Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

How Biennale season transforms the city of Venice

By Marianna Wahlsten, for CNN
September 5, 2014 -- Updated 1050 GMT (1850 HKT)
The Venice Biennale has spawned a huge selection of art exhibitions and architectural displays across the city beyond the <a href=''>ticketed barriers of the Giardini</a>. World renowned artists are experimenting within various historical interiors and waterfronts across Venice. Heinz Mack's gold pillars are pictured next to Palladio's Church. The Venice Biennale has spawned a huge selection of art exhibitions and architectural displays across the city beyond the ticketed barriers of the Giardini. World renowned artists are experimenting within various historical interiors and waterfronts across Venice. Heinz Mack's gold pillars are pictured next to Palladio's Church.
Artists transform Venice
Glass tea house
Transparent sculptures
1,179 stainless steel bicyles
Renaissance instruments
Touch and play
Waterfront warehouse
Discussing Antarctica
  • Venice comes alive as the Biennale takes over the city
  • If you don't have time to visit the Giardini or national pavilions, check out the fantastic events outside the main programme
  • Anish Kapoor and Ai Weiwei are among artists exhibiting across Venice

Marianna Wahlsten is editor of Grand Tour Magazine.

Venice, Italy (CNN) -- Public transport in Venice is like an endless sightseeing tour, and not only for the amount of tourists on the central vaporetto routes.

The waterfront architecture is truly spectacular, from Palladian churches to private palazzos.

And now during the Biennale contemporary artworks and installations are scattered around the city.

Venturing along the waterways leads to some unmissable exhibitions, where art and architecture blend into a beautiful dialogue.

Baroque influence

Close to the Rialto market on the Canal Grande, an 18th century palazzo is home to Fondazione Prada, where all three floors are open to the public for the first time.

During the Biennale it's hosting a show curated by Germano Celant, one of the leading figures of the 1960s anti-formal art movement Arte Povera.

Celant has filled the rooms with a theatrical show.

Read: Sculptures made from nothing but plain paper

This 18th century palazzo houses the Prada Foundation
This 18th century palazzo houses the Prada Foundation

From 16th century musical instruments, clocks and mechanical curiosities to modern installation pieces involving performers, Art or Sound explores both formal and conceptual ideas relating to music.

You can witness the craft of historic pieces as well as works by key avant-garde artists from Celant's previous collaborations, such as John Cage, Nam June Paik, Michelangelo Pistoletto and Jannis Kounellis.

Their radical rethinking of art and the abstract condition of sound resonates throughout the exhibition.

The unique Venetian Baroque interiors add another level of interest to the show.

It's both raw and historical - unlike any other contemporary art space in the world - with ornaments, carvings and rich details.

The Prada Foundation has a contract as a patron to rescue the building and bring the original frescoes and rare, fine materials back to life, "without trying to modify it through characterless facelifts", Celant explains.

Modernity takes over

On the other side of the water, after the Rialto Bridge, there is the Fondaco Marcello, an exhibition space in a 15th century arms storehouse by the water front.

Here the Biennale theme of Modernity extends into a scientific narrative, looking at possible ways of existence on the Antarctic continent, a subject in total contrast to the surrounding architectural heritage in Venice.

Ai Weiwei exhibits a stack of 1,179 stainless steel bikes
Ai Weiwei exhibits a stack of 1,179 stainless steel bikes

The Antarctic Pavilion, curated by Nadim Samman makes you think of lifestyle and tourism, as well as the ecological and political questions posed by those extreme conditions on the margins of civilization.

Further down towards San Marco Square, a giant composition of 1,179 stainless steel bikes has been neatly stacked on the canal side courtyard garden of the Palazzo Cavalli-Franchetti near the Accademia bridge.

Read: World's coolest bookstores

This art installation, titled "Forever" by Ai Weiwei is part of the exhibition Genius Loci, brought to Venice by the Lisson Gallery.

The show continues inside the 16th century palace building with sculptures and installations by international artists including Tony Cragg, Lee Ufan, Julian Opie and Joana Vasconcelos.

Contemporary public art

The rest is slightly more modest in scale than Ai Weiwei's installation, but still spectacular examples of ideas addressed in contemporary public works.

There is a sense of play with architecture and space, exploring the parallels between the two disciplines, such as Anish Kapoor's work which deals with our spatial perceptions.

This exhibition suggests that genius loci 'the special spirit' can be found in the urban space through artworks, materials and forms; a departure from the modernist obsession with functionality.

A short hop on a vaporetto takes you across the lagoon from San Marco to the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, which has become a site for displaying large public installations.

The beautiful island of San Giorgio Maggiore
The beautiful island of San Giorgio Maggiore

This year a geometric sculpture entitled "The Sky Over Nine Columns" dominates the waterfront square next to Palladio's famous church.

Its surfaces are covered with golden glass mosaics, beautifully reflecting the Venetian sun.

The piece by Heinz Mack, who represented Germany at the Arts Biennale in 1970, was commissioned by the Cini Foundation. Mack is known for monumental installations: "My sculptures are objects of light in space" Mack said.

Read: Is biology the future of design?

Behind the church, an exquisitely crafted pavilion has been erected in the garden of the Stanze del Vetro glass museum.

The aquarium-like Glass Tea House Mondrian is designed by Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimoto, best known for his minimalistic photography.

Sugimoto's pavilion is the first in a series of commissions, supported by the Cini Foundation, which follows the model of the Serpentine Pavilion in London. Installed inside a cedar wood fenced garden, the glass pavilion will also be the setting for a traditional tea ceremony, a performance which exemplifies the delicacy in Japanese culture.

All these shows run parallel to the Architecture Biennale, overseen by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas this year.

Even if you don't have time to visit the Giardini and the national pavilions, these events outside the main programme are some fantastic cultural offerings, adding another level of meaning to visiting a city with such rich heritage.

Venice Architecture Biennale 2014: 7.6 - 23.11.2014

© 2012 Grand Tour Magazine. All rights reserved.

Part of complete coverage on
CNN Style
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Some artists are obsessed with making things tiny. Others are into vastness. Here are incredible works from both ends of the size spectrum.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
Close one eye, and it could almost -- almost -- pass for a regular underground train. Close the other, and it looks like a space shuttle from Star Trek.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 1431 GMT (2231 HKT)
Soup that is rumored to be radioactive; 10 people sharing a single silk hat. It could only be Frieze London, one of the world's leading art fairs.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 0939 GMT (1739 HKT)
In spite of all the sexier pictures around us, the titillating pin-ups of the early 20th century are still in demand.
October 9, 2014 -- Updated 1150 GMT (1950 HKT)
Iris has autism and cannot speak, but her stunning paintings sell for thousands of dollars.
October 8, 2014 -- Updated 1055 GMT (1855 HKT)
Here's a look at the world's finest feats of facial hair, from sculpted sideburns to manicured mustaches.
October 6, 2014 -- Updated 1517 GMT (2317 HKT)
Rare, striking photographs of black Britons in the late 19th and early 20th century are being shown to the public for the first time.
October 6, 2014 -- Updated 1502 GMT (2302 HKT)
The finest buildings in the world have been named at the World Architecture Festival in Singapore.
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2332 GMT (0732 HKT)
For some, these beautiful train stations are part of the everyday commute. For others, they're must-see travel destinations.
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1343 GMT (2143 HKT)
As the Turner Prize turns 30 years old, we look at the formula for controversy and what the work we hate says about our society.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1249 GMT (2049 HKT)
From the most controversial to the most iconic, these are the book covers that have defined our times
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 0917 GMT (1717 HKT)
The pools of Hollywood A-listers include infinity-edge marvels and oceanfront stunners from the likes of Ralh Lauren and Cindy Crawford.