Venice Biennale and
Tea at the British Pavilion

Tea in the British Pavilion

Peter Goodbody extols the virtues of tea as the perfect way to enjoy the world’s oldest arts festival…

Most things are made better by a nice cup of tea, even riots and invasions by NATO forces. At least that’s the message we get from the British and Iraqi pavilions at this year’s Venice Biennale, both of which were serving tea to the visitors who came to see their exhibits.

We had three and a bit days to “do” the Venice Biennale, and that’s nowhere near enough to see it all, but it’s enough time to get a take on what’s going on as well as to squeeze in a decent lunch or two. I’ll get back to the tea thing later – but in the meantime, some context.

There are reckoned to be about 200 art biennials (or biennales if you prefer) around the world with Venice being the first, more than 100 years ago. This is the 55th iteration and for the most part it’s based on 2 massive sites – the Arsenale and the Giardini.

“There are plenty of palazzos, churches and other weird spaces on offer”

For those artists that can’t squeeze in to these sites, there are plenty of palazzos, churches and other weird spaces on offer; there’s even a special “Vaporetto del Arte” buzzing around that ferries people between the various sites.

A good place to start is at the Arsenale. Straight away we see what is said to be the central theme of the show – the Palazzo Encliclopedico – the idea of Marino Auriti that he could build a (very) tall building that would house all of the knowledge in the world. A clearly and obviously ridiculous concept now, but back then?

The other theme that runs through the curation is the question of what actually counts as art. There are some pieces by people who were never seen as artists, or known as artists, even though they created cool things. Good call, but if you call it art, then it is art. Or something like that.

“Highlights include Pavel Althamer’s Venetians – a room filled with rubber skeletal-like beings”

The Arsenale is host to a real mix of cultures, styles and themes. It seems to go on forever, but in a good way.

We walk through scores of exhibits, nearly all of them “good.” Highlights include Pavel Althamer’s Venetians (pictured below) – a room filled with rubber skeletal-like beings made from casts of the faces of real people but with bodies constructed from extruded plastic. Oddly arresting and disturbing, but fascinating.

There is a similarly bizarre installation from Indonesia further down – murder at the dinner table? It is unlikely to be intentional, but there seems to be a curious parallel between the two.

Pavel Althamer's Venetians

As with all massive exhibitions like this, it all tends to meld into a sensory overload and it can be difficult to recall details. Never mind. We go back to the hotel and drink the complimentary bottle of Prosecco before going out for dinner.

Normally, in a piece about art, I’d have skipped the description of dinner, but we met up with Kevin Hunt, a Liverpool artist who was doing a stint working at the British Pavilion in Giardini. He teased us with what we might see the next day. No clues, but really special, he said.

Dinner was lovely, by the way – there is very good seafood in Venice.

“Jeremy Deller has created a brilliant real/fantasy world of life in Britain both past and future”

We met Kevin at the British Pavilion the next day. Here, Jeremy Deller has created a brilliant real/fantasy world of life in Britain both past and future – riots in Jersey in 2017 as a result of the banking crisis. Jersey? Who knew?

In another scene William Morris (yes, he of the pretty patterns) is seen to be hurling Abramovich’s yacht into the sea. A clear comment about the incident in 2011 when Abramovich parked the thing right in front of the Giardini and fenced off the quayside around it. It’s challenging stuff and the British Council are to be applauded for funding it.

At the entrance Kevin was showing off a piece of flint that was hewn about 40,000 years ago. Art? Not really, but pretty cool. Then he blew our minds. From underneath his desk he produced another piece of flint. “This is the oldest thing you will ever have held,” he said. Really, we thought? After all, rocks have been around for a while, but it was reckoned to have been worked by man 450,000 years ago.

“In the middle of all this mayhem there was a cup of tea”

“You need to keep this above the desk,” he said. I guess, they didn’t want a 450,000 years old flint tool to become two as it was dropped onto the floor by someone with slippy fingers. That was a truly special moment. Someone made this thing nearly half a million years ago.

In the middle of all this mayhem there was a cup of tea. A mug of builder’s tea and a nice sit down. Brilliant. We got it. We weren’t convinced that the Italians who wanted an espresso instead were equally sure what it all means. But what was convincing was that Kevin told us that about 3,000 cups of free tea were being served in the British Pavilion every day. Art? Who cares when there’s tea involved.

Actually, I do care. These things are important. A nice cup of tea might seem like a kind of quirky token in the British Pavilion, but when the same thing is done in the Iraqi pavilion, then it becomes all the more important. Here we saw works by a selection of artists based in Iraq but who were all working on the same theme of representing daily life in a war ravaged country.

To think that art is created there at all is remarkable. To see the quality of it is humbling. But here, too, we took tea. In a glass and with lots of sugar. There’s not a lot of difference between us after all.

We saw plenty more during our three days in Venice – the Palazzo Grassi had its floors and walls covered in carpet by Rudolf Stingel. New Zealander Bill Culbert built curious installations with strip lights and empty milk cartons. Bedwyr Williams had us scratching our heads with, well frankly we weren’t sure what. The Romanians used actors to recreate their previous shows in a truly affecting piece of theatre that they described as a retrospective. The Israelis built a tunnel and videoed themselves having a party afterwards. There was eye and ear stimulation everywhere we went.

But the best bits were tea. Because that is a language we understand the world over.

Words and pictures, Peter Goodbody

See Peter’s Venice Biennale 2013 — In Pictures

Venice Biennale continues until 24th November 2013

Posted on 22/10/2013 by thedoublenegative