By Visual Arts team

08 December 2017 - 13:00

Xavier Veilhan’s Studio Venezia, French Pavilion, November 2017 ©

Ruth Houlsby

Ruth Houlsby, a Fellow from Birkbeck University of London, reflects on her time at the British Pavilion in Venice for the final month of the 57th Art Biennale.

As part of the last group of Fellows at the Venice Biennale, notions of time and transience were ever-present and seemed to be repeated throughout many of the biennale pavilions and collateral events.

Firstly, there were the many pavilions of transient performance art, which were also often some of the most critically-acclaimed. There was the beautiful music of Xavier Veilhan’s Studio Venezia in the French Pavilion, which changed from day-to-day and minute-by-minute in an ephemeral mix of performances, recordings and rehearsals.

The long queues outside the German Pavilion attested to the popularity and excellent reviews for Anne Imhof’s performance of Faust, which in the final week ran for four hours a day and offered visitors an intense experience of movement and music where visitors were pushed around in an unsettling and thrilling performance. 

In a garden of the Central Pavilion in the Giardini, Lee Mingwei’s When Beauty Visits was a moving participatory performance inviting visitors to watch a moment of shared intimacy between Lee Mingwei (or an artist’s assistant) and a participant chosen from the crowd invited to take a moment of silence before being presented with a gift to be opened when they next experienced beauty. 

Tehching Hsieh’s Doing Time in the Taiwan Pavilion, housed in the seventeenth-century Palazzo delle Prigioni, had a special resonance for me. His One Year Performance 1980-1981 documents the artist clocking on to a worker’s time clock every hour for a whole year, taking a photograph as a record. The exhibition included a six-minute video showing every single time punch, as well as every photograph in a dizzying display running around several gallery walls. I spent several months with the video of the performance in 2009 in an exhibition at the National Glass Centre in Sunderland during a previous invigilation role, so the notion of passing time was particularly poignant; a once familiar work seen again after many years in a completely different context. 

Tehching Hsieh, One Year Performance 1980-1981, Palazzo delle Prigioni, November 2017 ©

Ruth Houlsby

Yelena Vorobyeva & Viktor Vorobyev’s The Artist is Asleep (1996) ©

Ruth Houlsby

One final artwork that gave food for thought on my time in Venice was Yelena Vorobyeva & Viktor Vorobyev’s The Artist is Asleep (1996) in the Giardini’s Central Pavilion. The wall panel advised that the artist’s intention was to ‘proclaim non-productivity as vital to art’ and ‘the importance of time lost’. This felt very fitting to our month in Venice; an invaluable chance to have space for contemplation and which, like the performance works of the French, German and Taiwan pavilions, was made even more precious in the knowledge it was all ending soon.

It was a pleasure to see the winter draw in from the British Pavilion, particularly from Gallery 4 where Barlow’s dramatic façade and balcony referenced the city beyond the pavilion walls. The changing colours of the autumn leaves of the Giardini were visible from the pavilion’s windows and often caused a moment of quiet reflection for visitors on their journey around the pavilion.

Finally, of course, was the city of Venice itself; a timeless place appearing much unchanged from the cityscapes by Canaletto or Turner. Each car-free, narrow, winding street that I took on the way to the Giardini each morning was a reminder of the city’s history, as Rainer Maria Rilke described in the 1908 poem Venetian Morning:

Each new morning must first show her the opals
she wore yesterday, and pull rows
of reflections out of the canal
and remind her of the other times…

The Fellowship was a unique opportunity to be in the timeless city, exploring both historic and contemporary art and architecture. Seeing the final few days and experiencing the transient performance works were a reminder of the fleeting nature of the biennale and a truly wonderful experience.