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Venice – where art and architecture meet

Paul Finch

Tadao Ando’s quiet minimalism is perfect foil to Damien Hirst’s show in the Venice Art Biennale, writes Paul Finch

Vignette from this year’s Venice Art Biennale, When Beauty Visits, devised by Taiwanese artist Lee Mingwei: a visitor is led by an assistant to sit on the single chair in an outside area and enjoy the quiet, beautiful, contemplative space. The chosen visitor is then presented with a gift, and told they should only open it the next time they encounter beauty. Those watching, if they have read the brief programme note, know what is inside the wrapped gift: an account of an experience of something beautiful by someone else, collected by the artist.

This charming moment is made all the more effective by the fact that the space in question, a little garden off one of the exhibition spaces in the Arsenale, was designed by Carlo Scarpa; the arrangement of concrete, tiny fountains and pools a sort of Brion Cemetery in miniature.


Installations, events, videos and interactive digital displays are the stock-in-trade of big art shows these days, and are much in evidence in Venice this year (the Biennale remains open until November). It is a relief to come across work displaying that traditional artistic skill: drawing. A delightful series by a Canadian artist, Kananginak Pootoogook, show scenes from life, past and present, with explanation in the Inuktitut language about what is shown, happily with English captions too. (Incidentally, it is as true of art curators as of their architectural colleagues that they have a profound belief that visitors like poorly lit texts in too-small type. Let’s hope Grafton Architects can get a grip on this for next year’s architecture biennale.)

A room full of the most intriguing and skilful drawings is part of the Biennale’s co-located exhibitions, this one in the 18th century Palazzo Grassi. The drawings are part of the extraordinary Damien Hirst show, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, an artistic take on Hollywood’s Pirates of the Caribbean series – at least that is how I thought of it.

Hirst is not everyone’s cup of tea: one artist I know, having seen a giant-sized sculpture outside the show’s two locations – it is also at the Dogana next to Salute – declared the whole thing to be ‘junk’, and declined to pay money to see the rest. A well-known architect told me she would not be visiting, as she regarded Hirst as a cynical manipulator of the art market, and by implication not much else.

Of course the idea of an artist manipulating the art market is funny, taking role reversal to new heights. Isn’t the market supposed to manipulate artists? Part of the game seems to have been the ‘commercialisation’ of Hirst’s factory output, the vulgarity of some of his recent offerings being so extreme that they were bound to succeed.

The overproduction of certain of his trademark pieces doesn’t help his reputation, though he is a long way from the ultimate master of that strategy, Salvador Dalí, who eventually found it more convenient (and profitable) to sell signed canvases with no content, rather than go to the effort of generating actual art.

And yet … the truth is that no matter how cynical or commercial the motive, in the hands of true artist, which Hirst mostly certainly is, it is inevitable that something interesting will happen. His show is a witty and almost academic amalgam of truth and lies, art, sculpture, man-made and natural, scales ranging from minute (coins) to vast (volume-filling statues), films of the ‘discovery’ of the buried treasures and so on.

This is a Postmodern tour-de-force; it is unforgettable, possibly for all the wrong reasons, but I am glad to have seen the two shows. Most children would love it, especially in a room where an encrusted Goofy suddenly appears along with more conventional ‘discoveries’. There is a bonus for anyone with an interest in architecture: the exemplary conversion work by Tadao Ando in both Palazzo Grassi and in particular the Dogana, the former customs house. His quiet minimalism is the perfect contrast to the Hirst confections.


Readers' comments (5)

  • Industry Professional

    The Hirst exhibition was frankly one of the worst I have ever seen. And I have seen a lot of bad art exhibitions.

    it was terrible in idea, aesthetic and how it was displayed in the Palazzo - the exhibiting of the project was trite and unimaginative leaving the visitor to trudge through repeating ideas and rooms over and over again without a single artistic or aesthetic idea developing any further than room 1. I didn't both going to the other venue the other half of the work was displayed in as, judging by online images, it was all exactly the same stuff over and over and over again. One idea, one joke (in which the punchline is given away in the title of the work) repeating ad nauseum.

    There was work in Biennale which was hugely important for architects, but obviously Paul was too drunk on Aperol and schmoozing to really be looking at it all particularly deeply.

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  • Abusive people like to hide behind a pseudonym. Sad.

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  • Well I have to say having found some of Damien Hirst's recent work, the endless dot and disc paintings and bits of chemist's shops variously assembled, exploitative and tedious - I absolutely loved the Wreck of the Unbelievable and the setting in the Palazzo Grassi equally so. I thoroughly enjoyed the art, the concept and the joke - which still has me chuckling 3 months later. The drawings Paul refers too cryptically signed by the mysterious anagrammatic artist "In this dream" formed the genesis of the whole exhibition. The whole thing must have taken years to put together but strikes a completely timely note in these days of "fake news". Zeitgist once again tapped into by Damien Hirst.

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  • Industry Professional

    Hi Paul. I am not "hiding behind a pseudonym", just the way that your magazine creates logins for students through The Construction Index means every user appears as "Industry Professional".

    My name is Will. It wasn't "abuse" it was my feedback on your piece having spent time in the Hirst as well as five other days around the rest of Biennale. It was simply disagreement.

    Seeing as the reason my name was hidden from YOUR magazine was as a result of how YOUR magazine issues licenses, and not me "hiding behind a pseudonym" I am looking forward to an apology.

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  • You'll be waiting a long time. If you accuse people of being drunk/schmoozing and think that is not abuse, you need a lesson in manners. You could also take a course on how not to sound pompous, and also how to insert a name into text. My only relief is that you are not an industry professional.

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