Phyllida Barlow’s fantastical sculptures stretch high towards the lofty ceilings of the British Pavilion. The group of five bulging, grey columns, topped with tilting rectangular blocks, dwarfs viewers in the central gallery. They also set the tone for an installation in which Barlow explores the precarious relationship between the architectural and the theatrical, between real and fake.
Barlow is known for augmenting and ennobling everyday materials in her large-scale constructions and she pushes this skill to its apex in the Biennale presentation. Across the show, huge forms forged from wood, fabric, foam, mesh, and plaster resemble giant improvised toys and architectural decorations designed for elaborate stage sets.
But while many of Barlow’s sculptures might initially read as whimsical, they can also suddenly turn ominous. Entering one side room, you glimpse an enticingly colorful patchwork of panels, only to look up and realize that anvil-shaped forms extend from the panels and loom overhead.
Mark Bradford, “Tomorrow is Another Day”
Curated by Christopher Bedford and Katy Siegel
Litter covers gravel outside of the Palladian-style building that has housed the U.S. pavilion since 1930. This unkempt atmosphere, of course, is intentional, and introduces Mark Bradford’s bold takeover of the stately space, which he has transformed into a ruin.
The otherwise resplendently clean and white walls of the building’s central rotunda are now peeling and covered in splotches of grey that look like bruises. In another gallery, the ceiling seems to have given out, a bulbous, scarred mass emerging from it. Titled Spoiled Foot (2016), it’s one of the Los Angeles-based Bradford’s most ambitious and arresting works to date. Visitors are invited to walk around and touch its rough red and black surface, which is covered in indentations resembling lesions.
Like much of Bradford’s work, the installation addresses the discrimination and violence against black, gay, and other marginalized bodies. But in a space that represents the United States—where prejudice towards minorities is often bolstered by federal legislation—the political message of his practice is powerfully amplified.
Cody Choi, Wan Lee, “Counterbalance: The Stone and The Mountain”
Curated by Lee Daehyung
A new work by 1990s art star Cody Choi covers the pavilion’s face with mashup of neon sculptures that look as if they’ve been pulled from casinos in Las Vegas and Macao, then merged. The garish nature of global capitalism is the subject of this piece, Venetian Rhapsody (2017). And it makes way for an exuberant installation that mulls Korean culture and politics through the personal reflections of individuals from different generations.
Choi represents the 1990s, through his conceptual work that responds, often with humor, to what he saw as the West’s cultural takeover of Korea during this time. Wan Lee, more than a decade younger than Choi, explores his own relationship to globalism and how traditions and economic systems have transformed in its wake. One series of videos, “Made In” (2013–ongoing), follows Lee’s journey around several Asian countries in order to source the raw materials (wood for chopsticks in China, palm oil in Malaysia, coffee in Vietnam) needed to prepare a typical Korean breakfast.
The glue that holds the show together, though, is Lee’s sprawling, multi-part installation, Mr. K and the collection of Korean History (2010–17). It joins the personal archive of a deceased journalist named Mr. K (Lee purchased the archive at a flea market for $50) with a vast cache of government records, newspapers, wristwatches from the past that Lee has collected since 2010. And for Proper Time (2017), Lee asked hundreds of people how long they need to work in order to afford a meal. Over 600 clocks, set on pace with their answers, whir in one room of the pavilion. Each is inscribed with an interviewee’s name, birthdate, nationality, and job.
Xavier Veilhan, “Studio Venezia”
Curated by Lionel Bocier and Christian Marclay
The word “studio,” in English and Italian, refers to a space where both artists and musicians make work. This synchronicity, along with historic multidisciplinary art schools like the Bauhaus and Black Mountain College, serves as inspiration for Xavier Veilhan’s installation, which is also a working recording studio.
On Tuesday, one musician was playing a rare instrument, a Cristal Baschet, amongst wandering visitors. As he stroked its crystal tines with water, the tones that resulted (which, charmingly, resemble the sounds created by rubbing a finger around the edge of a wine glass) were being recorded in a studio on the side of the space. Sound engineers gave the thumbs up from behind a glass wall.
Over the course of the installation, a roster of some 60 musicians will play and record in the stunning, soundproofed space, which is covered in both real and sculptural instruments. Veilhan’s intention isn’t to present a polished performance, a finished product, or, like most pavilions, a magnum opus by a single artist. Instead, he wants the space to be an active site of creation and collaboration where process is laid bare. He succeeds.
Giorgio Andreotta Calò, Roberto Cuoghi, Adelita Husni-Bey, “Il mondo magico”
Curated by Cecilia Alemani
Magic, ritual, and imagination are the common threads that run through this stunning three-artist exhibition curated by Cecilia Alemani. The pavilion draws its title, and its conceptual framework, from a text written by a mid-20th-century anthropologist; it explores how humans use ritual and magic to provide structure and relief to their lives during tumultuous, uncertain moments.
The pavilion’s first, long hall is inhabited by Roberto Cuoghi’s Imitazione de Cristo (2017), a sprawling performative installation that resembles Dr. Frankenstein’s lab. Instead of monsters, machinery turns out human-scale devotional figures inspired by descriptions of the the body of Jesus Christ, hung on the cross, from the medieval Christian text “Imitation of Christ.” Once created, they’re stored on beds in futuristic, plastic igloos that look like incubators for the shriveled bodies, though dead, may be about to spring miraculously back to life.
In Adelita Husni-Bey’s film The Reading (2017), a group of young people are prompted by the artist to discuss their relationship—whether spiritual or cultural—to the lands they call home. Husni-Bey stokes their conversation with tarot cards pulled from a deck she created herself. And Giorgio Andreotta Calò transforms the architecture of the final large room with a disorienting albeit mesmerizing mirage. After walking through a maze of scaffolding, visitors ascend a staircase. At the top, expectations of a birds-eye view are distorted by an all but invisible room-length trough of water which reflects the ceiling’s rafters into its surface.
Brigitte Kowanz, Erwin Wurm
Curated by Christa Steinle
Don’t expect to enter the Austrian pavilion and remain a passive viewer. A mini retrospective of Erwin Wurm’s “One Minute Sculptures” make you work, even if you don’t realize it. The trickster-sculptor has placed seemingly random objects—like a pair of stuffed pants, a patio chair, and a vacation trailer—on the walls and floor of the space. But they only become sculptures when visitors stick limbs into their holes or stand on their surfaces.
In this way, Wurm not only delivers a rare dose of lighthearted humor to the Giardini and Biennale at large. He also transforms sculpture from a static object, which receives the gaze, into a site of action. In turn, the public metamorphoses from viewers into essential participants.
Brigitte Kowanz’s light works join Wurm’s interactive sculpture in the pavilion. While less compelling than her counterpart’s project, they too insert visitors into their environment; each work hangs on a mirrored wall primed for taking art selfies. But it’s Wurm who provides the pavilion’s delightful coda. Outside, a semi truck stands on its nose. Visitors can climb inside and up its core to a lookout point at its top, where they’re greeted by a stunning view of Venice and plaques, in several languages, that read: “Stand quiet and look out over the Mediterranean Sea.”
“The Absence of Paths”
Curated by Lina Lazaar
The Tunisian pavilion is officially located in the Arsenale, but “The Absence of Paths” expands to three kiosks around Venice from which fake travel documents called “Freesas” are issued. To validate the document, visitors stamp it with their thumbprint and simultaneously agree to “endorse a philosophy of universal freedom of movement without the need for arbitrary state-based sanction,” as one page in the passport-sized booklet notes.
The project is both a commentary on the refugee crisis and the privilege given to cultural and art world events. The kiosks are currently manned by young Tunisian men who have tried to cross the mediterranean multiple times to become migrants but failed to reach the other side. Because of the special circumstances of the Venice Biennale, the men were granted one-month tourist visas. Unsuccessful Bangladeshi migrants will follow them, with a group from Sub-Saharan Africa coming to Venice last.
Candice Breitz, Mohau Modisakeng
Curated by Lucy MacGarry and Musha Neluheni
Two separate works by South African artists Candice Breitz and Mohau Modisakeng come together in one of the most powerful installations to address forced migration at the Biennale, where it’s a frequent theme.
First, enter Modisakeng’s Passage (2017), a three-channel video installation that is a poetic, heartrending meditation on displacement, slavery, and violence. It shows three characters, each lying in a small white boat shot from above; each perform gestures that allude to struggle against unseen restraints as the vessels slowly fill with water. Eventually, the subjects submerge completely and sink, along with their boats which now resemble coffins.
Through a curtain is the first articulation of Breitz’s Love Story (2016). The film cuts abruptly between footage of actors Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore. Each plays the role of three different refugees whom Breitz previously interviewed. “All the Syrian refugees come to Europe because we feel human here,” says Moore at one point, giving voice to Sarah Mardini, whose sister Yusra participated in last summer’s Rio Olympics. In the next room, six screens play the original interviews with the refugees. Through this juxtaposition, Breitz pushes difficult questions around empathy and celebrity. For instance: Are we more likely to be moved by familiar, white actors who pretend than by strangers who have experienced real struggle?
Carol Bove, Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler, “Women of Venice”
Curated by Philipp Kaiser
This multiple-artist presentation began with a somewhat idiosyncratic prompt: Respond to the absence of Alberto Giacometti from the Swiss pavilion’s history. The result, however, is strikingly cohesive. Both Carol Bove and artist duo Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler stay true to their respective practices while exploring the work and cultural resonance of the behemoth Modernist sculptor. In the process, they separately address how women, in particular, informed Giacometti’s work—and how their influence on his oeuvre has been largely forgotten.
In the pavilion’s quiet courtyard, Bove reimagines Giacometti’s figurative sculptures, like his “Femmes de Venise” series. Through Bove’s hand, they transform into a group of blue, cylindrical forms typical of her style, which resembles industrial tubing that’s been crushed and swathed in bright colors.
The tour de force in the pavilion, however, is Hubbard & Birchler’s Flora (2017). The 30-minute film, which is well worth a full watch, traces the life of artist Flora Mayo, Giacometti’s contemporary and lover. The double-sided screen tells her story through both documentary footage, on one side, and a recreation of events in her life, on the other. Together, they resurrect Flora’s art, which she left behind in Paris when she ran out of money, and her dream to become an artist, which was thwarted by the pressures of being a single mother in the 1930s.
Anne Imhof, “Faust”
Curated by Susanne Pfeffer
The German pavilion is the epitome of a total work of art: A single piece fills its cavernous space through which viewers walk on glass platforms raised above the marble floor by sleek steel tubing; its facade is structured with heavy-duty metal fencing and more glass; stone-faced performers clad in black peer into the pavilion from atop its roof; even the pavilion staff, cool kids decked out in black athleisure-wear and red Nike hats, are a part of the work. It’s the newest piece in Imhof’s growing body of performances that probe the power dynamics, sexual politics, and feelings of alienation that plague our tech-obsessed contemporary society.
Inside the pavilion, a group of performers move through three rooms that resemble the sanitized, bright-white spaces of Stanley Kubrik’s dystopian sci-fi film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Their gestures are ritualistic and often allude to domination and violence. An early portion of the five-hour-long piece involves a significant amount of headbanging; at another point, one performer presses another to the glass floor in slow motion. Even when interacting with objects as intimate as soap bars or as rousing as music equipment, their motions feel empty of emotion and restrained—as if the joy has been sucked out of life in this cold, foreign, glass-and-metal-bolstered world.
A troop of barking Doberman Pinschers drives home the overwhelming sense of foreboding that the performance inspires. At once, they seem to be protecting and policing the young, beautiful, shells of humans who live inside. Despite the closeness and frequent contact of the performers, a return to generative, loving collaboration and collectivity isn’t in sight.
Geta Brătescu, “Apparitions”
Curated by Magda Radu
At 91, Geta Brătescu is among a number of older women artists that have finally gotten their due over the Biennale’s past few iterations. This elegant retrospective of the Romanian artist’s output begins with work she made under the oppressive communist rule of Nicolae Ceausescu in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. Drawings from this period show Brătescu resisting conformity by exploring themes of individuality and feminine strength.
One collage, The Demoness (1981), shows a woman resembling a fertility figure. Her curvaceous form is covered in scribbles that look like tempestuous emotions and opinions coursing through her body. In another series, titled “Faust”(1981–82) after Goethe’s tragedy, she depicts the masterpiece’s influential female characters in abstract drawings of their bodies. Beams of light burst from the breasts of one figure; in others, complex labyrinths stand in for vaginas, seeming to suggest that these women have protected themselves against any potential intruders.