How to navigate the Venice Biennale: An arts correspondent's guide

Ride up the Grand Canal through Venice in a vaporetto or water-bus and see dozens of water-facing old buildings turned into temporary art galleries for the 2015 Biennale.
Ride up the Grand Canal through Venice in a vaporetto or water-bus and see dozens of water-facing old buildings turned into temporary art galleries for the 2015 Biennale.ST PHOTO: AKSHITA NANDA
Irina Nakhova plays on fears of Russia's militant might and its chequered history in The Green Pavilion (above), Russia's national pavilion, and The Ways Of Folding Space & Flying by Kyungwon Moon and Joonho Jeon at South Korea's national pavilion (b
Apart from national pavilions, there are 44 collateral exhibitions including Gotika: Glasstress 2015, where artists from around the world worked with the glass blowers of Murano island off Venice.ST PHOTO: AKSHITA NANDA
Ride up the Grand Canal through Venice in a vaporetto or water-bus and see dozens of water-facing old buildings turned into temporary art galleries for the 2015 Biennale.
Irina Nakhova plays on fears of Russia's militant might and its chequered history in The Green Pavilion (above), Russia's national pavilion, and The Ways Of Folding Space & Flying by Kyungwon Moon and Joonho Jeon at South Korea's national pavilion, both at the Giardini venue. Apart from national pavilions, there are 44 collateral exhibitions including Gotika: Glasstress 2015, where artists from around the world worked with the glass blowers of Murano island off Venice.ST PHOTO: AKSHITA NANDA
Irina Nakhova plays on fears of Russia's militant might and its chequered history in The Green Pavilion (above), Russia's national pavilion, and The Ways Of Folding Space & Flying by Kyungwon Moon and Joonho Jeon at South Korea's national pavilion (b
Irina Nakhova plays on fears of Russia's militant might and its chequered history in The Green Pavilion, Russia's national pavilion, and The Ways Of Folding Space & Flying by Kyungwon Moon and Joonho Jeon at South Korea's national pavilion (above), both at the Giardini venue. Apart from national pavilions, there are 44 collateral exhibitions including Gotika: Glasstress 2015, where artists from around the world worked with the glass blowers of Murano island off Venice.ST PHOTO: AKSHITA NANDA
Irina Nakhova plays on fears of Russia's militant might and its chequered history in The Green Pavilion (above), Russia's national pavilion, and The Ways Of Folding Space & Flying by Kyungwon Moon and Joonho Jeon at South Korea's national pavilion (b
Voyage Trokomod by Heri Dono unites Indonesian myth with military forms in Indonesia's national pavilion, located in the Arsenale, a five-minute walk from the Singapore pavilion. The cafe at the Giardini venue is an artwork in itself.ST PHOTO: AKSHITA
The cafe at the Giardini venue is an artwork in itself.
The cafe at the Giardini venue is an artwork in itself.ST PHOTO: AKSHITA NANDA
Map of Venice
Map of VenicePHOTO: ST GRAPHICS

The Art Biennale transforms Venice into one giant party

Squeezing between a person in a neon-yellow chador and a group of actors restaging a Renaissance painting, one joins the snaking queue to enter the main grounds of the Venice Biennale of Art.

From May to November this year, the island city's 70,000 residents will be outnumbered almost daily by backpackers and art-lovers trooping towards the most important showcase of contemporary art in the world.

Now 120 years old, the Biennale this year features 89 countries, from first-timers such as Mongolia and Mauritius to stalwarts France and Britain.

  • GETTING THERE

  • Several airlines, including Singapore Airlines, fly to Venice's Marco Polo International Airport. From there, take an Alilaguna water-taxi to the island and board the vaporetto line 1 water-bus for direct service to the Giardini and Arsenale stations.

    Tickets to the Art Biennale start from €25 (S$38) for single entry into main venues Giardini and Arsenale to €80 for a permanent pass until Nov 22. Discounts for families, students and the elderly; free for children up to age six and adults accompanying disabled visitors. Go to ticket offices on site or www.labiennale.org

Twenty-nine long-time participants - most of Europe, America, Australia, South Korea and Japan - are allotted pavilions in the parkland known as the Giardini (gardens). This is also where the crowd throngs in expectation of seeing high-profile artists and celebrities. Cate Blanchett turned up for the opening of Australia's pavilion on May 5, for example.

Another 29 newer national entries, including those of Singapore and Indonesia, are a 10-minute walk away, in the 16th-century military shipyards known as the Arsenale. Still more country exhibitions spill even further away into 600-year-old palaces and noble residences closer to Piazza San Marco or Saint Mark's Square, the heart of Venice proper.

Space is at a premium in Venice, which is essentially a collective of dozens of islands linked by bridges, separated by a maze of canals and under threat from the rising Adriatic Sea. The number of countries keen to take a pavilion at the Biennale has almost doubled since 1997 and more and more gallerists are setting up collateral exhibitions in tandem with the season (44 official showcases this year).

  • DOS AND DON'TS

  •     Do spend at least three days at the Biennale: one for the Giardini, one for the Arsenale, one to take the vaporetto line 1 up the Grand Canal and explore the outlying national pavilions and collateral exhibitions.
        Do wear comfortable shoes. Venice is a car-free city. The best way to get around is on foot or by the vaporetto water-bus service.
        Do invest in a vaporetto travel card, starting at €20 for a day pass. That way, you can board a boat, drop off whenever a hoarding catches your fancy and then continue your journey again.
        Do expect to get lost and delayed. Even native Venetians get lost in the maze of canals and vaporettos are often choked off by tourist gondolas. Enjoy the experience by contemplating the scenery.
        Do plan your itinerary in advance. There can be queues up to an hour long to enter popular pavilions such as those of South Korea and Japan - they are worth it but require patience.
        Do wear sunblock and carry water and snacks in the summer months. There are cafes in the Giardini and Arsenale but limited seating.
        Don't jump into the fountains or canals to cool off, no matter how hot it gets.
        Don't be a selfish selfie-taker. Aim to snap without holding up the queue to view the exhibits and no flash in darkened pavilions.

To take a vaporetto (water-bus) ride down the Grand Canal, Venice's "main street", is to move from hoarding to hoarding covering the historic facade of sea-facing palaces and churches, each advertising an artist or a gallery or a new museum.

The Art Biennale transforms how the world views Venice. In ordinary times, tourists sigh over the glory days when La Serenissima, the serene city, was the trade and military capital of this part of the world. Visitors are gloomily charmed by edifices rotting under the onslaught of water and coo over the discovery of the apartment English poet Byron took in the early 19th century.

But the Biennale paints a shiny veneer over all this, transforming the city into a giant art party. The Vernissage or preview of the Biennale in the first week of last month is like a costume ball: Performance artists throng the gates of the Giardini and Arsenale, hoping to attract the spillover from the crowded venues.

A woman in a thigh-high lacy designer piece promenades past the Giardini, pushing a perambulator filled with oily muck and calling on passers-by to admire her "child" - a comment on global reliance on fossil fuels.

A man and woman in matching baby-doll dresses and shaved heads walk through the central exhibition at the Arsenale curated by Okwui Enwezor, posing deliciously for selfies in heels and pearls near choice artwork, but refusing to let other viewers photograph them in turn.

"There seem to be more stylishly dressed people on the streets," says Singaporean artist Iyvone Khoo, 40, who has spent a month in an art residency on the glassblowing island of Murano near Venice to create work for Gotika: Glasstress 2015, a collateral event of the Biennale. "The other day I saw a man dressed in a giraffe suit sitting in a cafe having a coffee, the head of the giraffe on his lap."

The Art Biennale is where the kingmakers of contemporary art congregate. Participating adds credit to any artist's resume - Khoo's debut in the 2013 collateral exhibition of Glasstress netted her a major patron who paid the heady sum of €15,000 (S$22,640) for her work - and having a national pavilion cements a country's reputation as a patron of the arts.

No wonder then that Singapore shelled out an untold sum this year for a 20-year lease on a 250 sq m space on the first storey - one level above ground - of the 16th-century Sale d'Armi building at the Arsenale. This is occupied this year by Charles Lim's multimedia installation Sea State, a meditation on land reclamation and land-scarce Singapore's relationship with the sea.

The theme of this year's Biennale is All The World's Futures and thoughts about water resurface again in the pavilion of the Philippines, back after a 51-year gap and exploring the battle over claiming the South China Sea.

Tiny island-nation Tuvalu presents four swimming pools created by Taiwanese artist Vincent Huang to highlight the plight of a nation under threat of global warming.

These make for poignant viewing in context. Venice, too, is a city dependent on and doomed by water. It is a sinking city, its buildings and economy kept afloat only by the tourist dollar. For this reason, it opens its arms to visitors via the annual Venice Film Festival and the showcases of art, architecture and dance in alternating years.

Not every Venetian is happy with this invasion, though Biennale president Paolo Baratta at the opening praised the "backpack army" for its contribution to the economy of the city and begged residents to be more understanding.

Yet the invading hordes clog up the public cloakrooms and drive up already high lunch prices (€6 for a panini sandwich, €12 for a plate of Venetian tapas, all variations on fish and squid). Tempers fray as the temperature rises above 30 deg C in the summer months.

The focus on international artists takes attention and funding away from local Italians, according to art curator Tommaso Zanini, who is in his early 30s. His non-governmental organisation Eventi-Arte-Venezia has offered residencies to artists for several years in a historic fort on Mestre, the Italian mainland near Venice, but his funding looks to be cut in favour of higher-profile projects. "There is a new aristocracy and we are not part of it," he says.

The message to visitors is to tread lightly in Venice during the Biennale, to respect and appreciate its past even while revelling in the dazzling show in the present. Get lost in its maze-like streets, visit its churches, attend at least one of its dozen daily Vivaldi concerts.

Order espresso-stained milk (macchiatone, mak-ya-tohn-eh) like a native and drink it standing up at the bar - at €1.5, it costs half the price of sitting down and comes with the bonus of being able to converse with the barista. That is the way to the heart of a city all dolled up for art's sake but longing to be known for its true face.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 28, 2015, with the headline 'Arts central'. Print Edition | Subscribe