Emma O’Kelly, Wallpaper’s Editor-at-Large, shares her top picks of this year’s Venice Art Biennale

More than 86 countries, among them newcomers Antigua and Barbuda, Kiribati, and Nigeria are participating in this year’s biennale that, as every year, occupies the grand pavilions of the Giardini and the industrial spaces of the Arsenale. Visiting them all requires sturdy shoes, stamina, and a Zen approach to queues, but the buzz of seeing great art in such salubrious surroundings is addictive. And that’s before you get to the myriad satellite shows, pop-ups and impromptu performances that take place all over the city. Be sure too, to check out Damien Hirst’s show, Treasure from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, spread between Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana. Love it or loathe it, this blockbuster was the talk of Venice.


Anne Imhof © Nadine Fraczkowski

Faust at the German Pavilion

The German pavilion was the talk of the biennale this year with Frankfurt-based artist Anne Imhof scooping the Golden Lion for best national participation. At its entrance, hyperactive Dobermans barked in pens fitted with anti riot wire, while inside gaunt, tattooed actors performed Imhof’s Faust, a production that lasted from five to seven hours. The young performers crouched, dead-eyed, on wall-mounted plinths and moved, zombie-like, around the pavilion before retreating underground to crawl among dog bowls, rags and bars of soap, as if trapped in a prison or an asylum. Their apparent state of purgatory was in stark contrast to the well-heeled visitors walking on the glass floor above them.


Ettore Sottsass © Enrico Fiorese

Dialogo at Negozio Olivetti

Art, architecture and design come together at the Olivetti Showroom in a quiet corner of Piazza San Marco. Until 20 August more than 60 ceramics by the late Ettore Sottsass are on show in the iconic space, which was designed in 1957 by Venetian architect Carlo Scarpa. The show brings together one-offs and mass-produced slip ceramics made between 1957 and 1969 and is curated by French architect Charles Zana (who has loaned some of his own pieces). The selection charts the Sottsass’s obsessions, his dark moods (reflected in his Ceramiche delle Tenebre) and his passion for travel and spirituality. It’s fitting too, that both Scarpa and Sottsass, were, at different times, creative directors at Olivetti.



Proper Time Though the Dreams © Lee Wan


Proper Time Though the Dreams © Lee Wan


Night installation view at the Korean Pavilion, Courtesy of Cody Choi © Riccardo Tosetto

Counterbalance: The Stone and the Mountain at the Korean Pavilion

Decked out with kitschy neon signs reminiscent of Las Vegas and Macau, there’s no missing the Korean pavilion. The ‘casino capitalism’ signage is the work of Seoul based artist Cody Choi, whose sculptures made in the pink digestive drink Pepto-Bismol first brought him fame in 1997. Choi shares the pavilion with fellow Korean artist Lee Wan, and together they provide an exhilarating snapshot of Korean life under capitalism. Wan’s vast display of clocks records how many hours people in various parts of the world have to labour to afford a meal, while ‘Mr. K and the Collection of Korean History’ documents the life of a Mr Kim Kimoon (1936-2011). Wan picked up Kimoon’s personal archive and effects in a Korean flea market, and his display provides a fascinating glimpse into the life of a Korean everyman.


Cow-boat De Kooning, Roberto Matta, Mark Tobey, Julien Beck © JP Gabriel

Intuition by Axel Vervoordt at Palazzo Fortuny

This year’s biennale was the sixth and final outing for Belgian dealer Axel Vervoordt. In December, he’s bringing all operations to Kanaal, the ‘art village’ he has developed on the outskirts of his native Antwerp. And a fitting final tribute it was. As in previous editions, Vervoordt took over Palazzo Fortuny, the large Gothic pile belonging to the late designer and artist Mariano Fortuny and filled it with a collection of art, objets and ancient artefacts. Vervoordt is the master of eclecticism and that he can take such a historic building, brimming with Fortuny’s elegant tapestries, wall hangings and lamps, and mix it seamlessly with art from the Surrealists onwards, shows the depths of his mastery.

Intuition, Palazzo Fortuny, San Marco 3958-San Beneto.


Installation view, courtesy of Phyllida Barlow and Hauser & Wirth © Ruth Clark, British Council


Installation view, courtesy of Phyllida Barlow and Hauser & Wirth © Ruth Clark, British Council

Folly at the British pavilion

‘I feel like spoilt brat,’ said Phyllida Barlow at the inauguration of the British pavilion. Now, aged 73, she has spent 50 years reaching this point in her career, so no one else could accuse her of brattishness. Her   colossal sculptures, made from her trademark builders yard materials – plaster, cement, plywood and scrim – fill every inch of the British pavilion forcing visitors right up close. Some, such as a Juliet balcony and piano resemble familiar objects, while others, among them giant coloured baubles that line the steps and the portico, are purely abstract forms.


Venice Art Biennale runs until 26 November. labiennale.org

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