Ah, the Venice Biennale: the pop of prosecco corks, glittering light on water, beautiful people sailing down the Grand Canal. It happens every two years, right?
Clever! But the name rather gives it away. Anything else you can tell me about it?
Er … it has something to do with art?
Right. Contemporary art, to be precise. In fact it’s the biggest show of art on Earth, when artists representing 88 nations display their work in official and fringe sites around the Italian city and more than 300,000 visitors attend.
So, it’s like the Edinburgh Festival, but with artists instead of jugglers?
You could say that, although it wouldn’t really do justice to either. Just as Edinburgh features some of the world’s greatest stage and comic talent, so Venice often sees the very best artists at the height of their game, as well as breakthrough names making their marks.
Go on then, impress me …
In 1905, Gustav Klimt was the star of the Biennale; in 1950, Henri Matisse was winner of the Grand Prize. More recent highlights have included the premiere of Cy Twombly’s Battle of Lepanto paintings (2001), and Ed Ruscha’s Course of Empire series in 2005.
In 2007, Tracey Emin represented Britain with her inimitable drawings and neon scrawls, while career-making displays have also been staged in Venice by Turner Prize shortlisted Mike Nelson, and the German artist Gregor Schneider, who in 2001 had people queuing around the block to visit his “haunted” German Pavilion.
Cool. So it’s not just a trendy new thing?
Far from it. In fact it’s a venerable institution stretching back to 1895, with a six-year break during the Second World War. This year’s incarnation will be the 55th Biennale.
But where do they find room to show all this stuff? I thought Venice was chock-a-block with tourists.
The official showground for the Biennale is called the Giardini – imagine an Olympic park for art – which is situated on the edge of the city and laid out with 29 pavilions, each dedicated to a different country.
Pavilions? You mean like cricket club tea huts?
No, much grander than that. These are permanent structures, each one built and owned by a different nation. The British pavilion is an Edwardian concoction designed in 1909 by Edwin Rickards, while others are notable pieces of architecture: the Dutch pavilion is designed by Gerrit Rietveld, no less, and the Finnish one is by Alvar Aalto. Even the bookstore is by James Stirling, famous for Tate Britain’s Clore Gallery.
And each of these pavilions is filled with art from its respective country?
That’s right. The British Pavilion – managed by the British Council – will this year show new work by Jeremy Deller, winner of the 2004 Turner Prize and best known for his recreation of the battle of Orgreave, a key moment in the 1984 miners’ strike. His plans for the Biennale remain tightly under wraps.
Now I’m getting interested. Anything else I can see there?
Tons! The national pavilions are just the start of it. The Giardini also houses a large central pavilion curated by the Biennale’s youngest director, this year Massimiliano Gioni, 39. Gioni’s theme is “The Encyclopedic Palace” and his show alone will feature work by more than 150 artists from around the world.
Gioni’s exhibit extends to the Biennale’s second official venue, the vast complex of the Arsenale shipyard, where younger artists’ work is traditionally shown. The Arsenale is so big that golf carts are available to those who find walking on foot too exhausting.
Then there are fringe venues across the whole city, from museum quality shows in hired palazzos, to pop-up shows in tiny spaces. For several years there was a Manchester Pavilion in a bar that advertised itself as “an art free zone”, while the Peckham Pavilion – the outpost of London dealer Hannah Barry – occupied a backstreet shop.
Blimey. There must be a fortune to be made in art sales from all this.
Officially, no. There has been a ban on commercial activity at the Biennale since 1968. In practice however, the preview week is crawling with dealers anxious to sell works and collectors keen to snap up the hot new thing.
Hmm, preview week. So that’s when all the art world luvvies and celebs turn out?
You can’t move for them. Elton John is a regular visitor, and Karl Lagerfeld, Courtney Love, Neil Tennant and Rufus Wainwright have all been spotted in the past.
Less recognisable but more influential are the super-rich collectors and top gallerists who gather to cut a deal (and for whom the poolside at the swanky Hotel Cipriani is apparently known as “the office”). In 2011, Roman Abramovich’s collector girlfriend Dasha Zhukova rocked up on the oligarch’s megayacht. Meanwhile billionaire French collector François Pinault, owner of Gucci and Christie’s, regularly hosts Biennale events at his private museum, Palazzo Grassi. Museum directors such as Tate’s Sir Nicholas Serota are also fixtures.
Then there are the artists of course, with Tracey Emin, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Gilbert and George and Grayson Perry among the most recognisable names around the Giardini.
So, are there any good parties?
This year’s hot tickets include the British party, to be held on an island with boats ferrying guests until 2am, and the Welsh party, where Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals is due to play. Legendary Biennale parties include the British celebration in 1999 when Pulp played in a historic palazzo and the floor nearly collapsed.
For us mere mortals the Venice Biennale runs from 1 June to 24 November, with tickets starting at €25/£21 (see labiennale.org for information), but many fringe exhibits are free
Highlights of 2013
The British Pavilion
Jeremy Deller, who scored a recent hit with his bouncy castle in the shape of Stonehenge, presents eagerly awaited new work.
This year’s Turner Prize-shortlisted artist Lynette Yiadom Boakye is among 150 names selected by Biennale director Massimiliano Gioni to show in the historic shipyard. US photographer and filmmaker Cindy Sherman curates a show within a show and Gioni has chosen a volume of Carl Jung’s drawings, as a star exhibit.
The Vatican Pavilion
The Holy See is one of 10 nations showing at the Biennale for the first time. It has commissioned a show about creation, destruction and renewal from Magnum photographer Joseph Koudelka.
The New Zealand Pavilion
Bill Culbert’s installation in the church of Santa Maria della Pieta promises to illuminate the architecture in unexpected ways.
Caro at the Correr
Veteran British sculptor Anthony Caro is the subject of a major retrospective at the Correr Museum.
The Iraq Pavilion
British curator Jonathan Watkins selects 11 artists from Iraq.
The Welsh Pavilion
Bedwyr Williams presents “The Starry Messenger”, a meditation on stargazing and the home.
One of the original Young British Artists displays more than 50 works, including 13 new pieces, on show at the Giorgio Cini Foundation.
More than 50 artists, including Tracey Emin, Cornelia Parker and Ron Arad, present new work made in Murano glass, at the Palazzo Cavalli Franchetti.
The dissident Chinese artist , shows new work in the church of Sant’ Antonin.
A show in the Palazzo Fortuny dedicated to the Spanish artist.
The Prada Foundation
The 1969 exhibition Live in Your Head is reconstructed in the Ca’ Corner della Regina palazzo.