Artistic Reflections in the Floating City

The Venice Biennale Unveils the 60th Edition of its International Art Exhibition

View of Venice from the Giardini. © 2023 Pablo Monfort Millán

In the third week of April, the eyes of the art world will be focused on Venice, home to the world's oldest and arguably most important international art exhibition. To honor the occasion, this article explores the rich history and global significance of the Venice Biennale, an iconic event in the contemporary art world. Discover its origins in 1895, its evolution into a platform for cultural exchange and its central exhibitions showcasing diverse artistic expressions. Learn about the unique national pavilions, the fair's controversies and the ongoing relevance of this prestigious gathering, as well as the presence of one of our Gallery's represented artists, Nina Khemchyan, in the Armenian Pavilion with a solo exhibition.

La Biennale di Venezia
Photo: © 2023 Pablo Monfort Millán
In the mesmerizing labyrinth of Venice's canals, where history whispers through every cobblestone and art echoes in the air, the anticipation reaches a crescendo as the grand stage for contemporary art, the Venice Biennale, prepares to unfold its 60th edition next week. For over a century, the Venice Biennale has been a vital part of the global art scene, an international art exhibition where human ingenuity meets cultural exchange on an unparalleled scale. What began as a modest showcase for Italian artists has blossomed into an international extravaganza, celebrated once every two years—hence the name—attracting artistic visionaries and cultural innovators from every corner of the globe. Today, it stands as one of the most important events of the artistic calendar, and it serves as a platform for artists, curators, critics, and art enthusiasts to engage with contemporary art trends and discussions.

The Birth of the Biennale:
A Historic Celebration of Art
The origins of the Biennale di Venezia, often simply referred to as the Venice Biennale, trace back to 1895 when the first International Art Exhibition was organized in Venice, Italy. The event was established to celebrate the silver anniversary of King Umberto I and Margherita of Savoy's reign. The founding of the Biennale was a collaborative effort involving the Venetian mayor Riccardo Selvatico, the city council, and other prominent figures in the cultural and political spheres. On 30th April, the I Esposizione Internazionale d'Arte della Città di Venezia (1st International Art Exhibition of the City of Venice) was opened, once construction for the Exhibition Palace was finalized after three years. The inaugural exhibition aimed to showcase contemporary art from around the world, providing a platform for international artists to exhibit their works and fostering cultural exchange. The first national pavilion opened in 1907 in the Giardini di Castello: the Belgium one, designed by Léon Sneyers.

The First Venice Biennale exhibition in 1895
Photo: © Fondazione La Biennale di Venezia – Archivio Storico delle Arti Contemporanee

Today's Biennale:
Themes and Highlights of the 2024 Edition
The central event of the Biennale is the International Art Exhibition, which showcases contemporary artworks by artists from around the globe. This year's edition, titled "Stranieri Ovunque - Foreigners Everywhere," is organized by renowned Brazilian curator Adriano Pedrosa and features two main sections: the Nucleo Contemporaneo and the Nucleo Storico. As explained by Pedrosa: "The expression Foreigners Everywhere has several meanings. First of all, that wherever you go and wherever you are you will always encounter foreigners—they/we are everywhere. Secondly, that no matter where you find yourself, you are always truly, and deep down inside, a foreigner. In addition, the expression takes on a very particular, site-specific meaning in Venice," a city "whose population today consists of about 50,000 residents that may reach 165,000 in a single day during peak seasons due to the enormous number of tourists and travelers—foreigners of a privileged kind."

Poster for the 2024 International Art Exhibition by Estúdio Campo
Photo: © 2024 Fondazione La Biennale di Venezia
The exhibition prioritizes artists new to the event, with a focus on outdoor projects and performances. The Nucleo Contemporaneo explores themes of queerness, outsider art, and indigenous perspectives, including a special section on the Disobedience Archive, a video archive focusing on the relationships between artistic practices and activism. The Nucleo Storico showcases works from 20th-century Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, challenging traditional definitions of modernism. Additionally, the exhibition highlights the role of textiles and the intergenerational transmission of artistic practices. In the Central Pavilion three rooms are planned for the Nucleo Storico: one room is titled Portraits, one Abstractions and the third one is devoted to the the worldwide Italian artistic diaspora in the 20th century.

Overall, the Biennale 2024’s primary focus is thus artists who are themselves foreigners, immigrants, expatriates, diasporic, émigrés, exiled, or refugees—particularly those who have moved between the Global South and the Global North. Migration and decolonization are key themes.

The National Pavilions:
A Showcase of Cultural Diversity
In addition to the main exhibition, the Biennale also features national pavilions, which is one of the most intriguing aspects of the Venice Biennale. Participating countries offer a unique glimpse into their respective artistic landscapes, with exhibitions fully curated by their own specialists, although sometimes influenced by the general theme of the whole fair. This adds to the symphony of cultural voices in Venice. Whether countries choose to put forward an overview of an individual artist’s trajectory, or a compilation of their nation’s contemporary culture, these historical pavilions serve as showcases for the cultural diversity and artistic prowess of nations around the world. For some, this is perhaps the most compelling aspect of the Venice Biennale: its ability to spark dialogue and foster understanding across cultures and continents. By simply walking around the beautiful parks of Giardini, visitors are able to easily go in and out of historical buildings which all represent different countries. It feels like walking through a world map in which art opens the borders of all societies—and the buildings themselves constitute true architectural gems. In an era marked by division and discord, they can serve as beacons of hope, a reminder of our shared humanity and interconnectedness. Visitors are invited to embark on a journey of discovery, to open their minds and hearts to new ideas and experiences.

Entrance to the French Pavilion

Photo: © 2023 Pablo Monfort Millán

Of particular interest this year is the Armenian Pavilion. One of our gallery artists, Nina Khemchyan, who has shown at the gallery for over 25 years, is representing Armenia with a solo multi-media installation called Echo. Nina's work is deeply rooted in Armenian medieval heritage, endangered today, and transcends geographical and temporal boundaries to address universal themes of identity, memory, and belonging, and the show is curated to be in dialogue with the broader theme of this year's Biennale: Foreigners Everywhere. At the heart of the pavilion lies a striking array of eleven blue ceramic spheres, meticulously crafted to embody a profound cultural legacy. Adorned with intricate golden incrustations, these sculptures pay homage to the wisdom of Mesrop Mashtots, the figure credited with inventing the Armenian alphabet, referencing eleven chants of repentance. In addition to these sculptures, a fifty-meter-long ink drawing called Seven Deadly Sins is the second focal point of the show. Divided into seven segments, each dedicated to a sin, the artwork employs a stark contrast of black ink against white paper, which not only enhances the graphic impact but also symbolizes the dichotomy between virtue and vice embodied in the notion of sin.

Render of the Armenian National Pavilion at Magazzino del Sale.
Photo: © Cafesjian Center for the Arts

The Biennale's Significance:
A Beacon in the Ever-Changing Art World?
Due in part to the proliferation of more and more art fairs and biennales across the globe, the significance of the Venice Biennale has been sometimes contested. Critics blame the usual vagueness of the themes, or the so-called anachronistic national pavilions, arguing that more than uniting together what they achieve is to further separate nations. However, visitors—specialists and aficionados alike— keep flooding in. The 2022 edition, curated by Cecilia Alemani and titled The Milk of Dreams, amounted for more than 800,000 visitors. Why? There are many reasons. With no singular curatorial authority, every visit can bring fresh findings; there is a sense of perpetual discoveries, and for certain artists a showcase in Venice can prove pivotal to their careers. In addition to the primary exhibition and national pavilions, which leverage financial support from art dealers, there are a series of collateral events, which receive funding from commercial galleries that don't miss the opportunity to profit from such a reunion. Hence, Venice has become a bustling hub for marketing and sales—a transformation that arguably predates contemporary times. Until 1968, the Biennale operated a sales office, retaining a commission from artwork sales. Often dubbed "the art world Olympics," Venice holds significance as a congregating point for the art world, blending historical grandeur, its glamour and the scenic backdrop of one of the world's most stunning cities with towering potential and substantial financial stakes. For one week in Spring, the global art community's collective gaze is fixed upon this eclectic gathering.

Lorenzo Quinn's sculpture Support at the 2017 Venice Biennale.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

As the sun sets on the Grand Canal and the lights of the Floating City flicker to life, the Venice Biennale stands as a testament to the enduring power of art to inspire, provoke, and unite. In its hallowed halls, past and present converge, dreams take flight, and the impossible becomes possible. As we gaze upon the masterpieces that adorn its walls, we are reminded of the boundless potential of the human spirit to create beauty in a world too often marred by chaos and despair. So let us raise a glass to the Venice Biennale, to its past triumphs and future glories, and to the artists, curators, experts and aficionados whose visions and passions continue to light the way forward in the constantly changing contemporary art world.

Nina Khemchyan's upcoming exhibition at the Galerie de Buci will open on June 20th, where visitors will be able to contemplate Nina's talent and inspirations in person until August 15th.

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