A Top Canadian Curator’s Picks from the Venice Biennale

Freshly back from Venice, Artsy caught up with Jonathan Shaughnessy, curator of contemporary art at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, who gave an account of the Biennale so compelling we nearly turned on our heels to go back. Find out which exhibition Shaughnessy says he’ll remember as long as he lives, where he heads for a spritz and snacks at the closing hour of the Giardini, and what up-and-coming artists he says made a lasting impression—after all, he says, “getting lesser known artists on the map is part of the program.”

Artsy: What do you think were the standout pavilions at this year’s Venice Biennale?

Jonathan Shaughnessy: A number of pavilions managed to do, show, and say a lot with what I am sure were limited budgets and supportive infrastructure: the combined Lithuania and Cyprus pavilion (especially with the “bleacher” performances/dancers during the preview days), as well as Romania and Estonia. Loved the “collaborative performance” videos by Koki Tanaka in the Japan pavilion, as well as Miloš Tomić’s videos in the Serbian pavilion which were also in many ways collaborations. I will remember Jeremy Deller’s “English Magic” for a long time to come, both the video and its infectious rendition of “The Man who Sold the World” by the Melodians Steel Orchestra, as well as the overall pavilion with its brilliant pairing (and narrative) of William Morris’ resuscitation as a colossus juxtaposed with privatization certificates at the dawn of the Soviet Union’s transition to capitalism. And yes I was sold on the tea as well… There was also Akram Zaatari’s Letter to a Refusing Pilot which marked a solid return of Lebanon to the Biennale after the country’s absence since a short-lived debut in 2007.

Artsy: What from “The Encyclopedic Palace” stayed with you after you left?

JS: One of my favorite art shows in recent years was “After Nature” at the New Museum, also organized by Massimiliano Gioni. There Werner Herzog’s apocalyptic homage to the planet’s destruction Lessons of Darkness (1992) guided the curator toward a moving selection of artists and works that resonated with poignancy and aesthetic force. Gioni has repeated this curatorial recipe to strong effect to my mind for the international show at this year’s Biennale where Marino Auriti’s “model of a utopian dream,” the eclectic maquette/sculpture Palazzo Enciclopedico (1955) loosely guides his premise and selections, abetted by Carl Gustav Jung’s Red Book that introduces the show in the central pavilion. While there are many works that will stay with me—none more perhaps than Yuri Ancarani’s intensely mesmerizing (and at times nearly unwatchable) video Da Vinci (2012)—what I enjoyed the most about “The Encyclopedic Palace” was the organization and how, curatorially speaking, each piece folded cleanly and relevantly back into the structuring narrative and theme established by Auriti in the Arsenale, and Jung’s esoteric drawings in the Giardini. In terms of artworks, I felt that Camille Henrot’s Grosse fatigue was well-deserving of its Golden Lion nod, totally enthralled with Lin Xue’s drawings and the films of João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva, Artur Zmijewski’s Blindly I had seen before and was glad to see again—among the Polish artist’s most moving studies—that moment with Dorothea Tanning’s two paintings just before (and after) Fischli & Weiss

Artsy: What from the “The Encyclopedic Palace” surprised you?

JS: Surprise! Shinichi Sawada. Amazing. I am not going to forget you or your work as long as I live.

Artsy: What artists or works at the Venice Biennale do you think will instigate the most dialogue within the art world this year? And who from this Biennale do you feel will be remembered in Venice Biennale history?

JS: No doubt people will be talking about Ragnar Kjartansson’s insatiably Romantic presence once again at this year’s biennale—his only regret may be that his success means he’s too busy to spend another summer in Venice, sailing his ship! In terms of other dialogues, I think Galid Ratman’s work (Israeli pavilion) always has the chance to provoke discussion and effect, and deservedly so, something which the ephemerality of the Mexican pavilion under Ariel Guzik seems to have achieved from the word of mouth I was overhearing. Speaking of the very opposite of ephemeral, Udo Kittleman/Vadim Zakharov’s Russian pavilion realized its intended shock value; the critical merits (not to mention vulgarity) of which I feel are more debatable topics. I will continue to laud on about the Irish party and the incredible wall of sound Icelandic composer Ben Frost produced for a few hours in the sweaty smoke-filled enclaves of an anti-fascist resource centre on artist Richard Mosse’s birthday.

Artsy: What artists who might have been lesser-known before the Biennale are now on your radar?

JS: As with any biennial, triennial, quinquennial, getting lesser known artists on the map is part of the program. I take away a number of names including one or two from above, especially Miloš Tomić who I’ll be keeping an eye on. While they didn’t take home prizes—and are no longer really ‘discoveries’—I continue to be impressed with where the work of Basim Magdy (Egypt), Amalia Pica (Argentina), and Eva Kotatkova (Czech republic) is going, each of whom were up for the Pinchuk Art Centre’s Future Generation Art Prize at the Palazzo Contarini Polignac (Kotatkova was also included in Gioni’s show). Of artists and works I had never encountered, loved the Bouillon Group’s Religious Aerobics in the Georgia’s Pavilion’s Kamikaze Loggia (too bad I missed their performance of it in Piazza San Marco) and was impressed with Mladen Miljanović’s updated take on Bosch in “The Garden of Delights,” his project for the pavilion of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Oh, and who saw the Peckham Pavilion? Draw a line from Ryan Trecartin (that starts at Mike Kelley); make a sculptural pit stop at Josephine Meckseper for contrivance, Cady Noland for force; watch Youtube shreds without irony, reality TV without apology; lounge on a pastel (or faux-pastel) couch supported by now-scuffed and no longer decipherable pages of post-structural tomes; arrive at this unofficial off-site pavilion offering work across media by a handful of talented young artists (gathered by the resourceful young gallerist Hannah Barry) that to my mind shares a glimpse of a generational shift presently underway that is (or is soon to be) changing the terms of aesthetics, engagement, and critique.

Artsy: What other exhibitions taking place in Venice would you recommend?

JS: Manet! That said, I would be remiss if I didn’t … pitch the efforts of four Newfoundlanders: curators Mireille Eagen and Bruce Johnson and artists Will Gill and Peter Wilkens and the support of the Terra Nova Foundation who managed the seemingly insurmountable task of presenting About Turn: Newfoundland in Venice at a moment when public arts funding in this Canadian province is seemingly in crisis and its main art gallery The Rooms all but replete of its staff. Gill’s expressive paintings and Wilkin’s photomontages of patterned landscapes, as well as the latter’s video “portraits” are all elegantly presented in the well-situated Grand Canal-side surroundings of the Galleria Ca’ Rezzonico. A coup that is worth a visit.   

Artsy: Can you name any standout restaurants, cafes, or night spots that you discovered (or went back to) in Venice this year?

JS: At the end of the day when the Giardini closes it is of course time for spritz and snacks. If you do this at Strani, Castello 1582, you can save yourself the pressure of needing to do anything else in the evening because this is inevitably where you will want to end up again after any of the official parties and events you may be attending. Unless the latter happen to be at Paradiso Perduto on the Fondamenta della Misericordia [see last image, at right] in which case plan nothing else and enjoy (oh and if you can get the Montreal artist and consummate host Dean Baldwin to order for your table all the better)!

Explore more Venice Biennale Coverage in Best of the Biennale.

Share article