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Standing in Line for Art 0


Anna Iltnere

Venice hosts the 54th International Art Exhibition from June 4 through November 27, with exhibits at the Arsenale, Giardini di Castello, city pavilions, and collateral events.

Since the early twentieth century, a cluster of pavilions from various countries has been set up for the Venice Biennale in the Giardini di Castello. Over the last hundred years, this cluster has grown and multiplied. It was precisely the Biennale that brought the life back to this park built during the Napoleonic period, which stood for many years as the city’s forgotten child. Yet a century later, life effervesces almost excessively on the opening days of the Venice Biennale, and people have to wait in long queues to visit certain pavilions. This stimulates us to contemplate the power and weapons of contemporary art. 

A historical aside: Shortly before the start of the nineteen century, in 1797, Napoleon Bonaparte conquered Venice and decided to “improve” it according to his own ideas. Bonaparte wanted to expand the furthest point of Venice—the Arsenale—and turn it into the most important harbor in the Adriatic Sea. In answer to his ruler’s desire, local architect Giannantonio Selva developed a project in 1802 to cultivate the region’s green zone, transforming it into a beautiful park. The project was accomplished by contracting local botanists and even by constructing an artificial hill. Yet just a few years after completion, the park had turned into a failure; it was too far from the heart of Venice, which beat in the neighborhood of San Marco, Rialto, and San Lucia. Almost nobody went out to the Giardini di Castello. 

Years later, the Venice Biennale changed everything. After the first exhibits in the late nineteenth century, at the Arsenale’s Palazzo, Italian artists complained that, due to the event’s international character, they were being allotted too little space to exhibit their works. And so the organizers struck upon an idea. Artists from other countries were offered pavilions in the nearby park, Giardini di Castello. The first pavilion was constructed in Belgium in 1907; the newest is South Korea’s, built in 1995. There are currently thirty pavilions owned by thirty-four countries (the United States, Russia, Great Britain, Australia, Finland, Sweden, etc.).

A large crowd of visitors always gathers in the gardens during the Biennale—and this is certainly the case this year as well. The length of the queues at the pavilions created an enticing impression about how much a given country’s exposition must be seen. Meanwhile, those pavilions without a queue seemed slightly suspicions—like products without a well-known brand, which you turn over in your hand, study the ingredients, and doubtfully wonder whether or not it is any good. And if it is, then why aren’t people standing in line for it?