Venice Biennale! It had been my dream to see it this year now that Kenyan artists had finally gotten there. Having family in Vicenza, the beautiful city founded by the Italian architect Andrea Palladio in the mid-1500s, I was fortunate to fly into Venice (via Doha) with assurance I’d have a place to stay.
Vicenza is just a half-hour train ride away from Venice, so I got a lift early Friday morning to the train. Then I planned to take the water-taxi to the two major centres where Biennale artists and Pavillions were showcasing artistic works.
Ansenale and Giardini both had stops on the Grand Canal. But to my dismay, the public transit workers chose that Friday to go on strike! I managed to find one rogue water-taxi but it only stopped at the Rialto station. After that I had to walk.
There couldn’t be a more exquisite city than Venice to walk through. Not only are there lovely shops filling every walkway featuring everything from jewellery, glass, high fashion, and gelato ice cream to cathedrals, cappuccinos and countless town squares.
What’s amazing about walking through Venice is that it’s absolutely pedestrian-friendly. Leave alone the fact of no cars anywhere. There isn’t one bicycle, motorcycle and even roller skate anywhere on the walks. Only bridges.
Countless bridges were to be traversed in order to reach the official Biennale sites, the recommended starting point being Giardini.
Fortunately, there were several outdoor sculpture exhibitions in the lush green parks along the Canal which were worth stopping to see. But my time was running out and I wanted to stop by both Giardini and Arsenale.
When I finally reached Giardini, I didn’t stand in line. Still the challenge was, where to begin? On the right were the national pavilions, but I chose to go left towards the major contemporary art assembly hall entitled La Biennale.
Curated by Christine Macel, her Biennale mission statement was open-ended as she wanted the artists to do as they wished without her dictates. Was that a mistake? Of course, it was democratic. But sadly, I wasn’t impressed.
I confess I must be biased, but I prefer contemporary Kenyan art to the Western concept of ‘contemporary art’ or what I saw of ‘Vive Arte Viva’.
For instance, one artist burned a bunch of books, then glued them unto a canvas and called it art.
Another created an installation called ‘Artist Asleep’ in which you literally saw someone sleeping under a ragged blanket in a brass bed.
My favourite was the artist who (like Kenya’s own Rosemary Karuga who had no funds to buy art materials but created anyway) only had nylon stockings which she filled with sand and then shaped into fascinating sculptures.
It was only when I left that giant hall and found the Russian, Danish, Finnish, Venezuelan, Spanish and American pavilions that my enthusiasm for the Biennale was restored.
Granted these spaces must have been pricey, but they were filled with fascinating works. I could’ve spent hours in each of them, but there was no time. Venice gets dark from 5pm.
But as I left Giardini, I encountered Mark Bradford’s outdoor colour spectrum that was a dazzling way to depart the Biennale.
I had to walk miles to get the train so I’d have to see both the Kenyans’ and the Arsenele showcases in two years’ time.
Fortunately, I found another rogue water-taxi that took me back towards the train station. But being ‘rogue’ it didn’t drop me where I wanted, so I had to find a so-called ‘people-mover’ metro train to take me to the Vicenza train station.
Remember the strike! Well, by the time I got to the station, there were no trains to Vicenza. Fortunately, I found one English-speaking Italian student who got me on the train to Verona.
“The Vicenza stop comes just before Verona, so come with me,” he said as we both ran with the crowd, scrambling to find a seat on the last train to Vicenza.
Venice Biennale 2017 closes this Sunday, but plan a holiday to Venice.