Highlights of a visit to the Venice Biennale

 

Venice Biennale, Hew Locke – photo: Richard Christensen

BA(Hons) Fine Art and BA(Hons) Drawing students recently returned from a study visit to the Venice Biennale.

The visit gave students from the two courses an opportunity to spend time with those on a different course at Falmouth, and the group fit much into their time. 2017 graduate Abbie Hunt, who was supported by Falmouth School of Art and the British Council to undertake a British Council Venice Fellowship, had been in touch with the students to make recommendations based on her experience of working at the Biennale for a month. And exhibiting in this year’s  Diaspora Pavilion were Falmouth Visiting Professor of Fine Art, Hew Locke and fellow Falmouth alumna Libita Clayton.

BA(Hons) Fine Art student Richard Christensen provided his response to some of the highlights, and some great images of the visit:

Venice Arsenale, photo: Richard Christensen

‘Our arrival in Venice was inauspicious, late on Monday evening with a biting wind which made for an uncomfortable ride in the vaporetto to San Marco.  The wind continued into Tuesday, together with plenty of rain, and found its way into the exhibition spaces of the Arsenale, where there were few warm spots for retreat.  But by Wednesday the wind had gone, and for the rest of our stay the city was pleasantly autumnal.

Much of the Arsenale site consists of a long series of halls which must once have been the dockyard workshops.  The exhibitions here were organised into loosely defined themes (‘the Common’, ‘the Earth’, etc)…the openness of the themed pavilions created both variety and dynamism, with a multitude of thought-provoking and visually arresting works in all media.

Venice, British Pavilion, Phyllida Barlow – photo: Richard Christensen

The British pavilion had a painting-sculptural installation by Phyllida Barlow called ‘folly’.  Energetic, exuberant, more than filling its space and spilling outside the building, it was certainly not lacking in ambition.

An area of undoubted strength at the Biennale was the consistently high standard of video art.  Video is now clearly in an age of maturity, with professional production values and themes which speak to their audiences with clarity.  Several works at Venice are operating at the boundary with cinema in terms of the scope of their ambition and their technical standards.

Although there was little live performance art at the Biennale, the one piece which I saw was remarkable for its power and intensity.  The German pavilion was an almost empty space apart from a raised glass floor and glass panels separating some of the rooms.  The audience, on entering the building, hardly knew what to expect.  The four performers, initially positioned around the main exhibition hall, moved together and then separated in successive bursts of energy and slow deliberation, in a loosely structured narrative of encounters and separations.

Venice, German Pavilion, photo: Richard Christensen

At times there was intimacy, at others the threat of violence.  Even though much of the performance took place in and among the audience, at no time was there any interaction with it.  And despite the intensity of the piece the expressions of the performers were impassive throughout – indeed, this impassivity was what gave it much of its power.  And at the end, when the four performers disappeared, their wordless drama, maintained over an hour and a quarter, left the audience exhausted by what they had seen and experienced.

Two and a half days in Venice could never provide much more than a taster of what the Biennale had to offer.  I could easily have spent a whole week or more there taking in the art.  And as for the city… I’m sure I could devote a whole year there just to exploring its endless maze of alleyways and canals.’

 

The Venice study visit is one of a number of optional overseas trips offered to undergraduate students of Falmouth School of Art during their studies. BA(Hons) Drawing have also in recent years visited Amsterdam, and BA(Hons) Fine Art have previously visited Berlin.

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Falmouth becomes a Partner in the British Council’s Venice Fellowships Programme

Falmouth School of Art has become a partner in the British Council’s Venice Fellowships Programme, and we are very pleased to announce that our first Fellow, attending the 57th Biennale Arte this autumn, will be final year BA(Hons) Fine Art student Abbie Hunt.

Exterior of the British Pavilion on the occasion of Sarah Lucas’s exhibition, I SCREAM DADDIO, at the British Pavilion, 2015. © Cristiano Corte.

The Venice Fellowships is a steward-research programme which brings together students and volunteers from partner universities and organisations across the UK, and provides them with a month at the Venice Biennale, where they split their time between invigilating the British Pavilion exhibition and conducting independent research.

Abbie has already taken part in a two-day induction in London, where Fellows received training in the practical aspects of stewarding and received support in developing their research ideas. She reflected, “Even after the induction, having this opportunity still doesn’t seem real. I’m very excited and nervous but after meeting the other Fellows I will be invigilating with in October I feel a lot more settled. The Fellowship has given me an instant network and I feel installed into another family as everyone was confident and friendly. There was a real buzz during the induction, as collectively we were positive and willing to learn and make these connections”.

Falmouth School of Art’s Director, Dr. Virginia Button, said, ‘I’m delighted that through our partnership in the British Council’s prestigious Fellowship programme, Abbie will be spending a month at the Venice Biennale this year. It’s so important for our students to continue thinking and engaging globally, and immersion in Europe’s most established international contemporary art exhibition is sure to  be really inspiring. I think it’s great that the Fellowship supports both professional practice and research, allowing graduates to really get the most out of the experience.’

untitled: dock: emptystaircasehoarding, 2014, Phyllida Barlow. Installation view, dock, Duveen Commission, Tate Britain, London, England, 2014. Photo: Alex Delfanne ©
Phyllida Barlow. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

For Abbie, the Venice Fellowship will come soon after graduation, but her success in securing her place has already had an impact: “The Fellowship came at such a good time, as I come to the end of my degree, because it has given me a new sense of confidence and aspiration for when I finish and enter the real world. Having this amazing opportunity has really made me consider the pathway of working within a gallery context whilst still having the freedom to develop my practice”.

To secure her place on the Fellowships Programme, Abbie had to complete the British Council’s written application, from which a small number of candidates were shortlisted by a Falmouth School of Art panel to be interviewed by the British Council. Abbie’s research interests already aligned with this year’s Biennale – her dissertation included research on this year’s British Pavilion artist: “In terms of the Fellowship research, I am massively interested in expanding on my dissertation, as this surrounded Phyllida Barlow’s work. Being able to interact with the public and observing their responses to her exciting unseen exhibition will definitely take my understanding to a completely new level”.

Falmouth School of Art plans to keep in touch with Abbie and hear more about her experiences during the autumn. “I really don’t feel like I can anticipate the experience I will have in Venice until I’m actually living there”, she adds, “but it’s going to keep me going in the last few weeks before deadline!”.

‘Take drawing seriously as mode of enquiry’ – Gemma Anderson in British Council VOICES Magazine

Published by the British Council VOICES Magazine, full article here: https://www.britishcouncil.org/voices-magazine/gemma-anderson-take-drawing-seriously-mode-enquiry 

Gemma Anderson

By Gemma Anderson

Does art simply represent the world ‘as it is’, or does it find other aspects in it, aspects that people wouldn’t normally detect? Gemma Anderson, who creates art in collaboration with scientists, explains why it is possible to be more than an illustrator when drawing and painting the world.

You use the term ‘isomorphology’ in relation to your work. What does it mean?

I created the term, based on the Greek isos, meaning same, morphe meaning form, and logos, meaning study.

In my drawing practice, I had started to see similarities in shapes repeated across the natural world. I noticed that certain sets of patterns recur in the animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms, but I couldn’t find anything that documented these relationships. I realised that, as an artist, I could visualise relationships in a way that would be more difficult for scientists, because their work is so specialised.

What sort of patterns crop up again in nature?

There are several, including spirals, hexagons, different forms of symmetries, spheres, and branching forms.

For example, you might see a spiral in a snail’s shell or in an ammonite fossil. Practically all plants have a spiralling leaf pattern, or phyllotaxis (the scientific term for the arrangement of leaves on a stem).  And in the animal world, you see spiral forms in sharks’ egg cases. Even in humans, our heart valves and the cochlea in our inner ears are spiral-shaped.

Why do these patterns repeat?

Scientists and mathematicians talk a lot about this, and there are a lot of answers. But the main reason is that they are efficient. These forms all use space really well. They just allow matter to pack together in a smart way, that also happens to be beautiful.

Which other artists have inspired you?

I interpret a lot of the artist Paul Klee‘s work as a creative study of form that makes unconventional relationships between natural phenomena, which are usually organised separately. For example, in the work ‘Comedy‘ (1921) he draws plant and animal forms together into one body.

I’m also inspired by the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who was a polymath and engaged with lots of scientists, although his work wasn’t visual art. His observations about plants were genuinely helpful to botanical scientists.

Are there similarities between the way scientists and artists approach their work?

Both scientists and artists are interested in the study of form. When I started, my expectations were that scientists spend most of their time observing things. I’ve since discovered that much scientific observation is less directly involved with examining the material of the natural world, and more involved with data and modelling. But the process of enquiry does cross over.

How do you work with scientists?

While studying at the Royal College of Art between 2005 and 2007, I began to contact the people who managed the scientific collections at museums and set up meetings where I would ask them if I could draw, say, a certain coral in their collection. At first, only about one person in ten would respond to my emails, so I had to follow up and be persistent. Slowly, I built up relationships with individual curators, who gave me space to draw; and eventually, we became friends. A lot of the relationship is about trust. They don’t have it written into their jobs that they have to help artists, so they are free to ignore your requests.

What’s the difference between your artwork and the sort of scientific illustrations one might see in a textbook?

Traditionally, the pattern is that there’s a scientist and an illustrator who is employed to represent the science. I am using drawing to ‘find’ repetitions in nature. So, although the etchings and drawings may look similar, the motivation behind my work and the questions I’m asking are different. My art represents my own understanding of the natural world, which comes from drawing. It’s qualitative. It isn’t representing a scientist’s understanding, which might come from other more quantitative methods, like DNA barcoding (a way to identify species).

How did you start?

In school, I was keen on drawing and also really liked science. I did biology and art at A-level, and enjoyed the process of mapping structures in each discipline. But learning biology through a textbook wasn’t the way I wanted to do it. Over time, through drawing in scientific collections, I was exposed to a vast range of objects in the animal, mineral and vegetable world, and that’s when I started seeing repeated patterns.

What advice would you give teachers?

Take drawing seriously as a mode of enquiry. Encourage your students to look closely at different examples of plants in the classroom, and they may start to genuinely see the five-fold symmetry or spiralling leaves of a particular flower. Don’t underestimate drawing as a way of learning and making comparisons.

For example, if you look at crystals and insects, there are symmetries in their forms: both have types of bilateral and four-fold symmetry. Crystals are more geometric, and insects are less symmetrical, of course; in real life, you only get the endless variations on these patterns. You never see quite what you expect and that’s part of the fun.

What advice would you give young artists?

I always say to my art students, try to exercise initiative. And if you want to find something out, ask! Don’t fear looking silly. There have been lots of times when I’ve been following a particular line of enquiry that might seem obvious, but not knowing is part of the process. It’s important to ask unconventional questions.

Also, use the freedom to enter lots of different disciplines that comes with being an artist. In most of society, it’s difficult to step outside the normal pattern of your work, but artists can. It’s a rarity that is available to us.