A brief review of Opening week, Venice Biennale, May 2015


32 Vaporetto in livery for Biennale 2015

I caught the Biennale flight from Gatwick the night before the Opening day; it was full of curators and academics…..

Sleeping near the airport, there’s a tapestry of song as I awake. It’s different here; the bird song is not the same as home.  I smell dust. Tightness in my chest: congestion? I need water. I buy a chocolate filled cornetto for my breakfast, the dark filling runs into my palm, across my wrist.

Aorta, blood stream, flood, plains, pools, fishing, boats made beautiful, men wade and set nets for fish; I drift and reach towards the shore.

Arriving to heat and blocks of colour, the stall with fruit composed as a painting, I buy strawberries for second breakfast; eat them beside the water in the sunshine beneath the screeching swifts. The first large church I see I enter, as is my custom. Tall wide steps, curved hand rail, swallow wing.  I have entered the church of St. Lucia, the saint of sight and vision.  I sit a while.



Heading out across steps and the creamy green water there is a wedding party in the square, whiteness froths and is gathered in arms. I enter the Scottish Pavilion beautifully housed in Palazzo Fontana; for Scotland+Venice,  Andrew Fagan has made a beautiful, spacious, somewhat elegiac composition: I nestle against the stone floor, watch the four screens… hear the music, feel sad at the words.


Then a walk to the Welsh Pavilion housed in Santa Maria Ausiliatrice (a church and former convent in Castello), to see the work of Helen Sear. Her work company of trees is a fine film of numbered trees and a woman in a red dress. Rape and arrows and dear Mantegna, St Sebastian. Text by John Berger stops me in my tracks.



20 Listening to Helen Sears and Stuart Cameron give a talk on her preparation for her show in Venice


Helen Sear gives a talk, speaking of her rural context, the long journey it’s been to get here, how the few main themes in her work have become more refined. She worked on the show for 8 – 9 months, feels it is an amazing opportunity to develop a project over that amount of time, and in that particular space – needed a sense of a symbiosis between the work and the space – which there is strongly. The visitor experience is one of gliding around the show. Notes I made listening to her talk: Absent body, arrows from dry rapeseed stalks dried to red; Ca’ d’Oro houses the Mantegna painting; importance of the inter-relationship between film and photography…. “nothing is sacred if not divine… the rest is smoke…”   Painting as a map. Then importance of the countryside.   Numbering nature.    The collision between nature and the urban. Work which resists narrative and singular meaning. The Berger text was key for her.

19 John Berger text in Helen Sear's show Wales in Venice ...The rest is smoke

In the Giardini and crowds gather. Hot throbbing music dominating the scene.  I see the crowds thick and gluey around the steps to the Gran Bretagne Pavilion. Bursts of applause from other countries’ pavilions are lost in the general noise around the GB pavilion. I feel embarrassed.  I stand in the crowd and watch the festival. I feel something touching my neck. I turn and see a tree. Funny, I didn’t see it before… I move, it comes again and scratches against my skin. What joy! The French are sending stealth trees to silence the British!

There are very bright yellow bags positioned across shoulders, everyone seems to want one, apparently only the friends and collectors of Sarah Lucas can have one. You have to buy the catalogue and the less bright, less perfectly proportioned, yellow bags for 25 Euros.  I think of Emily Dickinson’s ‘yellow noise’ in her poem which begins ‘Ample make this bed…’ The yellow noise of these contortions cannot compare to Emily Dickinson’s sunrise. I guess it isn’t meant to. I am confused. (I keep returning to re-read the catalogue, to look at the work, to try to see the point of it; one of the Pavilion attendant tells me visitors don’t stay long.)


27 Waiting to leave I Scream Daddio

Lying down on the soft floor of the French pavilion it is quiet, trees float, and feet are bare.

In the Japan Pavilion, The Key in the Hand installation by Chiharu Shiota shines. You enter to a sea of red thread and keys and old scrubbed beautiful work boats sitting up as if praying. Arcs of yarn describe skies, caves, wombs and doorways.

4 The Key in the Hand detail of installation by Chiharu Shiota, Japan Pavilion

The message written by Chiharu Shiota is clear: “Keys are familiar and very valuable things that protect important people and spaces in our lives. They also inspire us to open the door to unknown worlds. With these thoughts in mind, in this new installation I would like to use keys provided by the general public that are imbued with various recollections and memories that have accumulated over a long period of daily use. As I create the work in the space, the memories of everyone who provides me with their keys will overlap with my own memories for the first time.  These overlapping memories will in turn combine with those of the people from all over the world who come to see the Biennale, giving them a chance to communicate in a new way and better understand each other’s feelings.”

The curator Hitoshi Nakano has written of the boats: “(they) symbolize two hands catching a rain of memories (i.e. countless keys) pouring down from the ceiling. While struggling and working with the hands, the two boats will move forward through a huge sea of memory as they collect individual memories.”

The red is life, the flow of blood which gives life to bodies. The beautiful boats, scrubbed and mended, sit patiently waiting to carry us.

I walked through the Arsenale past the knives stuck in the ground like nightmare dystopian flowers and the Bruce Nauman, the blackened chain saws and the axe.

30 Bruce Nauman inside the Arsenale Venice Biennale 2015

15 Kate Walters making drawing drumming intervention, Arsenale, Venice Biennale, 2015


I carry my drum. I had dreamed of having a bird’s vision over Venice. There was a space between the water and the confection of buildings, the scrum and the bilge, and then there was bird Heaven. I waited in the sun, and picking up my drum, I begin to beat the deerskin, and become invisible. I felt the filth of the water and the sense of disconnection between the faintly ticking heart of the work, and the dark human shroud. I felt the fish rising to the surface of the water, great fish, small fish, all rising and drifting, my companions. I see them now as I have never seen them before. (A film will be made about this, by Andrew and Caitlin Webb-Ellis  – www.webb-ellis.org).

John Akomfrah’s three screen work (Vertigo Sea)laying such beautiful bodies of film exquisitely beside each other made me cry, so poignant was it, such a sad memento-mori for what we have done.

10 John Akomfrah Vertigo Sea, still

Morning, early, the pavements were  swept and steps washed. At the press room (http://pressroom.org.uk/) we gather, British and Italian artists, for meetings with breakfast. I sit next to Shonagh Manson, the Director of the Jerwood Charitable Foundation, and she tells me her highlight was the Proportio Show at the Palazzo Fortuny. After taking notes about various briefings to respond to (including Mike Stubbs for example:

All you can do is glean information from the tiniest fragments. Trying to see everything makes you ill. @mikestubbs ) I headed off to the Palazzo Fortuny, which turned out to be my highlight too.

A gorgeous building filled with ancient and contemporary work, placed so carefully to set up resonances. I found the catalogue and began to read the essay. I found references to shamanism, the ancient religion, to seeing in darkness, to the world I know. The bird had landed. I bought the book.

In the shop I saw Marina Abramovic trying on headphones and sitting on the shelves being photographed.

I heard about a woman in a high-vis bright orange burqa standing outside the Giardini. A man asked her to move to improve the composition of his photo. She ignored him.


Kate Walters 




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