To Venice and Back with Hyperallergic

Who better to reflect on the 55th Venice Biennale than the duo who no doubt found themselves—per their usual—in the center of all places to see and be seen, Hyperallergic. Veken and Hrag (pictured in a fisheye selfie, at right) are known for a playful and provocative perspective on the art world, one they packed for Venice on the occasion of the Biennale. Find out which artists and pavilions caught their eyes, which took them by surprise, and the works—a month later—that they cannot seem to forget.

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

Veken Gueyikian and Hrag Vartanian: We loved the pavilions that took a chance and tried something different. We were fans of the Romanian pavilion, where Alexandra Pirick and Manuel Pelmus’s An Immaterial Retrospective of The Venice Biennale was being performed. It was a fascinating take on the history of this global gathering and it really said a lot about the limitations of the human body in storytelling. The Greek Pavilion’s meditation on money and exchange by Stefanos Tsivopoulos, titled “History Zero,” made a strong impression on us as well. In the cacophony of the Biennale, those two definitely stood out. It was particularly wonderful to see Tsivopoulos take aim at the collector culture in his three-part video series. The idea that this woman wearing a kimono in one of the videos is making flowers out of Euros and throwing them out, while a poor person is rummaging through the garbage of the same city is a beautiful metaphor. In the scheme of things, you realize how ridiculous art can be when it is removed from the world around it.

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

VG/HV: The exhibit was massive, too large in fact, and it was difficult to digest everything. We were a little disappointed that so many of the objects were rather banal. There wasn’t a lot of the excitement present that we normally see in the art world. While many of the national pavilions seemed more engaged with the world around us, “The Encyclopedic Palace” felt more like a historical museum, removed from the fray and looking inward. There were also some heavy-handed moments, like the placement of Richard Serra’s “Pasolini” sculptures (1985) in a room of moody seascape paintings by Thierry De Cordier—too much.

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

VG/HV: The sculptures by Japanese artist Shinichi Sawada were quite amazing, and a revelation for us. It was also great to see a small work like Dorothea Tanning’s Self-Portrait (1944) shine in this context. And Cindy Sherman’s exhibition in the middle of it all was a welcome reprise. We don’t think enough artists grapple with the human body nowadays in such a direct way and Sherman’s show really wrestled with the topic using a contemporary language.

Artsy: What artists or works at the Venice Biennale (or in collateral events) 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?

VG/HV: Ai Weiwei has already been creating a stir. Even critics we know who don’t normally like his work were impressed. Because of “The Encyclopedic Palace” exhibition, the “outsider” artists are coming in from the cold, though that process has been going on for a while, and I’m sure we’ll see more inclusion of these once marginal voices into mainstream exhibitions.

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

VG/HV: So many, but here are some that come immediately to mind … Japanese artist Shinichu Sawada, Jasmina Cibic at the Slovenian Pavilion was excellent, Richard Mosse, while not unknown, had a powerful display at the Irish Pavilion that was a must-see, and we also thought Thomas Zipp’s “Comparative investigation about the disposition of the width of a circle” was thought provoking. Zipp created an installation that either (depending on your perspective) mocked or pined for the early 20th century mental asylum as a place of transformation. We also didn’t know the work of Mathias Poledna before, he showed in the Austrian Pavilion, and we were impressed at how moving it felt. He created a short animation in the style of mid-20th century Disney cartoons and it was lovely and simple though weighed down by nostalgia—that mix may not sound ideal, but it was strangely appropriate for this moment in our history.

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

VG/HV: Ai Weiwei’s “S.A.C.R.E.D” in Castello was surprisingly good. Placed inside an old Venetian church, you can’t help but feel the psychological dimension of the Chinese dissident artist’s turmoil, life, and art. Lawrence Weiner’s strange little show “The Grace of Gesture” was surprisingly good. And Portuguese artist Pedro Cabrita Reis’s “A Remote Whisper” installation had an almost zen quality, which is not what you'd expect when an artist takes over a floor of a palazzo with fluorescent lights and industrial metal casings. One of the thrills of exploring the secondary shows is the ability to explore these historic buildings and their amazing interiors and private spaces. Venice is a city that is constantly revealing itself to you in a new way—it shares that kinship with New York.

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

VG/HV: A friend who lives in Venice recommended a wonderful restaurant in San Polo that we’ll definitely visit again, Bancogiro. Right on the Grand Canal, the food and ambience were perfect without feeling like a tourist trap. Our advice is don’t waste your time with the pasta or pizza in Venice, we really think eating well in Venice is all about the fish. It’s a seafaring culture, so, of course, fish is at the center of the Venetian menu.

There’s very little to do in terms of nightlife in Venice, but nothing beats walking through the streets, bridges, and piazzas at night and feeling transported to another era.

Photographs of the Romanian Pavilion and Pedro Cabrita Reis’s “A Remote Whisper” installation courtesy of Hyperallergic; ; Ai Weiwei “Disposition” photograph by Alex John Beck for Artsy. History Zero, video still, 2013, courtesy of the artist, Kalfayan Galleries, Prometeogallery di Ida Pisani; Shinichi Sawada image by Francesco Galli, courtesy of la Biennale di Venezia; Charles Ray, Fall ’91, 1992, photograph by Alex John Beck for Artsy