I passed through the Biennale in Venice (which has art this year) briefly earlier in the summer. As I had limited time I asked some local friends to tell me what in their opinion was the highlights this year. Of what was recommended and what I managed to see, Cyprus and Lithuania stood out. they have a joint Pavilion this year, connected by the curator Raimundas Malašauskas. The pavilion is located in a gym close to the Arsenale (one of the main venues for the Biennale). This in itself was a surprise, in all of my 3 years living there I never knew that there was a rather large modernist building housing a gym right there in the Castello district. For obvious reasons most activities requiring a lot of space are situated outside the historical centre. The Palasport gym was completed in 1973 and designed by Enrichetto Capuzzo and has been actively used by the locals since, now it houses the gymnastics association in Venice. The buildings raw concrete textures and simplicity are a stark contrast to its surroundings, a break in the urban pattern.
Without the prior knowledge of the buildings function the passage through the exhibition is a surprising one. The people working in the pavilion deliberately don’t give you any explanations and just ask you to chose the direction in which you want to approach the exhibition, there are 2 ways to walk through it. This intensifies your experience and the surprises (you wonder what is installed and what is a part of the building) along the way. All the apparatuses/practices of the gym gain a new meaning in a new context, are heightened. For example on part of the journey you hear/see kids practicing gymnastics (a quite intense activity complete with shouting and kids flying through the air), since the building still functions as a gym. During the opening and at various times throughout the duration of the Biennale they also have some performances that we unfortunately didn’t catch (including ones in which the gymnastics kids featured) which even further blur the margins between the everyday and the out of the ordinary.
The path leads you to the main hall (see pictures below) at which you arrive from the top or right into, according to the path chosen at the beginning of the route. The main installation functions as an urban landscape made of unfinished constructions and familiar objects. The feeling of being in a world within a world is strong especially since you arrive there after a walk through the narrow, winding streets of the Venetian urban setting.
The reason why this “pavilion” stood out for me was the way the additions made by the artists/curator in the building and its current role blended together seamlessly, the exhibition is completely rooted in its context, one interacting with and transforming the other. Compared to many other interventions I saw there that seemed to require a white box and thus cancelling out its surroundings, this one was much stronger for using it actively. Venice, its structures and buildings creates an inspirational and quite fantastical backdrop to the Biennale and it seems strange not to use that.
I look forward to seeing more of the pavilions/interventions around the next time I drop in, another thing I recommend is the ongoing performance orchestrated by Ragnar Kjartansson in the Arsenale which is definitely worth a visit. For more information, see links below.