Unmasking the Venice Biennale

Wed Jun 15, 2011 12:00pm EDT

1 of 4. Passersby admire 'Last Supper' by Jacopo Robusti detto Tintoretto at this year's la Biennale di Venezia. Image obtained on June 15, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Courtesy of la Biennale di Venezia/Handout

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(Reuters.com) - Thirty national pavilions and two enormous curated international shows sprawl across acres of public garden and over a vast unused shipyard. Galleries and cafes are commandeered for a further 89 national shows and an ever-expanding menu of collateral events.

The quiet canals and quaint byways of Venice fizz with feverish excitement as the who's who of the art world come to town to inaugurate what some people call the United Nations of Art.

Walking into the Venice Biennale - the largest art festival in the world - can feel rather overwhelming, and amid the to and fro Venice can become a confusing place. Stay sane and enjoy the trip with a few tips on how to plan for the event, which runs through November 27th.

Where to Stay

Hotel rooms, which are in short supply in Venice at the best of times, become extremely scarce during the biennale and booking well in advance is strongly advised. Venice is awash with unfortunate stories of stranded travellers.

As the old saying goes, location, location, location is especially true in this island city. Though small, Venice is poorly connected and the Vaporetto waterbus, the city's only public transport service, was on strike during the biennale preview days in early June. Getting around on foot might be the only alternative if the city's small and expensive fleet of water taxis are fully booked.

Fortunately, many of the grandest hotels in Venice are located within easy distance of the biennale's grounds as well as the Piazza San Marco at the centre of town. The grand arches and faded splendour of the Hotel Danieli (<danieli.hotelinvenice.com>), overlooking the mouth of the Grand Canal, is ideally located for exploring both. One wing of the hotel was recently refurbished and the terrace restaurant on the roof offers breathtaking panoramas of the busy waterways to enjoy over dinner.

Hotel Bauer (<www.bauervenezia.com/>) is another favourite of biennale regulars. Located between Harry's Bar and the Rialto, the lobby and terrace bar become the main social intersection for the art pack after dark. Conferences, private events and impromptu after-parties fill the ground-floor rooms through the biennale season, and the hotel offers a luxurious place to stay for travellers who have more people to meet than hours in the day.

Travelling with Children

Venice can be a lot of fun for children too, and just across the water the Lido offers an expanse of greenery with walking, cycling and swimming facilities very close to the main city. The beaches of the Lido are romantic, nostalgic and make for an excellent day out. The area is also just one Vaporetto stop from the Giardini, another enormous public park full of art as well as green space for children to enjoy.

Many of the national pavilions exhibiting in the Giardini offer interactive exhibitions, for example the USA pavilion features a singing ATM, and performances by the USA gymnastics team have been incorporated into two of the installations. Big Bambu, by Mike and Doug Starn, is showing in a collateral event (unofficial artistic contributions) on the Grand Canal and allows visitors to climb to the top of a giant tower made from bamboo.

Don't Miss

This year, the national pavilions are the main event with outstanding contributions from Poland, Germany, America and the UK in particular. In the middle of the gardens, an enormous repurposed US army tank lies on its back with a treadmill and runner perched on top of the left corner. The rest of the exhibition addresses similar attention-grabbing themes, such as the role of America's military.

Israeli artist Yael Bartana is Poland's choice for this year's biennale; …And Europe Will Be Stunned is a bold and provocative video installation that advocates the return of three million Jews to Poland in three skilfully produced parts.

Around town, collateral events lurk in almost every corner. Drop into shows at Palazzo Papadopoli, Palazzo Fortuny and the Dogana del Mar, as well as everything else you have time for.

(The opinions expressed by the writer are her own.) (Editing by Peter Myers)

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