From now until November, Venice hosts its modern art show – the Biennale. To make the most of it, stay at one of the hotels below and follow my guide to the best installations, shows and short films
Every two years, Venice ignores the Tintorettos, Canalettos and Bellinis and commands the attention of the contemporary art world. The focus shifts to the likes of Bruce Nauman, Steve McQueen and Fiona Tan – just a few of the hundreds of artists with work on show at the 53rd International Art Exhibition – better known as the Venice Biennale.
The art is displayed in 29 national pavilions in the sun-dappled 19th-century gardens, the Giardini, as well as in the old shipyard, the Arsenale, and at collateral events spread across the city. There is also a single large overarching show that loosely attempts to link artists and artworks thematically. This year’s title is Fare Mondi/Making Worlds, organised by the Swedish curator, Daniel Birnbaum.
Where to stay
Hotels without the hordes
Hotel Ai Mori D'Oriente, Fondamenta Della Senza, Cannaregio 3319, 30121 Venice. Doubles from €119 per night. This hotel is in the Cannaregio sestiere, a quiet residential area of the city. It opened only in 2007 and has spacious rooms with large marble-clad bathrooms. However, don’t expect minimalism – the interiors are reflected in the hotel’s name. An enjoyable, crowd-free vaporetto trip on the lagoon (No 42/52 from Madonna Dell’Orto to Celestia), and a short walk, brings you to the Arsenale.
Pensione La Calcina, Dorsoduro 780, 30123 Venice. Doubles from €120 per night. Also known as "Ruskin’s House" (he stayed here in 1877), the hotel has contemporary rooms and its own café and restaurant, La Piscina, which floats on a shaded pontoon on the Guidecca canal. It is in the Dorsoduro sestiere and has 29 air-conditioned rooms, all with wooden parquet flooring, furniture from the original Pensione, and Wi-Fi access. Vaporettos 61, 62, 82 and N will take you quickly to the Giardinni/Biennale stop.
Hotel Bucintoro, Castello 2135/a, 30122 Venice. Doubles from €160 per night. If the thought of walking around the pavilions in the Giardini and the route march through the Arsenale exhausts you, then stay at this excellent hotel just a minute’s walk from both Biennale venues. However, its location makes it more expensive.
Taking its name from the Renaissance Doge’s barge, Il Bucintoro, the hotel has rooms with a nautical theme – each named after an historic naval vessel. Expect dark mahogany, brass, sea charts, understated luxury and some of the best views in Venice. Rooms overlook the lagoon, Palladio’s magnificent St Giorgio Maggiore church and the Riva degli Schiavoni towards St Mark’s and the Campanile.
Hilton Molino Stucky, Guidecca 810, 30133 Venice. Rooms €285 - €2,905 per night. If you are an international artist, a collector or a curator travelling on expenses, this new hotel is the one to book. A converted former flour-mill and granary on Guidecca, it has Venice’s only rooftop swimming pool and outstanding views of the Venetian skyline. The Welsh Pavilion, showing the work of John Cale, is next door, and a water taxi will speed you across the lagoon to the Giardini in minutes.
What to see
You need at least a day each at the Giardini and Arsenale (€18/€8 concessions, covers both venues) and another for the collateral events.
The art critics have singled out the joint exhibition in the Danish and Nordic Pavilions, "The Collectors". Curated by Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, 24 artists have contributed to two engaging, yet tongue-firmly-in-cheek, installations. Both pavilions have been converted into desirably stylish homes – but any sense of domestic bliss is misplaced. In the Danish pavilion, an earthquake-like fissure has demolished the staircase, and cracks ominously split the dining table and other furniture. An abandoned photo album suggests family separation and loss, while a "For Sale" sign in the garden reinforces the overall sense of unease.
The plot thickens next door at the Nordic pavilion. Here, wealth and decadence are suggested by erotic art by the fetish artist Tom of Finland, a large black-and-white photo by Wolfgang Tillmans and naked men lounging around on designer furniture. However, like a scene from a David Lynch film, there is a dead body floating face-down in the outside pool, his watch and Marlboro Lights submerged; his shoes discarded on the pool surround. Death – or perhaps dearth – in Venice.
A sense of theatricality prevails throughout the Biennale and two films by female artists foreground this theme. Keren Cutter has ambiguously related characters watched, clapped and heckled by an audience as they argue among themselves within a dark, stage-like space (watched in turn by us as we view her film). The confrontational dialogue is unsettlingly Pinteresque.
Ulla von Brandenberg, meanwhile, constructs a fabric maze in the Arsenale to show her black-and-white short Singspiel. Set inside Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, we witness what appears to be a wake. Unidentified characters sit around a large dining table and mime the words as a young girl sings a short song in German. A brief theatrical tableau in the garden concludes with black curtains slowly drawn closed before the action cuts back again to the solemn, enigmatic meal. It's a disturbing, disorienting, yet arresting short film.
What not to miss
Bruce Nauman: Topological Gardens – American Pavilion, University Ca’ Foscari, and IUAV Tolentini.
Fiona Tan – Netherlands Pavilion.
Roman Ondak – Czech/Slovak Pavilion.
John Cale – Welsh Pavilion (Guidecca).
Krzysztof Wodiczko – Polish Pavilion.
Steve McQueen – British Pavilion.
Lygia Pape - Arsenale.
And definitely see…
"In-Finitum" – The Palazzo Fortuny (Campo San Beneto)
What to read
Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer. Art, sex, drugs and mid-life crisis at the Venice Biennale.
When to go
Fare Mondi/Making Worlds is open 10am-6pm (Giardini closed on Mondays, Arsenale closed on Tuesdays), from now until 22 November.