Parasol in the palace: art and architecture

WHEN I SET off for Venice a couple of days ago, I doubted whether I would enjoy the Biennale as much as my wife and our daughter. How wrong I was. I have been enjoying exploring the artworks housed in a number of different places around the city. Some of the shows are in pavilions specially designed for Biennale exhibitions. Others are in places adapted, mostly temporarily, for use during the art festival. For example, the Nepalese and Armenian shows are in what look like disused shop premises. Others are in far grander edifices.

Today, we visited an exhibition housed in the courtyards and rooms of a huge palace, which is home to a music conservatoire (located close to Campo S Stefano). The exhibits (sculptures, paintings, and videos) were created by members of a group of artists within the fold of the Parasol Unit art foundation. The artists in the show are: Darren Almond, Oliver Beer, Rana Begum with Hyetal, Julian Charrière, David Claerbout, Bharti Kher, Arghavan Khosravi, Teresa Margolles, Si On, Martin Puryear, and Rayyane Tabet.

The show in the conservatoire is wonderful. The building itself is a fantastic architectural sculpture with a myriad of neo-classical decorative sculptural details. The works of art, which are in total contrast to the architecture, harmonise interestingly with the environments in which they have been placed. Photographs cannot do justice to this exhibition; it has to be experienced in person.

Although this show will be amongst my favourite exhibitions in the 2022 Venice Biennale, it is not alone in being magnificent. I am glad that we have come to Venice for this artistic bonanza.

Two empty pavilions at the Venice Biennale

THE BIENNALE IN Venice was first held in 1895. The original international bi-annual art exhibition was contained in public gardens at the Eastern end of the city of Venice in the Castello district.

Initially, there was a Central Pavilion, opened in 1894. Later, various participating countries built national pavilions, the first being Belgium in 1907. The latest is the Australian pavilion, built only a few years ago.

The national pavilions reflect both the politics and architectural styles prevailing at the time they were built. Therefore, they are at least as interesting as the artworks that take up temporary residence within them at each exhibition.

I will discuss two of the pavilions in this short essay, and hope to write about some of the others at a later date.

The Russian pavilion bears the date 1914 and several double-headed eagles. It was constructed before the 1917 Revolution, and has some traditional Russian architectural features.

Next to the Belgian pavilion, stands the Spanish one. First constructed in 1933, its facade was replaced by a modern brick one in 1952.

Both the Spanish and the Russian pavilions appear to be empty, but for quite different reasons. For the 2022 Biennale, the artist Ignasi Aballi (born 1958 in Barcelona) has left the pavilion empty but shifted its internal walls in an attempt to correct a discrepancy between its original architectural plan and what ended up being constructed. The result is an empty pavilion with a strange internal layout. It was at first disconcerting to discover a pavilion empty of artworks, but soon it became pleasurable to see the strange vistas and connections between neighbouring rooms.

The Russian pavilion, unlike the Spanish, is closed. But it is also devoid of exhibits. Russia was not invited to the Biennale this year. The reason for this was Mr Putin’s unwise decision to invade his neibour, Ukraine.

Tired

The Kochi Muziris Art Bienniale is back again. We have attended two of the three previous biennales, those in 2014 and 2016.

The biennales run from mid December to the end of the following March. A joy of this biannual exhibition is that artworks are displayed in many heritage buildings that are not normally accessible to the public. Visitors get a chance to view many fascinating buildings that form part of the history of the port of Cochin.

Today, we visited the main base of the Biennale, which is housed in the buildings of the former Aspinwall company compound.

Works by many artists are on display in the various spaces within the extensive compound. This year most of the works on display are either video installations and/or conceptual art. There are a few works that are otherwise. I was disappointed by this year’s showing as compared with what I saw in previous years’ biennales. The selection of artworks seems unexciting, tired.

However, one work in this year’s show at Aspinwall stands out way ahead of the rest. It is “More Sweetly Play the Dance” made in 2015 by the South African artist William Kentridge.

Moving images are projected onto eight large screens. These images are both drawn (as in cartoons) and photographic. A procession of figures, both drawn and photographed, move from one screen to the next, travelling through a drawn landscape that changes continuously in subtle ways. The motion projected on the screen is accompanied by a brilliant musical soundtrack that is inspired by African music. The result is a spectacular audio visual experience that is both joyous and slightly sinister. I felt that the ‘white’ Kentridge was portraying the experiences of South African Black people, both their joys and their tragedies. His work, on display in a large warehouse with a tiled ceiling at Aspinwall, is truly artistic at all levels of appeal, from the sensual and emotional to the intellectual. It is a positive contrast to much of the other art on display at Aspinwall, which requires explanation before it might possibly be enjoyed.

I look forward to visiting many of the other places connected with the Bienniale. I hope that I will be seeing art that grabs me emotionally as well as intellectually.

PS Since writing this, I have visited many other parts of the Biennale. Some of these, especially the places housing the works of current art students (The Students Biennale) and the artworks in the TKM Warehouse, are outstandingly good. If you are in Cochin for a limited time, skip Aspinwall and head for Mattancherry where the most exciting works are on display.