Venice Biennale 2024

by Catherine Milner, creative director


Day 1.

The first ever Messums art tour of the Venice Biennale started with a visit to see Pierre Huyghe’s epic exhibition about AI at the Punto della Dogana. The bleakness of the first room in the show featuring a massive film of a naked woman with a black hole where her face should be wandering alone in a desert set the tone for an exhibition of unalloyed gloom. A big gleaming transmitter controlled both the woman and some zombies wandering around the show like sentinels. More cheerful was our next stop – an exhibition about Breasts at the Palazzo Franchetti featuring an unusually cheerful de Chirico painting and Marcel Duchamp’s single sculpture of a breast that took centre stage in the first ever show of Surrealist art in 1946.

After a quick lunch we took off for the Salon Verde near the Rialto bridge to see the exquisite hand embroidered pieces made by the artisans of the Chankaya Foundation in Mumbai inspired by the paintings of the two great Indian masters Madhvi Parekh and Manu Parekh. They delve into a narrative suspended between ancient Indian myths and the contemporary reinterpretation of Vedic symbols and the universal value of craft.

Rain had started lashing down by this time and we braved it again to head to the Friari Basilica where Dr Thierry Morel gave us a whizz around the many riches inside including the tomb for Canova and Tinoretto’s most famous painting. Shivering and freezing we then warmed up over a cup of tea and drinks in his sumptuous flat opposite the church before supper at the Trattoria Alla Madonna – a fitting reminder of the many we had just seen.




Day 2.

Our first port of call was to see the exhibition of work by the Korean master Yoo Youngkuk at the Palazzo Querini; a building which is itself is a homage to Zen minimalism with a Japanese garden and tinkling water. The pictures, of abstracted mountains and landscapes, celebrated nature and changed in style dramatically when the artist got ill from sharp geometric shapes and bright colours to sombre and fuzzy forms. From there we went to see the Lion of God; a magnificent series of watercolours by American artist Walton Ford in an exhibition curated by Udo Kittleman; formerly director of six museums in Berlin. Painted in watercolour on an epic scale, they tell the tale of Jerome who befriended a lion after taking a thorn out of its foot and they act as a reminder of our responsibility to the animal kingdom. The fact that the lion is a Barbary lion; the type that is now extinct in the wild following the spread of firearms  and bounties for shooting lions, highlights the degradation born of greed. This show, held in the exquisite surroundings of the the Ateneo Veneto is next door to the St Fantin church in which Reza Aramesh, has made a series of underpants carved in marble. The church was chosen as it was the last place where the soon to be executed were given absolution. Aramesh is highlighting the ultimate humiliation of the prisoner who, having had his clothes stripped from him is then relieved even of his underpants. The ones in his show are carved by hand in Carrara marble – the expensive material normally reserved only for the highest of subjects – and bigger than lifesize sculptures of men with torso’s bared but with bags over their head, are, modern renditions of Michelangelo’s David, modelled by his neighbours in London, his postman and a supermarket worker.

The Messums Tours group

This piece caused consternation in the local community of Venice who felt that it desecrated a holy place, and the occupation of the works by Berlinder de Bruyckere in the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, still being used by the five monks that live on the island, felt equally ambigious.

Three giant black and menacing ‘archangels’ dominated the lofty majesty of Venice’s architectural jewel. Shrouded in cowskins, cast in wax, they hovered above looking more like  the haunted figures of hell than anything angelic.

A hairy folder of skin lay on the lectern where the Bible should be and in an anteroom lay a corpse shrouded in a black cowskin; identifiable only by its human feet. The cult of death is one of the many consistent themes throughout this years Biennale – perhaps society gets the art it deserves as Oscar Wilde pointed out – along with imprisonment, the subject of our next stop: the Vatican’s pavilion.

This occupied the prison for mothers on the Giudecca and is only operating for two weeks. Four artists, including Maurizio Catellan who has painted some giant crucified feet on the side of the chapel of the prison, have joined forces with the inmates to create art works inside.

As we lined up outside the prison and handed in our belongings and passports there was a slight sense of theatre amongst the police ushering us around as one in particular, a rather heavily made up young woman of about 25 clanked her enormous golden keys rather ostentatiously.

Four guards behind us and four in front, we were shown into the chapel where a rather beautiful young prisoner no older than her guards who all look in their mid twenties read out a poem she had written in which she thanked the Biennale for allowing her to meet again people from the outside world.

This girl, called Julia, was perhaps the most compelling feature of the odyssey around the prison; out into the courtyard where the barred inmates remained silent and into the room where mothers were allowed to see their children for one hour a week. Covered in tattoos and piercings, her glazed eyes and hunched shoulders a study in pain, the experience provoked an uneasy feeling of being a voyeur into a land of untolled misery – which was the point. The Pope said he wanted to highlight the invisible in society and make people engage with them rather than ignore them.



Day 3:

The third and last day of our whistle stop art tour took us to the Giardini and Arsenale, where the official Biennale exhibition is held.

The first pavilion we visited was the British one, where John Akomfrah’s films highlighted the atrocities of colonial rule. This theme was echoed in many of the other pavilions from Australia and the Netherlands to Egypt and Nigeria. Gone are the days when Britain was regarded as the land of civilised tea parties, cool Britannia and a capital city where more races live in relative harmony than any in the entire world – Britain’s  profile on the world stage appears now only as a land of thugs. If  one had to sum up the tone of the Biennale as a whole in one word it would be Reproach.

The main exhibition curated by Adriano Pedrosa was entitled Stranieri Ovonque or Strangers everywhere fomenting the sense of alienation and separateness that ran through all the pavilions. ‘Why couldn’t it be called, Friends Everywhere?’ queried one of those in our group, a German living in London, and there was a sense that art rather than being deployed to unite races, religions, genders and age groups is instead being used to divide them.

The Netherlands pavilion featured sculptures made of chocolate – including one of a man raping a woman with his hand on her neck.

These were to highlight the rape by Dutch colonials of the coca and palm oil produced in the Congo.

In the Egyptian was a film by Wael Shawky highlighting the brutishness of the British and in the American the work of a Cherokee Indian to level up the invisible communities that were treated so badly. A smattering of pavilions commented on climate change but nowhere on modern slavery; the sins of the fathers was the universal theme.

In the Australian pavilion Archie Moore, an aborigine traced his family tree back 65,000 years in chalk on blackboard in tiny writing all over the roof of the pavilion, winning the Golden Lion prize – the Biennale’s equivalent to Cannes’  Palme D’or. But the German pavilion, in which the Israeli artist Yael Bartana described the approaching apocalypse in three tableaux – a film featuring some arian nymphs dancing around a forest and a bronze adonis holding an Olympian torch; a bombed out building and then a film of  a massive spaceship – suggesting  that the only hope for us is to start living in the sky. This was the chilling end to a few icy days in Venice.


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