Art and Conversation at the 58th Venice Biennale

In 2019, BA History of Art student Patricia Yaker Ekall was one of Birkbeck’s British Council Fellows in Venice. In this blog, she shares her experiences in ‘The Floating City’ and what she learned from the trip. 

My time as a research fellow at the Venice art Biennale was an incredible experience that will stay with me for many years. With Venice, one typically thinks of the lagoon and its zany effect on perception (really, it’s like being on a giant float, often at risk, thanks to the bustle of the city, of falling into the seasoned turquoise waters). Venetian dining is famed for its cicchetti and gelato and the beloved spritz. The historical landmarks, with their height and ornamental expressions of astonishing beauty, are also of course part of Venice’s reputation as a ‘must-visit’ destination.  And, while the city is a wonderful representation of the value of tradition and heritage, Venice is equally known for its modern and contemporary art.

The Peggy Guggenheim Collection, at Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, boasts works by Jackson Pollock and Alberto Giacometti, giants among the assemblage of terrific artworks that shaped 20th-century art. With Venice being an artistic city, there are countless workshops dealing in everything from mask-making to pottery. But, bias allowing, I learned the most from the very reason I was there: the Venice Biennale, the showcase for international contemporary art that attracts thousands of visitors to Venice every other year.

My chance to be part of the Biennale was thanks to a Birkbeck/British Council Venice Fellowship, which funded a month in Venice in September, where I worked as a steward in the exhibition’s British Pavilion while pursuing my own research. The renowned event may have been in its 58th edition and 123rd year, but it was my first time attending. I tried to have as few expectations as possible, which stood me in good stead as the experience was full of unexpected elements. For example, I did not expect the dramatic variation in reactions to the art work in the British Pavilion. Cathy Wilkes’ installation drew on arte povera (a movement that subverts the commercialisation of art founded in 1960s Italy, ironically). It touched on themes of motherhood, poverty and death, and was not understood (let alone loved) by everyone. This took me by surprise, as I’d assumed the visitors would be surer of their own perspectives. Yet, alarmingly often, we were asked to explain Wilkes’ work. Since it was made deliberately inexplicable, our own interpretations would have to suffice. Another one of my assumptions was that everyone in Venice would support the Biennale and, save for a bit of context-focussed research conducted just before I travelled, I was not prepared for all the ways the event is challenged when it comes to issues around sustainability and Venice’s economic state.

It seemed to me that every aspect of this tiny jewel, Venice, was up for passionate debate. Such conversations ranged from questioning of the Biennale’s effect (and dare I say relevance) in relation to the locals, to the issue of excess tourism and the tensions between the old and new and, glaringly at times, the rich and the poor. These were the conversations that a lot of the pavilion’s visitors – be they Italian, or from France, Japan, Germany or the UK – felt at ease in bringing to us, while we as art enthusiasts were primed and keen to discuss instead materials, style and the artwork’s contextual background! Though somewhat unexpected, I very much enjoyed this part of the experience. It added another dimension to my take on the power of contemporary art and all its demands. I enjoyed these roiling debates cocooned in artistic excellence!

From the orientation evening that informed us of the fellowship, to the day before we left for England, Birkbeck and the British Council were on hand to keep us informed. I was particularly touched by the program’s flexibility and understanding in the face of the unexpected. There was a real sense of openness of conversation and options, especially when it came to planning our individual research projects. If there was a change in direction which meant more resources would be needed, for example, they would not hesitate to put us in touch with the relevant modes of help.

Moreover, the fellowship program was structured such that we were introduced to the other people we’d be working with at an early stage to facilitate an easier melding process on arrival in Venice. Now, most would probably say the same of their own group but, mine was filled with the most incredible, laid-back but focused people. From early-career Oxbridge grads, to third wave career professionals who used their research practice to inform their doctorate, there was a diverse mix of interesting people. We had one thing in common: our love of art, its histories and its contemporary practices. In a way, the Biennale was the ideal hub for all of these keen minds to meet – which was, of course, the intention.

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La Serenissima: five weeks in Venice

Uli Gamper, MA Museum Cultures student, discusses his summer as one of Birkbeck’s first recipients of the British Council’s Venice Fellowships. 

I was one of the lucky two students from Birkbeck’s History of Art department that was awarded a Venice Fellowship this year. The Venice Fellowship, a partnership between the British Council and Birkbeck, and other universities from all over the UK, supports students to spend a month’s time Venice during the Biennale di Venezia, one the world’s most renowned art/architecture biennials.

Inspired by topics encountered during seminars and lectures in my MA Museum Cultures, I formulated a research proposal around themes of cosmopolitan museology, representations of nationality and arising friction in the collision of local and global forces. The Venice Biennale and museums in general and the British Pavilion in particular were a rich pool for empirical research and observation on these subjects. Subsequently, I used the research conducted in Venice to inform the case studies for my dissertation.

I left for Venice in mid-May as I was part of the first group of fellows, working during the opening period of the Biennale. The great advantage of being part of the first group was to help to prepare the British Pavilion for the opening and meeting the team of the British Council that commissions the pavilion every year. Furthermore, Venice was packed with art, architecture and museum/heritage professionals from all over the world and hence it was a valuable opportunity to network. Last but not least, there were a plethora of great parties all over Venice during the opening week of the Biennale, and that was another unforgettable experience that we all hugely enjoyed.

My working week as a fellow was split into four days working at the British Pavilion. This consisted predominantly of engaging with the audience and introduce them to the installation. We also helped with the daily running of the pavilion as well as condition-checking the installation. The other three days we used to conduct our own independent research, which led me to visit most of the national museums in Venice and collateral events of the Biennale. Other highlights organised by the British Council were the staff seminars at the Peggy Guggenheim Foundation that we were allowed to attend. I had the opportunity to participate in a seminar with the head of exhibitions of the foundation that proved to be a very insightful experience.

Overall, there were many positive aspects about my time in Venice. I hugely enjoyed and benefited from being part of a group of 12 fellows from diverse academic disciplines such as Architecture, Fine Art and Graphic Design. This resulted in extremely fruitful exchanges and debates that informed my ongoing research positively. Apart from this benefit, I left with a bunch of incredible new friends. Venice itself was a bliss beyond words; the light, the sea, the absence of cars, the architecture I immersed myself and rested in awe in its shadow, all invaluable experiences and memories I took back to London with me.

Upon my return to London, our group of fellows continued the discourse and organised an exhibition in August, held at a temporary space in Shoreditch. And it didn’t stop there; The British Council is keen to organise another show in the new year, featuring the research outcomes of Venice Fellows. I didn’t imagine that so many further opportunities would come along from this encounter.

Yet again, and I couldn’t say it often enough, I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Birkbeck’s History of Art department for awarding me with this Fellowship and particularly to Sarah Thomas for being so supportive during the preparation for the Fellowship and after, many thanks!

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