La Biennale di Venezia is somewhat of a right of passage in the art world as it is one of those important and pivotal art events that you feel you must experience. Although there are now over 50 biennale type events held each year, the Venice Biennale is the oldest and still one of the most important art fair / exhibition / events in the world. As I am doing my research on contemporary visual art festivals and focusing on biennales, it seemed obvious that I needed to go. Fortunately, the Arts in Society conference was being held in Venice this year, so I put in an abstract proposal, got it accepted, and could justify a trip to Venice as I now had a paper to present.
We flew to Venice via Paris on Air France. Air France had the most economical fares (under $500 Canadian) and was a pleasure to fly with. I typically don't eat airplane food, however, we had a choice of entrees for dinner and fresh croissants, real hot chocolate and fruit for breakfast. Paris' Charles De Gaulle Airport designed by French Architect Paul Andreu, is stunning with its circular design and vaulted glass ceilings. Although seating in the terminal is somewhat limited, there is ample shopping, and other diversions to keep you entertained between flights.
Arriving in Venice, there are numerous ways to get from the Marco Polo Airport to your hotel. We selected the most economical which involves a bus to Piazzale Roma (2.50 Euro) and then a Vaporetto or water-bus trip (6.50 Euro) to the station closest to our hotel. Arriving in the morning, we shared the bus with local commuters who have zero tolerance for tourists with luggage. So - travel light! This is also true on the Vaporetto. As a tourist you are greeted with slightly more tolerance here, but if you catch a crowded Vaporetto, you are forced to stand with your luggage without anything to balance yourself against as the Vaporetto bumps against the dock at each stop. If you decide on the Vaporetto option it is worth purchasing a 2, 3 or 7 day pass through Venice Connected in advance. This allows you unlimited Vaporetto trips for the duration of your stay. There is also the Alilaguna water-bus service that goes from the airport to the San Zaccaria stop near San Marco. This service is slightly more expensive at 13.50 Euro but after taking the bus seems like it could be a more viable option.
Alternatively you can take a private water taxi. A more luxurious and faster option, but at 100 Euro it is far costlier than the alternatives.
As I typically have little tolerance for tourists, we opted to stay away from the Piazza San Marco and instead found a hotel on Sant'Elena, which is adjacent to the Giardini, and located in a quiet residential neighbourhood with a wonderful waterfront park. I suppose you trade the nightlife and excitement of central Venice, but getting a feel for the real Venice was worth it.
Hotel Sant' Elena is managed by Best Western but feels more like a small boutique hotel. Rates were reasonable for Venice and averaged 118 Euro a night. The hotel is a former convent that has been renovated and decorated in a modern black and white colour scheme. Interesting contemporary prints and paintings by local artists hang on the walls.
After wandering around Venice, I can not think of another hotel that is more perfectly situated for Biennale visitors. The Giardini is one vaporetto stop, or a 5 minute walk away. The Arsenale is two vaporetto stops or a 12 - 15 minute walk to either the main or new back entrance.
The official Biennale program brochure, which lists all the main as well as Collateral Event venues is available everywhere around town. I typically love grey with white type, and use this on my own business cards. While it looked great, I found the program brochure very hard to read, especially if you are standing in the bright sunshine, or the halls of the dimly lit Arsenale and forgot to bring your reading glasses! If you are heading to the Biennale stop by one of the Collateral Event sites for Wales, Scotland, or Northern Ireland or keep your eyes peeled for the bright yellow UK at the Venice Biennale brochure. It not only provides excellent descriptions and information about their four exhibitions, it also includes what I found to be the most helpful map for navigating Venice and the Biennale.
Unconditional Love and The Fear Society at the Arsenale Novissimo, Estonia at the Palazzo Malipiero, Glasstress at the Palazzo Cavalli Franchetti (5 Euro admission), Luxumborg at the Ca' del Duca, L'anima della Pietra at the Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti and Sant'Elena. Fortunately we were able to see both Edge of Africa: Contemporary Art from Saudi Arabia at the Palazzo Contarini dal Zaffo Polignac and The Pool NYC which was near the Palazzo Grassi, as both these exhibits ended August 2nd. For the most part the Collateral Events we saw were well worth the time spent wandering the streets and alleys of Venice and in more than a few cases the work we saw was much more interesting than some of the work in the Arsenale and Giardini.
Edge of Arabia: Contemporary Art from Saudi Arabia installation view
Palazzo Contarini dal Zaffo Polignac
Palazzo Contarini dal Zaffo Polignac
Regular admission to the Biennale is 18 Euro, which allows you one visit to the Arsenale and one to the Giardini. We visited the Arsenale on Monday and the Giardini on Tuesday. We spoke to a few people who visited both venues on one day. I can not imagine doing this, and next time would actually buy two tickets which would allow us to spend two mornings at each venue.
We purchased our tickets in advance, and arrived at both the Arsenale and Giardini just before opening at 10 am. This allowed us to avoid the long line-ups for tickets and enter without much of a wait. This was especially true at the Arsenale, as we entered via the new back entrance located behind the new Italian Pavillion where there was absolutely no line-up.
While I love art, I also have a fondness for museum and gallery bookshops. While the selection of books at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection was somewhat limited, as their shop seems to focus more on gift type items; the shops at the Biennale, the Punta Della Dogna, and the Palazzo Grassi were phenomenal. So many interesting titles that you never see here in Canada, and unfortunately only so much available weight in my suitcase. I purchased two small paperbacks that caught my attention: Collecting Contemporary Art, curated by Andrea Bellini and published by jrp|ringier (2008) and Canvases and Careers Today: Criticism and Its Markets, edited by Daniel Birnbaum and Isabelle Graw and published by Sternberg Press (2008). I passed on the two volume Biennale catalogue as I figured I could order it once I got back home.
While our trip to Venice was focused on art, I would be somewhat remiss if I did not make at least a brief comment on shopping. I am not talking the endless designer boutiques that line the streets and alleys around San Marco. If you want Prada, Gucci, Chanel, Boss, or even Timberland you can find these stores in pretty much every city around the world.
Sure, there was that dress in the window of Max Mara that was drop dead gorgeous, but I am talking about the small shops that are a few blocks off the main tourist thoroughfares that have fabulous and affordable shoes, bags, and wonderful summer dresses; or just fabulous Italian design that is not so affordable but worth window shopping for. If you are looking for glass, there are the endless glass stores that all sell the same tacky trinkets and jewelery, but if you look carefully for the same prices you can get wonderful glass objects and jewelery by artists such as Murano's Marina and Susanna Sent.
Our only regrets were not bringing enough cash and booking a return flight that left at 6:50 a.m. Our early morning flight was responsible for our low cash reserves. A word of advice - if you have an early morning flight you only have one real option for getting to the airport. A private water taxi! If you book this with the help of your hotel it will run you around 110 Euro ( approx. $170 Canadian) or if you book it yourself about 1oo Euro. Water taxi's only take cash! Of course if you book it yourself and you are like me - you don't get any sleep the night before as you are worried that the taxi operator did not really understand you and the water taxi will not be waiting for you at 5:15 am, and that you will have no other way to get to the airport. Well actually there was another way but it meant that we would have had to walk 20 minutes to the San Marco Vaporetto stop and take a 2 am Vaporetto to Lido (which only runs once an hour at night) and then hope that we make the connection to the waterbus that goes to the airport but also only runs once an hour. So - next time we will book a later return flight, or stay in one of the hotels at the airport for our the last night.