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A first timer’s guide to the Venice Art Biennale

You have until late November to have this once-in-a-lifetime experience

PH pavilion at Arsenale

Giant floating lobster by Philip Colbert

Every two years, from mid-April to late November, over 500,000 culture vultures land on the island of Venice to visit the International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, more popularly known as the Art Biennale, one of the largest, most important, and most prestigious art exhibitions in the world.

Billionaire collectors, artists, curators, and directors of various museums and other international art exhibitions come together to see new works by their favorite artists and find out the latest buzz in contemporary art.

What is the Art Biennale?

It being the oldest one, the Art Biennale is the mother of all biennales, on which all others are based. When the first, known as Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte della Città di Venezia, opened in 1895, it achieved worldwide recognition and counted more than 200,000 visitors, a feat in its time. Its initial aim was to promote Italian art, but it eventually opened up to works from foreign artists as well.

Since then, the Art Biennale has become increasingly popular because it continues to give participating countries the privilege and opportunity to showcase the creativity of their own artists through visual art on a massive global stage.

Exhibits are displayed at the Arsenale, the city’s former shipyard and armory, and at the Giardini, a 19th-century marshland-turned-public park by Napoleon Bonaparte, which has permanent national pavilions.

Sculpture by Simone Leigh, “Brick House” (2019), cast bronze

Entrance to the Central Pavilion at the Giardini

Performance art at the Giardini

These structures were designed by leading architects of their time, including Carlo Scarpa and Alvar Aalto, were paid for by the respective countries, and continue to be managed by their respective culture ministries.

There are also other shows not necessarily part of the Art Biennale that you can catch, hosted by commercial galleries and various city museums.

What is it about?

There is always also a main exhibition around a unifying theme, assembled by a selected curator.

The 59th edition of the Art Biennale that opened only last month is titled Milk of Dreams,  from a book by Leonora Carrington which describes a magical world where life is constantly re-envisioned through the prism of the imagination.

In a statement, Cecilia Alemani, the curator of the Art Biennale, said, “The Milk of Dreams was conceived and organized in a period of enormous instability and uncertainty, since its development coincided with the outbreak and spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. La Biennale di Venezia was forced to postpone this edition for a year, an event that had only occurred during the two world wars since 1895. So the very fact that this Exhibition can open is somewhat extraordinary: its inauguration is not exactly the symbol of a return to normal life, but rather the outcome of a collective effort that seems almost miraculous.”

This year, 213 artists from 58 countries created a total of 1,433 works with 80 new projects specifically made just for the Art Biennale.

A once-in-a-lifetime experience

Attending the recent vernissage of the Art Biennale was a very memorable experience. Apart from the many events hosted by international galleries, there were also so many interesting exhibits, it was impossible to catch all because we were there only for a couple of days.

The Art Biennale was a pleasant, albeit daunting, experience for a first-timer like me. While I was sort of prepared for the weather (it was unusually cold and wet in Venice this time of year), I didn’t expect the multitude of people and number of really good exhibits.

Let this guide help you prepare and know what to expect before you experience it for yourself.

Do your research

Going to the Art Biennale isn’t akin to going for a day trip to a museum—there is an overwhelming amount to see, and it is best to check the program and read pavilion reviews to see what piques your interest so you can plan your route efficiently.

One pavilion not to miss is our very own located at the Arsenale, which features a sensorial experience brought to life by artist Gerardo Tan, musicologist Fe Prudente with weaver Sammy Buhle. It is curated by Yael Buencamino-Borromeo and Arvin Flores.

At the Philippine pavilion, Renderings features soundwaves of a local chant woven on strips of fabric.

The exhibit has two parts: the first is a video installation titled Speaking in Tongue and shows the translation of a traditional chant into performative painting using the artist’s tongue and squid ink. The second, called Renderings, features sound waves of a local chant woven on long strips of fabric using a traditional technique. The chant is from the opening lines of “Anti taku e sana, Among taku di sana” (All of us present, This is our gathering), performed by the Madukayan Kalinga ethnolinguistic group of the highland Cordillera region.

The video installation Speaking in Tongue is part of the exhibit at the Philippine pavilion.

Monitors show musicians performing chanting, while woven fabrics are laid on the floor.

The colorful, woven fabrics are hung from the ceiling, with some laid out on the floor by exhibition designer Miguel Rosales of Caramel Creative. There are also small monitors showing musicians performing the chant while the audio is being played throughout the pavilion.

Reserve, reserve, reserve

The Art Biennale takes place during one of the busiest times of year in Venice, so you should book everything in advance.

If you want to catch the opening in April, you must reserve your hotel around six months to a year earlier. It will already be expensive (even more, the nearer you are to the Arsenale) and it will skyrocket if you do it closer to the event date. Sometimes you might get lucky with a hotel with a fantastic rate in an amazing location if you reserve through online hotel booking sites, but it’s better to be safe than overspend.

I also highly recommend you arrange for a water taxi to collect you at your point of entry. The same goes for your transfer when it’s time to say “Arrivederci!” Otherwise, you’ll have to lug your suitcases up and down bridges and through the streets of Venice to your hotel or squeeze yourself in an already tight vaporetto.

If you want to eat somewhere decent after seeing all the shows, it’s recommended to make a reservation or be prepared to have a bite at 9 pm. Remember, aside from visitors going to the Art Biennale, you also have your regular tourists, so it will definitely be a battle for a table unless you prefer eating a sandwich or pizza which you can easily buy from smaller cafes.

Aperol with Italian bruschetta

Sometimes, it’s also nice to take a break from all the art and people watch by the Piazza San Marco with a nice and refreshing aperol spritz.

Buy your tickets online

Queuing for tickets can sometimes take forever.  If you don’t want to waste precious touring time waiting in line, try getting your passes online which you can easily flash to enter the venue faster. Most websites have payment facilities and they email your tickets too.

A pass to the Arsenale and Giardini allows access for just one day. There is really a lot to see in each location and you might want to devote a day each so you’re not rushing from one place to the next.

There are some free exhibits—some works are on public display, like the gigantic inflatable lobster by British contemporary artist Philip Colbert that was sitting on a barge which sailed past us, or in heritage buildings such as the Ateneo Veneto  which showed the colorful paintings of Daniel Richter. Others have an admission fee, especially the museums.

Richter

For instance, the huge works of Anselm Kiefer are installed at the Sala dello Scrutinio at the Doge’s Palace which is a major tourist attraction, which you must see anyway if it’s your first time in Venice.

Go for comfort

You no longer need to dress to impress since the shows by now are open to the public (unless it’s for your OOTDs). What you need to keep in mind is to wear very comfortable shoes. The Art Biennale is a huge world to navigate and there aren’t any places to sit inside.

Refrain from bringing large bags because they will ask you to check them in. Also, toilets in the Arsenale and Giardini are not many and if you’re a woman, there will most probably be a really long line to use one. I recommend emptying your bladder before you enter the exhibit halls so you can comfortably view and enjoy the art around you.

Getting around

Venice is like a labyrinth of small, narrow streets. It’s very easy to get lost on your way to an exhibit and some don’t even have street signs that tell you where you are, which makes Google Maps a godsend because all you need to do is type where you want to go and follow the arrow towards your destination.

Evening shot of grand canal

If you don’t feel like walking to the next exhibit, the vaporetto or water bus is your most practical mode of transport. Depending on how long you’re staying in Venice and where exactly you plan to go, I suggest buying the multi-day pass that allows unlimited rides on all the lines which can take you to all the islands. The trip may take longer than usual, but at least you’re able to rest your feet and get to see the palazzos which dot the canal. Tickets are available in machines found in each vaporetto stop.

The Venice Art Biennale runs from 23 April to 27 November, 2022. For tickets and more information about the Venice Art Biennale, visit https://www.labiennale.org/it. You can also check out www.philartsvenicebiennale.org. and see updates on Facebook and Instagram via @philartsvenice.

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He is a professional who’s interested in art, culture and style.

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