Venice Art Olympics: Medals for National Pavilions and Collateral Events

Text and pictures by Rachel Simkover

It’s the Olympics of the art world and the jury is a bit stingy with the Gold Lion awards, so here are some more (unfortunately only symbolic) prizes for the national pavilions and collateral events of the 55th Venice Biennale.

National Pavilions

Gold: Mathias Poledna, Imitation of Life @ the Austrian Pavilion

A little bird asks, “Hello, how did you get here?” Good question.

Was it the catchy tune? The reference to old Disney cartoons? The singing and dancing donkey (or dog?) wearing a sailor outfit? That it, “weaves into its short narrative a multitude of convergent histories: of the avant-garde and popular culture, politics and propaganda, capitalism and collapse, and an artistic medium that has been part of our collective consciousness for almost a century” (according to commissioner Jasper Sharp)? The fact that the film was about three minutes long? I still can’t pinpoint exactly what was so seductive about Imitation of Life by Mathias Poledna that brought me back so many times to the Austrian Pavilion to watch it again (and again…). It’s perverse; something that appears childlike but is for an adult audience, indicating that there is something else beneath the smooth surface of it all. The work is deceivingly simple and this is where its magic lies.  “I got a feeling you’re fooling…got a feeling you’re having fun…got a feeling you’re fooling with me,” sings the cute cartoon figure. I’ve got a feeling Poledna is fooling with us, and it is a lot of fun.

Silver: Alfredo Jaar, Venezia, Venezia @ the Chilean Pavilion

Three minutes must have been the magic duration for Venice commissions (or my attention span). After three minutes of staring at one’s own reflection in the murky green water or across the pool at others awaiting the spectacle in eager anticipation, a 1:60 scale model of the Giardini pavilions slowly emerges from the water’s depths and sinks back down again. The work is critical of one of the glaring contradictions of the Venice Biennale; the biennale claims to represent the most important contemporary art worldwide, but the historic Giardini garden only hosts pavilions of 28 nations, leaving the excluded countries to search for alternative spaces. The stillness of the three-minute interval leaves one contemplating the loss of what is gone but in anticipation of its rise again. There is a sense of security in knowing that once submerged, the Giardini garden will rise again, but also a feeling of helplessness that the model remains unchanged. The photograph at the entrance of the exhibition of Lucio Fontana amongst his demolished Milan studio in the aftermath of WWII, alludes to the artist’s ability to overcome difficult times in this poetic cycle of death and rebirth.


Bronze: Vadim Zakharov, Danae @ the Russian Pavilion

Vadim Zakharov’s project curated by Udo Kittelmann (Berlin’s Nationalgalerie director) delightfully uses the pavilion’s architecture to its advantage, creating a multi-level participatory theater performance which flips the ancient Greek myth of Danae. Kittlemann briefly sums up the exhibition with the statement, “It’s about how money corrupts, and the hope for the future of women.” Gentleman, the time has come to confess our Rudeness, Lust, Narcissism, Demagoguery, Falsehood, Banality, and Greed, Cynicism, Robbery, Speculation, Wastefulness, Gluttony, Seduction, Envy, and Stupidity. Yes!


Honorable Mention: Tavares Strachan @ the Bahamas Pavilion

Tavares Strachan’s work in the Bahamas Pavilion gets and honorable mention here for the noteworthy piece Me and You (North Pole Ice and Cloned North Pole Ice) in which the artist brought back a chunk of ice from the North Pole (as part of an ongoing project) and had MIT scientists create a clone of the ice with its identical chemical composition.


Honorable Mention: Sarah Sze, Triple Point @ the United States Pavilion

Although not the most conceptually interesting pavilion on view, I have a big soft spot for fake rocks so this one makes the list. It looks like a hardware store exploded in the building, and I’m envious of the fun Sze must have had organizing it all.


Collateral Events

Gold: Bedwyr Williams, The Starry Messenger @ Cymru yn Fenis Wales in Venice

Wow! Honestly I would have been content with my visit to Venice if I only saw this exhibition! Williams’s installation in the Ludoteca Santa Maria Ausiliatrice is an adventure (almost an obstacle course) through the cosmos. The tour starts by passing through a gorgeous semi-transparent curtain with a print of the terrazzo tiled floor. The exhibition is an exploration of the relationship between amateur observations of the micro, the floor material made of tiny particles, and the macro, the universe. Moving through the exhibition the viewer experiences a range of sensations, from the helpless stumbling through the pitch-black space with tiny illuminated holes in the walls evoking stars to the awe of the magical northern-lights-like sculptural installation in the next room. The film work amusingly showcases Williams’s ability to seamlessly tie together similar but different materials like mosaics, ancient sculpture, teeth, and stargazing. At the end of the exhibition tour is a small, unimposing takeaway pamphlet that should definitely not be overlooked. The text moves fluidly through multiple loosely related characters, and the ending of the story beautifully ties together the whole journey.

Silver: Thomas Zipp, Comparative Investigation about the Disposition of the Width of a Circle @ KAI 10 Arthena Foundation

Thomas Zipp’s installation of his version of a research/treatment institute is hard to forget. His fictional psychiatric clinic includes eight parts: a reception, a director’s office, a library, a treatment room, a bedroom, an auditorium, an “anger room” (a padded cell), and a hallway (whose walls are adorned with wonderful, delicate drawings and etchings by the artist). These eight rooms contain a lot of information, and it’s a lot to take in. One could spend hours trying to process everything, but spending too much time here might put one at risk of needing to check in...


Bronze: Lawrence Weiner, The Grace of a Gesture @ The Written Art Foundation

Weiner’s exhibition at the Palazzo Bembo provides a refreshing oasis from the bustling crowds of tourists near Rialto. What is most intriguing about the work is how he has managed to make his texts travel. “Grace of a Gesture” translated into ten different languages can be seen floating down the canals on the sides of various vaporetto boats. The catalogue and bag are especially pleasing, so these words will likely be seen all over the world on the shoulders of the international visitors. And to top it all off, temporary tattoos are also provided so you can carry the words with you wherever on your body you please, a graceful gesture indeed.

What did you think? Which were your gold, silver and bronze favorites. Share below. 

And to end, here is the best dressed:


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