For this next trick, I need a volunteer

Being part of the most notable cultural organisation and celebration of the arts in the world certainly doesn’t leave much room for the curators of the Venice Biennale every two years much time to rest. The expectations grow each year, as the standards for the work on display slowly develop with the times and set the pace for artists around the world to push the boundaries of what can be considered art, and what artistic practice has the potential to create.

This was my first visit to the Biennale, and I am disappointed that I have not had to opportunity to see the phenomenon in previous years. I was told prior to my visit that the work I would be introduced to would be unlike anything I have ever seen, as the level of ambition at the Biennale is second to none. The premise of the event for those unfamiliar is this: The Biennale gives countries across the world the chance to nominate an artist they feel represents them best each year the occasion falls on, and then their work is hosted in pavilions at one of two internationally renowned venues in Venice; the Giardini and the Arsenale. As such, each artist nominated has a duty to their country to show the other participating nations what they have to offer, and the outcomes are progressive, zealous and nothing short of spectacular.

Installation by Giorgio Andreotta Calò
Installation by Italian artist Giorgio Andreotta Calò, Image by Mollie Balshaw

Entering Giardini and Arsenale for the first time with no knowledge of what you are about to see (providing you have managed to avoid the rampant spoilers months prior that is) is intimidating and rousing all at once. Artists as many know have absolutely no reason to place boundaries on themselves. Misunderstanding and mockery aside, art is supposed to provide an escape from the understood and rational. It is supposed to make the individual pose questions, and to bring forth a perspective of a subject or environment that you perhaps did not consider before. As such, the Biennale is the worlds largest champion of this rationale. It (for lack of a better description) is the Olympics of that very notion, of the art world as a whole. There are no restrictions on what the artists can make for the event, other than considerations of safety and feasibility that come with any large-scale show such as this. With this in mind, it is perhaps easier to understand the intimidation when first entering the spaces.

This year’s Biennale had a particular emphasis on installation, and ways the artists chose to fill the space they were given with not only objects or paintings or singular pieces, but to turn the room itself into the spectacle. The representative artist for England Phyllida Barlow, presented a room bombarded with extortionately large versions of mundanely typical items. Barlow calls her exhibition Folly. Her work is all folly, often in a clever way. Several other works are dotted about outside. One is a sort of raised advertising hoarding, with two yawning circular holes cut through it, like eyes. They gaze at you emptily, following you about.

A caustic, damaged and sometimes funny burlesque of sculptural ideas, the elements of Barlow’s Folly also crowd the pavilion’s six rooms, everything rendered in base materials: concrete and scrim, wire mesh, hewn chunks of polystyrene, polyurethane drool, paper and fabric, paint. These materials replace the more pertinent iron and stone, adding a sense of purposeful impermanence and insignificance to the works.

Mark Bradford’s (representing the USA) “Tomorrow is another day” creates unintentional reaction from the visitors, luring them into involvement with the piece unbelievably effortlessly. Inside the first room, a giant red-and-black papier-mâché tumour-like sculpture hangs from the ceiling and literally marginalizes the visitor, forcing them to navigate around it by clinging to the walls. In the next room, there is a central painted-and-bleached-paper abstract sculpture of a medusa’s head surrounded by three weighty, gorgeous paintings of minimalistic black-and-white patterns that Bradford made by dipping hair-salon endpapers into a mixture of hair dye and paint and imprinting them onto canvas. Named after classical sirens, they are each dedicated to an important woman in the artist’s life, beginning with his mother, in whose hair salon Bradford famously and consequently worked for years.

My personal favourite under this category of installation however was without a doubt Giorgio Andreotta Calò’s Senza Titolo (La fine del mondo) Untitled (The end of the world). Visitors enter the dark pavilion on the lower level before climbing a set of stairs and emerging alongside an expanse of water. The dark pool reflects the entire beamed ceiling above, seemingly turning the world upside down. The work was terrifying to experience in person, as at first as your eyes try adjusting to the almost pitch-black room this makes it increasingly difficult to understand what it is that you are looking at. The slightest bit of movement after several minutes staring however, eventually creates cascading ripples that reveal the reflection to be a vast collection of water. The work exuded an essence of the sublime, questioned reality and honestly until I got used to it filled me with real fear. Admittedly, this was in part due to the immense height I was stood at to view it on grated steps allowing me to see the cold hard concrete below, but nevertheless the work was remarkable.

It would be difficult for me to write about every single piece of work that left a heavy impact on me. The Biennale as I hope I have been able to convey is incredibly vast and requires a great deal of concentration and commitment to fully absorb. Even old pros admit that sometimes they miss pieces, because the hundreds of works on show take up time to view and even more time to take in and attempt to unpick. With the crowds, this is often made even more difficult. There is a great deal of information to take in when looking at a piece of artwork no matter what the content, medium or placement. It can be incredibly tempting to get a little too immersed, and often I feel the urge to touch when I’m not supposed to and interact when none is required. This is why I am choosing to end on an artist whom I appreciate immensely for encouraging this interaction, not one of the most well-known names, but one that I think has made grand strides in defining exactly what the Venice Biennale is supposed to be all about. Pushing and redefining boundaries between the artist and the audience.

Interaction to create Erwin Wurm’s “one-minute sculptures”, Images by Mollie Balshaw

Representing the Austrian pavilion, Erwin Wurm’s work invite the visitors to realise the art, and places control in their hands. The exhibition marks the 20th anniversary of Wurm’s ‘one-minute sculptures’ — action-based art that requires the participation of the public. Sculpture is turned into a performative and time-based medium. Climbing up and into the immobile truck held outside the pavilion allows visitors a threefold spatial experience: of body, machine and media. The psychological experience of space can range from the confinement of an elevator, to the vast expanse of a field, evoking corresponding emotions — the sense of imprisonment, or the feeling of freedom. Given today’s global migration movements, the psychological and political dimensions of space become more relevant than ever.

Inside the pavilion, Wurm has placed an old-fashioned caravan from the 1970s, riddled with holes, cut-outs, and various constructions protruding from it. ‘Just about virtues and vices in general’ echoes the idea of living space as a perforated place, where smartphones allow us to take part in events without physically being present. Objects scattered throughout the pavilion bear written and visual instructions that advise visitors on how to enact the ‘one-minute sculptures’.

In many of the works at the Biennale I got a sense of definition, that some pieces there were making a grander statement about the event and proving the purpose of such an important cultural space. I wanted to see work that made me think differently about a subject I thought I knew quite a lot about. Work that challenged my expectations and redefined them. Of all the work I saw, Erwin Wurm’s was among my favourites because it did just this. For many the art gallery or space requires an air of snobbery and pretension, one that should be observed alone. Wurm’s work not only subverted my expectations of that entirely but laughed in its face. Though fun may not have been the key intention of the work, it was excellent to see people engaging with art in a way that anybody can, and not in a restrictive way meant only for the up keep of the aforementioned snobbery and pretension.

That for me was the essence of the Biennale, an event that sought to subvert expectations and create involvement for all who seek to engage culturally with art. Art is for everybody and can equally be enjoyed by everybody. To keep the art world fresh with a passion from artists across the planet, it has to reach a wider audience and not remain stagnant in one high-brow perception. To only see art in one way is (to me at least) to rid it of further potential. Though it is not possible to like every single piece of art in such a huge event as this one and in any gallery in the world in fact, the important thing is the engagement of the visitors, and how their own judgements and feedback continue to feed the flame and help the people behind the scenes consistently bring something new and improved. This is why the Venice Biennale continues to thrive.

The next Venice Biennale will take place in 2019, and currently no artists have been revealed yet. All information regarding the event can be found on the website La Biennale di Venezia -