NZ finds great home for Venice Biennial   6 Jun 2012

Anna Blair

This week, the location of New Zealand’s pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennial has been announced. Bill Culbert’s site-specific pieces will be installed at the Istituto Santa Maria della Pietà, often called La Pietà.

The Venice Biennial is one of the world’s largest art events. The city, which receives more tourists than it has residents, is compact but crowded, with events and exhibitions held throughout. Venice’s notorious difficulty to navigate, combined with the small amount of time most visitors have for the Biennial, cause placement to take on extreme significance.

Bill Culbert was announced last October as the artist to represent New Zealand at the Venice Biennial in 2013. Culbert is best known for his work exploring different forms of light. One of his site-specific neon installations, Fault, marks the façade of Wellington’s City Gallery.

The choice of Culbert, who left New Zealand for the United Kingdom in 1957, at 22, drew criticism that opportunity should be given to an artist resident in the country. Culbert, however, returns regularly to New Zealand to exhibit and has works in collections across the country. He remains well known in his homeland. In addition to Wellington’s Fault, Culbert has completed public commissions for Christchurch and Auckland.

While 30 countries have permanent pavilions, New Zealand is itinerant, seeking a temporary pavilion every two years. New Zealand has participated in the Venice Biennial since 2001. With only a small presence internationally, location is particularly important in ensuring foreign audiences see the work of NZ artists.

La Pietà is situated on the main thoroughfare linking Piazza San Marco with the Giardini Gardens. This location between Venice’s main square and the Giardini means that New Zealand’s pavilion will benefit immensely from foot traffic. In more obscure places, audiences are primarily been those who seek the pavilion out, as opposed to simply stumbling upon it.

This church, dating from 1761, housed the New Zealand pavilion in 2005, when collective et al. represented the country. Since then, La Pietà has been home to the Irish Pavilion.

In addition to impacting visitor numbers, location is also significant to the creation and display of artwork. Bill Culbert’s work for the Venice Biennial is to be site-specific, and La Pietà offers the artist an interesting space with which to work.

The exhibition spaces are both large and unique, and resonate with Venice’s strong historical identity. La Pietà is known particularly for its association with composer Antonio Vivaldi, who taught at the associated orphanage.

Michael Parekowhai’s ‘On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer’, shown last year, was presented beautifully at Palazzo Loredan dell'Ambasciatore. The intimacy of the setting tied beautifully to Parekowhai’s pieces, which are subtle and poetic, benefitting from sustained examination in a quieter setting. Palazzo Loredan dell'Ambasciatore is a private home tucked in a small street away from the main sites. New Zealand’s 2011 pavilion rewarded those who saw it and was critically well received, but the location meant visitor numbers were relatively low.

New Zealand’s return to a prominent site in 2013 is likely to afford the country greater international recognition at the Venice Biennial. Plans for Culbert’s project are not yet known, but most signs suggest the Biennial will be an excellent opportunity for the country to succeed on an international stage.

Anna Blair is a freelance writer and architectural historian studying hotels from the 1920s. She currently divides her time between Paris and East London. Further work can be found at her blogDispatches from Europe.


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