I have been asked to write about the Italian Pavilion in the gardens of the Venice Biennial, a structure sometimes used to present Italian artists at the event but not always, not primarily, and certainly no longer.
The Italian Pavilion is located at the end of the Corderie dell’Arsenale.
In 1999 I, together with four other women, was awarded the Golden Lion for the best national participation in the Art Biennial. The curator was Harald Szeemann, who had attempted in vain to separate the national representatives from their respective pavilions. The only case in which this happened, and the only one for which he was directly responsible, was that of the Italian Pavilion, which was not located in the structure of the pavilion itself. My own work, for example, was installed at the Arsenale. I was woken up in the hotel by a telephone call on the very morning the prize was to be awarded. I remember phoning Rosa Martinez, a member of the committee, immediately to say that I would be unable to attend ceremony and so on.
She managed to talk me into going, and a couple of hours later I went up onto the stage to receive the award, a splendid Golden Lion in a box lined with red velvet. My suggestion to cut it up into five pieces—of which I would have gladly kept the tail and hindquarters for myself—fell on deaf ears. I have no idea where the 1999 Golden Lion for Italy ended up.
I have always thought that the prize was understood as a tribute to Harald Szeemann and his attempt to make the biennial a great exhibition of art no longer bound up with the various national pavilions.
Initially known as the Palazzo Pro Arte, the Italian Pavilion was embellished in 1932 with the inscription “ITALIA” on the façade, which was, however, no longer to be seen in the photos taken during the 1960s. It may have been placed in temporary storage for cleaning or restoration, as it has since reappeared, and I am told that it was moved to the façade of the Italian Pavilion at the Corderie last year. In any case, for a couple of years now, the Italian Pavilion in the gardens has been called the Central Pavilion, which is a bit highfalutin but at least makes things clear.
I know the spaces of the biennial well in every season of the year. A particular visit to the Italian Pavilion in the winter of 2005 still sticks out in my mind. I was there to prepare my works for the 51st Art Biennial, curated by Maria Corrales and Rosa Martinez. It is a luxury to wander through the gardens in the winter accompanied by a small group of insiders. The Italian Pavilion was still coloured red that winter with a sort of bolt of red lightning piercing the roof. I imagine that the red had contrasted the previous summer with the green of the avenue framing the pavilion from the entrance to the gardens for the opening of the 9th Architecture Biennial.
In the winter, with Eisenmann’s lightning perched on top and bare trees all around, the Italian Pavilion looked like one of those Bavarian hats with feathers that Italians are not alone in finding so funny. It had no strength. The lightning looked like something borrowed from a dusty comic book picked up out of boredom at a suburban train station.
The trees lining the avenue made it impossible to read all of the inscription ITALIA on approaching through the gardens in the summer, just a few letters like TALI, or ALI, if you were lucky. The red lightning was less interesting than the possible associations between tali and ali, meaning “such” and “wings” in Italian…
…Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly All your life, you were only waiting for this moment to arise…
By contrast, the inside of the pavilion was a wonder. There was a likable “freak” as a sort of caretaker at an improvised desk in the entrance. Behind him, probably out of boredom, someone had put up some newspaper cuttings now embroidered with handwritten observations, nearly all about a certain “Paya.” Lord knows who that was.
It was morning and the pavilion had no lighting or heating. We proceeded through the endless series of rooms. It appeared that no one had been there since the end of the previous year’s Architecture Biennial. Many works had yet to be taken down. It was like a derelict building with wires cut and dangling like nooses on the walls, detached skirting boards, dust and dead leaves.
The main hall was still occupied by Peter Eisenmann’s work, which had certainly helped to earn him his Golden Lion for lifetime achievement a couple of months before. Now it was like a broken-down puppet theatre, discoloured, deserted, and therefore pointless. The squalid jumble of a building site, or rather perhaps a disproportionate play on architectural styles that the architect had tired of and left there unfinished, perhaps preferring psychoanalysis, as in Eisenmann’s case a few decades earlier.
There was a piece of toilet paper on the ground in the middle of Eisenmann’s work. Not even hidden, dirty and used. Goodness knows by whom and goodness knows why right there in the middle of the exhibition space. A piece of toilet paper, the sort of thing often found in the bushes at vantage points overlooking scenic valleys or just in certain strategic places where you can enjoy the sunset if you have the time and the inclination.
The interior of the Italian Pavilion is a series of rooms that I recall from previous years, often built in different ways. A labyrinth at various levels where the counterparts of the horizon and sunset are at best the exposed pipes of the air-conditioning system. A sort of Pompidou Centre in reverse.
I hung the work Blind Shot (Wallsucker) from the ceiling of the entrance to the Italian Pavilion a couple of months later for the Art Biennial: a drill turned on every five minutes that began to rotate in midair inside the dome, noisy and agitated, just above the heads of the visitors entering and leaving the pavilion.
I remember that we installed it very late because all the other works on show had to come through the entrance first, because the artist presenting a film next to the entrance was not at all pleased to have such a noisy work so near, and above all because restoration work had just started on the frescoes by Galileo Chini in the adjoining room, and numerous experts were concerned about the possible vibrations caused by Blind Shot.
The Central Pavilion, formerly known as Italia and Pro Arte, was restored a couple of years ago. The three paintings by Tintoretto exhibited at the 54th Art Biennial confirm that it has become a place capable of presenting museum works. The façade has borne the inscription “La Biennale” since 2011, as is only right.