Biennale Art Exhibition Draws Leonardo DiCaprio, Salma Hayek

Cristiano Corte/Courtesy of British Council

The 55th edition of the oldest international art exhibition featured British artist Jeremy Deller.

Trying to take a vaporetto, the world’s most elegant public bus, in Venice during the Biennale -- prime tourist season -- is like trying to get from Venice Beach to Chateau Marmont at rush hour. And every car in front of you is full of tourists snapping photos of all the historic buildings along the 10 and the 405. The Hollywood Reporter hopped some planes, trains, automobiles and boats to see how some of the finest artists around the world would represent their native country at the 55th edition of La Biennale di Venezia. The oldest international art exhibition in operation opened on Saturday, June 1, with much fanfare. With its elegant formal pavilion buildings set in the venerable gardens off the Grand Canal, the Biennale is the Wimbledon to Art Basel Miami Beach’s Indian Wells tournament.

Consistent with the recent Hollywood involvement in the modern and contemporary auction market, a number of big names were spotted in the fairy tale city in recent days. Leonardo DiCaprio, Elton John and David Furnish; Salma Hayek and husband François-Henri Pinault; Tilda Swinton; and Milla Jovovich were all in Venice this past week. 

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Artist Cindy Sherman stopped by the party for Tavares Strachan, the Bahamian artist representing his country for the first time at the Venice Biennale. More than 70 countries select one artist for this honor every other year. Strachan’s multimedia installation was inspired by the 1909 polar expedition of Robert Peary and Matthew Alexander Henson. In Strachan’s wondrous collection of works, three geographically and culturally disparate sites -- the Venetian Arsenale, downtown Nassau and the North Pole -- momentarily coexist in the Bahamian pavilion. His work represents the best of a new generation of artists merging concept and craft in a highly personal and progressive way.

All told, over 150 artists represented 88 countries at the event. Notable artists and exhibitions in Venice include Ai Weiwei’s two-part politically charged sculpture exhibition "Disposition"; Tino Seghal, the British-born, Berlin-based conceptual artist who was awarded the Golden Lion award (the Oscar of the Biennale) for best artist for his untitled performance piece; and the Angolan Pavilion, which was awarded the Golden Lion for Best National Participation.

THR spoke with Jeremy Deller, representing Great Britain at the Biennale, about his controversial installation at the British Pavilion in the Giardini. Fashionably playing the role of bad boy at this year’s Biennale, Deller greeted viewers with an enormous mural of a large predatory bird with a tiny Range Rover in its talons -- his response to an incident in recent years involving two highly endangered Hen Harriers that were shot and killed on the Queen’s estate where only Prince Harry and a colleague had been shooting. The investigation was dropped because the birds were never found.

Deller shared some thoughts about the provocative works in his exhibition.

THR: What an honor. Congratulations.

Deller: Thank you. It doesn’t get much bigger than this for an artist.

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THR: You are working with elements of history in your installation -- objects and artifacts from the past as part of the work. Can you talk about your motivation for this?

Deller: I may be coming at history from a slightly different angle -- a visual angle -- a more creative interpretation of history than a textbook version of history. I’m trying to make connections between times of history, people, events, places.

In one room there is a mural of William Morris, this great Victorian arts and crafts designer and artist and thinker -- a visionary -- a painting of a giant William Morris as a colossus throwing Roman Abramovich’s yacht into the lagoon. Two years ago, Roman Abramovich came in his yacht to Venice and just blocked the way -- took over the pavement -- put up fencing so you couldn’t get around, just basically took over. People were very upset about it. But the way I see it, that’s the reality of the world we’re living in now. So I thought wouldn’t it be great if a giant from the past came back as a real giant, a colossus -- as a mythological superhero -- and threw this yacht and destroyed it out of rage at this man’s wealth. So that’s what I did. It’s all kind of Ray Harryhausen, the guy who did all the models -- Jason and the Argonauts and others. I saw that in the cinema as a child -- as a five- or six-year-old that’s pretty intense stuff. It’s a contemporary version of that. That’s the great thing about art: You can have an idea and actually do something. It’s only a painting, we’re not actually making this happen. It’s a fantasy. 

THR: There is a part of the exhibition that involved you borrowing some Cold War memorabilia from the Wende Museum in Los Angeles. 

Deller: Yes, that room is about recent history, but it’s also about Victorian Britain and about the industrialization of Britain and the brutality of all that. And it’s also about the end of the Soviet Union. And that’s how I got in touch with Justin Jampol at the Wende Museum. I went to Los Angeles and met Justin. He had some things, but he said, "Look, now that you’ve told us about this material, we will find it and we will lend you whatever you want that we find." This was only about four months ago. And so they bought tons of stuff -- you can see it up on the wall. And it’s all the material from the end of the Soviet Union when nationalized industries were being sold off to the workers or citizens, but these oligarchs -- like the Abramovichs today -- they managed to get a hold of all the share certificates, to get the workers' coupons, to buy them en masse through bank systems, insurance systems, pension systems. And basically own companies at a cut price. They’d use the judiciary and the police to pay off people and if that didn’t work, then they had other means that were a bit more extreme -- more final.