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從開幕盛況到藝術至上：舉世矚目的威尼斯雙年展 | Art Takes Centrestage After Venice Biennale Opening
at 9:05pm on 21st June 2019
Street posters in Venice advertising Shirley Tse’s exhibition in the Hong Kong Pavilion. Photo: John Batten
(Please scroll down for English version)
國際外交界每年都會因為威尼斯的藝術活動聚首該市。第58屆威尼斯雙年展是現時至2019年11月24日舉行的展覽，它的意大利語全稱是La Biennale di Venezia – 58. Exposizione Internazionale d’Arte，英語媒體一般簡稱為「The Venice Biennale」。「La Biennale di Venezia」本身是一個正規組織，由一個（意外地小規模的）董事會率領。組織也涉獵其他藝術形式，並專注舉辦不同藝術節。據該會解釋，這些藝術活動「……引領當代藝術新潮流的研究與推廣工作，為各領域舉辦展覽和進行研究，計有：藝術（自1895年起辦）、建築（1980年起辦）、電影（1932年起辦）、舞蹈（1999年起辦）、音樂（1930年起辦）及劇場（1934年起辦）」。
一些參展國家選擇不在兵工廠區展覽，因為它們認為在威尼斯另一部份物色場地，可能會得到更佳的曝光。在雙年展期舉行期間，也有很多其他展覽同時開辦。例如，Prada 基金會便舉行了一場令人印象深刻的展覽，主角是影響力深遠的希臘／意大利藝術家Jannis Kounellis。所以，部份國家特意把展館設於這場展覽附近，沾沾這位國際藝術家的光芒，希望觀眾可以稍移玉步，順道參觀。
Art Takes Centrestage After Venice Biennale Opening
by John Batten
The world of international diplomacy comes to Venice every year through its art events. Currently on exhibition until 24 November 2019 is the 58th edition of ‘La Biennale di Venezia – 58. Exposizione Internazionale d’Arte’, to give it its full name in Italian – usually shortened to ‘The Venice Biennale.’ However, La Biennale di Venezia is a formal organization led by a (surprisingly small) Board of Directors that also encompasses other art forms and has dedicated festivals which is, as it explains, “…at the forefront of research and promotion of new contemporary art trends, organizes exhibitions and research in all its specific sectors: Arts (since 1895), Architecture (1980), Cinema (1932), Dance (1999), Music (1930), and Theatre (1934).”
The significance of these events can only be appreciated by visiting Venice to see what is happening. I made only my first visit to Italy, Venice and the Venice Biennale last month to attend the opening days of the (visual arts) Venice Biennale. Understanding the logistics of the Biennale and Venice is relatively simple (see below), but I had not appreciated the extent that the Biennale is an international event with both national and domestic concerns.
Venice is a remarkable place. Its historic places, piazzas, churches and canals date back centuries and is a unique concentration of architectural, religious and artistic wonders – there is almost nowhere else like it in the world. The city spreads itself along and outwards from the Grand Canal and from its ‘centre’, St Mark’s Square. Getting around Venice is relatively simple as it is not a physically big place. Visitors, however, should be mobile as the city’s many bridges and older buildings involve climbing stairs. The city’s waterbuses, the famous vaporetto, travel along and criss-cross the Grand Canal and are essential to get to other islands around the Venetian lagoon, or, if you have luggage – but, it is best to travel light. Venice’s train station is located directly on the Grand Canal and has its own vaporetto stop. The airport also has ferry connections – so, most visitors will use the sea to arrive near their accommodation: a magical introduction to the city.
Many countries or regions, as in Hong Kong’s case, participate in the visual arts (in odd years) and architecture (in even years) Biennales. There are two main locations in which exhibitions are featured; and both are walking distance from St Mark’s Square. During the Biennale entry is by paid ticket. Considered by many as the more prestigious, the Giardini (‘garden’ in Italian) is a fenced-off public park that has individual participating country’s buildings (referred to as pavilions) scattered around the gardens. The architecture of each pavilion displays aspects of the character of the country and is the property of individual countries; each year they will use their pavilion to mount a display. The national pavilions in the Giardini, reflecting the old-world origins of the Venice Biennale, which began in 1895, sees European nations dominate. A few later inclusions – Korea, Venezuala and Australia – are also present. The limited space in the Giardini means no new pavilions for other countries will be built. Consequently, other prominent countries, including China, are not located in the Giardini.
The other main Biennale venue, also close to St Mark’s Square, is the Arsenale. Dating back to the 12th century, the Arsenale was the centre of Venetian naval power, allowing the city to dominate the seas and trade routes of the Mediterranean and build its fantastic wealth. The Arsenale was a huge shipbuilding and repair factory, managed as an almost-modern production-line and industrial facility. The Biennale is held in the historic high-ceiled wooden-trussed buildings that merge into each other and literally run for kilometres. Inside, using sections and rooms of the old Arsenale, are other countries’ temporary national pavilions. The Arsenale also hosts the main curated exhibition sponsored by the Biennale itself – a huge sprawling display of artists from around the world. This year’s exhibition, May You Live in Interesting Times, gives an excellent overview of the themes (displacement, refugees, violence, etc) and forms that contemporary artists are currently concerned with.
Some exhibiting countries choose not to exhibit inside the Arsenale, figuring that they may have better exposure by finding a venue in another part of Venice. During the Biennale there are numerous other exhibitions running concurrently. For example, the Prada Foundation has mounted an impressive exhibition of the influential Greek/Italian artist Jannis Kounellis. So, some countries have purposely located their pavilions nearby, piggy-backing on the lure of this international artist and counting on visitors to make a short detour to see their pavilions.
The opening day of the Biennale is a frantic showcase of national identity. The pavilions in the Giardini traditionally open on the first day and with clockwork precision openings are timed every half-hour. This is replicated in the Arsenale on the second day. Despite this fabulous opportunity to showcase their pavilion’s art to a larger international arts audience, many pavilions, however, including Hong Kong, see officiating arts bureaucrats and government officials remaining together, visiting equivalent officials in other pavilions, and making speeches more appropriate for their own domestic audiences and press.
Hong Kong is, of course, not a country, so its participation at the Venice Biennale is as an official “collateral event”. However, Hong Kong has replicated many of the trappings of a country pavilion and its participation is organized by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council and the M+ Museum. Having two organizing or “commissioning” organisations is unusual, most other countries only have one: Hong Kong should review this, because of the duplication of tasks.
Hong Kong’s pavilion with its wonderful display of art by artist Shirley Tse is conveniently located just outside the Arsenale entrance and opened on the same day as those inside the Arsenale. Its scheduled opening time was announced in the official Biennale press release as 4.30pm. However, in a much-commented decision, some officials wanted to ‘show face’ by also attending the earlier opening ceremony at the Chinese pavilion – whose pavilion was a long walk from Hong Kong’s. Hong Kong’s opening was therefore unnecessarily delayed by ten minutes, to 4.40pm. This appears a minor change, but imagine the chaos of openings if other pavilions made similar time changes? Visiting the Chinese is good protocol, but couldn’t Hong Kong officials have simply arrived at the Chinese pavilion earlier?
The Venice Biennial’s opening two days is a scramble of national and domestic posturing, but after all the opening fuss, the art, quite rightly, eventually takes centrestage.
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Originally published in Ming Pao Weekly, 8 June 2019. Translated from the original English by Aulina Chan.