At the 56th Venice Biennale, Australian artists arrive in large contingents.

Australia has recently unveiled its new permanent pavilion in the Giardini, renewing its foothold in the most prestigious international biennial. But this is not the only place where Australian art can be found during the Biennale, as more artists will participate in a number of collateral events.

Northeast view of the new Australian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, with closed panels, designed by Denton Corker Marshall. Photo by John Gollings. Image courtesy Australia Council for the Arts.

Northeast view of the new Australian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, with closed panels, designed by Denton Corker Marshall. Photo by John Gollings. Image courtesy Australia Council for the Arts.

Australia is participating in the 56th Venice Biennale (9 May – 22 November 2015) with more artists than ever before – a record number of over forty, including those in the national pavilion, the central exhibition and a variety of collateral and satellite events.

Looking back: Australia at the Venice Biennale

National Arts Writer Michaela Boland recently wrote in The Australian about Australia’s presentations in past editions of the Biennale, citing “The Home Show” by Howard Arkley in 1999 as the last to have directed positive critical attention to the country’s pavilion. Successive iterations have seen Patricia Piccinini and Ricky Swallow as national representatives, while the 2007 pavilion was shared by Callum Morton, Susan Norrie and Daniel von Sturmer. In 2011, Hany Armanious’s exhibition resulted in “violently disappointed” comments in the guest book. In 2013, with Simryn Gill‘s show, no guest book was made available, while her artwork rotted from exposure to the weather because she had insisted that the roof of the pavilion be removed.

Boland further commented on the change of game for Australia at the major international event:

Australian artists tend to be a footnote at the Venice Biennale, the world’s biggest international art jamboree. The national pavilion has never won the big prize and only once has an Australian — video artist Shaun Gladwell — been selected for inclusion in the huge international exhibition, which is staged alongside the national pavilions from which a winner is announced each iteration. […] The 2015 Biennale promises to be, well, different.

Fiona Hall, 'Endings are the New Beginnings', 2014, painted long box clock, 150 cm high. Photo: Clayton Glen. Image courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, Australia. © the artist

Fiona Hall, ‘Endings are the New Beginnings’, 2014, painted long box clock, 150 cm high. Photo: Clayton Glen. Image courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, Australia. © the artist

2015: Game changer for Australia 

The recently unveiled AUD6 million (USD4.7 million) new Australia Pavilion at the Giardini – an austere black box overlooking a canal designed by architecture firm Denton Corker Marshall – will host Fiona Hall’s solo presentation entitled “Wrong Way Time”.

Meanwhile, no less than seven Australian artists have been invited to the central exhibition, “All the World’s Futures”, at the Arsenale – hosting 136 international artists in total – by the Biennale’s Artistic Director, Okwui Enwezor. Enwezor travelled to Australia in 2014, visiting various art spaces, galleries, artist studios and institutions, especially around the art hubs of Sydney and Melbourne. He selected the following artists for the exhibition:

  • indigenous mixed-media artist Daniel Boyd
  • sculptor Emily Floyd
  • noise and visual artist Marco Fusinato
  • up-and-coming artist Newell Harry
  • sound artist Sonia Leber
  • composer and artist David Chesworth
  • the late aboriginal painter Emily Kame Kngwarreye

A further six venues around Venice will also host the work of Australian artists, including the Gervasuti Foundation, with the official collateral exhibition “COUNTRY”, featuring more than thirty aboriginal artists alongside Italians. The Berengo Foundation in partnership with The State Hermitage Museum will feature Melbourne artist Penny Byrne in “Glasstress 2015 Gotika”, who will create a glass suit of armour for the event.

Another six artists have been invited to exhibit at Palazzo Bembo and Palazzo Mora in “Personal Structures”, a group exhibition presented by Global Art Affairs.

The Australian Pavilion, designed by Philip Cox and built in 1988, with Shaun Gladwell's work during the Venice Biennale in 2009. © cubamxc/Flickr

The Australian Pavilion, designed by Philip Cox and built in 1988, with Shaun Gladwell’s work during the Venice Biennale in 2009. © cubamxc/Flickr

The Australian invasion

Mr Tony Grybowski, Chief Executive of the Australia Council for the Arts, was recently quoted in Arts Review about Australia’s increased participation in Venice:

This is an incredible result, one that raises Australia’s international profile and demonstrates the quality of work coming from our visual arts sector. This international recognition highlights the global interest in Australian art, and marks an impressive year for Australian visual art and artists.

As The Art Newspaper pointed out, many commentators have attributed the ‘Australia invasion’ of Venice to the country’s new cultural policy, which was launched in August 2014 and seeks “to promote Australian arts abroad and grow cultural tourism in part by inviting tastemakers like Enwezor to the country.”

According to a recent report by the Arts Council, art tourism in Australia grew 19 percent in 2014, to reach 2.4 million. In 2013–14, the Council invested AUD199.2 million through funding grants and initiatives, according to its Annual Report 2013-2014 (PDF download), of which AUD9 million was dedicated to overseas activities – an increase of AUD1.4 million from the previous period of 2012-2013.

One of the art works in Hany Armanious' solo presentation in the Australia Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2011. © Carl Guderian/Flickr

One of the artworks in Hany Armanious’ solo presentation in the Australia Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2011. © Carl Guderian/Flickr

The Venice Biennale does not sponsor its participating artists: materials and production costs are not covered, and usually neither are shipping and travel expenses. Expenses run high for artists who are not backed by their representing galleries or other funding sources.

Australia’s new policies mark a new era for its contemporary art and international visibility by making it easier for artists to participate on the international stage. Arts NSW is also sponsoring six artists and six art practitioners from New South Wales at this year’s Biennale, as this opportunity

represents exposure and participation in an international arts dialogue, a chance to connect with new audiences and curators in a globally relevant context, and the opportunity to witness curatorial practices and contemporary arts practice. […] by assisting Australian artists and arts workers to be immersed in the 2015 Venice Biennale, we’re building skills that these people will return with and instil in the NSW art sector’s ecology.

Arts Review also mentions that Australian patrons, through the Arts Council, are this year extending their support to all the Australian artists exhibiting in Venice.

Fiona Hall, 'Out of My Tree' (detail), 2014, enamel painted on cuckoo clock. Photo: Clayton Glen. Image courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, Australia. © the artist

Fiona Hall, ‘Out of My Tree’ (detail), 2014, enamel painted on cuckoo clock. Photo: Clayton Glen. Image courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, Australia. © the artist

Cultural diplomacy

In 2013, there was surprise at the plethora of Chinese contemporary art exhibitions taking over Venice during the Biennale, as China was pushing its cultural strengths internationally. This year, it seems Australia is catching up, or perhaps making up for its past evasive presence.

According to Tony Grybowski, quoted in The Art Newspaper:

Cultural diplomacy is such an important part of our international relations and soft diplomacy. […] It will be a big year for Australia in Venice.

C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia

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Related Topics: Australian artists, Australian art, biennales, biennials, contemporary art as soft power, events in Venice, the 56th Venice Biennale

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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