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Posted 19.12.17

Letters from Venice 2017 - students report back from Viva Arte Viva

By Kat Peberdy
Featuring work from over 120 artists and seen by over 615,000 visitors, the Venice Art Biennale is a contemporary visual arts exhibition widely considered one of the most prestigious in the world. As part of our BA (Hons) Fine Art programme, students visited Venice, Italy for a whistlestop tour of this year's exhibition titled Viva Arte Viva.

From sampling the local food and drink to exploring the national pavilions dotted around the island, students Molly McCarthy and Sam Machell correspond with each other via letters to discuss their experiences following their visit in November...

Molly's letter to Sam...

Dear Sam,

I am writing to you because my mind is still buzzing with thoughts of the Venice Biennale. I don’t know about you, but I am feeling fully nourished from the cacophony of art, delicious pizza and the best Peroni I’ve ever had.

Day one of our trip featured a visit to the Giardini, a beautiful location with creative treats waiting for us around every corner. Stumbling upon the Danish Pavilion was like coming across a long forgotten temple of art. Nestled in the centre of the Giardini, greenery invaded the space and a striking tapestry work by Kirstine Roepstorff hung inside. I was filled with a real sense of wonder as I was reminded of the power of the art object, and this feeling of awe would stay with me for the remainder of the trip.

Main pavilion at the Giardini

The Japanese Pavilion managed to combine minute attention to detail with audience interaction in an innovative and inspiring way. Turned Upside Down, It’s A Forest by Takahiro Iwasaki featured a hole in the floor through which, one by one, viewers were invited to get a closer look at the incredible miniature sculptures on display.

In doing so, you unknowingly became a part of the work, and as your head passed through the hole you realised that you were emerging in the centre of the exhibition space. My initial embarrassment of popping up in the middle of a sculpture, all eyes on me, was overshadowed by the desire to study the tiny cityscape before me, miniature in scale but vast in terms of detail, this superior craftsmanship and the playful atmosphere was present throughout all works featured in the exhibition.

One Minute Sculptures from artist Erwin Wurm

Continuing the theme of audience interaction, the Austrian Pavilion was another standout. The One Minute Sculptures from Erwin Wurm consist of mundane objects slightly altered to allow audience participation: a caravan with holes cut out through which your limbs can protrude, a chair fastened to the wall inviting your torso to lean against it, a pair of trousers cast in plaster offering the perfect place to rest (or in my case bash) your head.

Witnessing firsthand how engaging a work becomes once you offer the viewer a chance to tactically experience it has given me a lot to think about for my own practice, and it doesn’t seem to hurt to have a bit of humour thrown in.

Tehching Hsieh's one year performance work from the Doing Time exhibition

I could write page upon page about all the fantastic things we got to experience in Venice - other stand out works included: Phyllida Barlow’s sculptural landscape for the Great Britain pavilion, Finland’s humorous robotic installation, the tongue in cheek attitude of the Korean Pavilion, and Tehching Hsieh’s One Year Performances - but I am conscious that you probably have work to be getting on with. Overall I am so grateful that I was able to participate in this trip, and can’t wait to see how my work grows because of it.

Lots of love,

Molly
 

Sam's letter to Molly...

Dear Molly,

I am full up on carbs, full up on art, and full up on thoughts about our trip to the Venice Biennale, and I am writing to you to unload some of this.

I think, if there is such a thing, I have seen too much art this past week. We charged around the two venues, looking, listening, taking in as much as we could. We didn’t miss a beat, we ruined our feet. When I close my eyes I see large abstract fabric forms looming, towering. The noise of looping videos and unexplainable sounds rattle around between my ears. There is no escape.

But it was brilliant.

External shot of the Arsenale

The Arsenale show was my personal favourite, mostly taking place in one large building, a seemingly infinite corridor of art, we saw works from artists all around the world, and of all different mediums.

In perhaps a reaction to the confusing, scary times we currently live in, a lot of the work seemed to be responding to the human desire to escape time. In Charles Atlas’ The Tyranny of Consciousness, a huge video projection, we saw sunsets happening all around the world, shattering our concept of linear time… and then suddenly we were treated to a performance by American drag artist Lady Bunny, singing (in my interpretation at least) about the way we are treating the planet, and the way politicians treat us - a beautiful juxtaposition.

The Tyranny of Consciousness from artist Charles Atlas

My absolute favourite piece from the whole trip was Imitazione di Cristo by Roberto Cuoghi in the Italy pavilion. This large-scale installation took up a whole room and totally dismantled the walls between process and finished work, again another time-based phenomenon explored. The materials used to create the works were exhibited with just as much importance as the finished sculptures. The sculptures in question were contorted, shrunken, decomposing statues of Christ, shown lying on tables in a walkthrough clear plastic tunnel.

The effect of this was like nothing else. It felt as though I had stumbled across an abandoned scientific research facility where something had gone terribly wrong. Sci-fi, yet grounded in haunting reality.

There were signs warning about mould spores… we weren’t sure exactly what was finished and what was in the process of being made... the black curtains all around the wall suggested there was even more to explore but we had no idea... and all around these uncannily realistic corpses slowly decay. It was one of the tensest, most intimidating, genuinely frightening experiences of my life and one I will never forget.

Work from artist Roberto Cuoghi in the Italy pavilion

Again, I feel as though I am not being overly positive in my wording - describing how terrified and overwhelmed I was, but truly this was a one of a kind trip. I am so pleased to have had the opportunity to go and know that it has impacted my work and the way I think significantly, and I will remember it for the rest of my life.

Just don’t expect to see me in an art gallery anytime soon… I’ve seen it all.

Lots of love,

Sam

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