Nothing could stop the sea of people barging into the new Australian pavilion minutes after it opened on Tuesday in Venice. “Seven out? Seven in!” said a door woman, managing the herd with her bare arms at the 56th International Art Exhibition of the Biennale di Venezia.
The public lined up impatiently only to saunter through the pavilion, which was partly funded by 82 private Australian donors, including a smiling Cate Blanchett who (alongside the attorney general, George Brandis) gave a speech from a pedestal on the stairwell right before the sun went down. The pavilion cost .5m to build, m of which was funded by the Australia Council for the Arts, and showcases the work of established artist Fiona Hall.
The black box structure was designed by Melbourne-based starchitects Denton Corker Marshall, who may have a corporate portfolio but haven’t lost their sense of wonder. Known for their work on the Melbourne Museum and the Stonehenge visitor centre in England, their new work is a special shout-out to the art world.
Overlooking the Rio del Giardini at the western edge of the Biennale gardens, it’s inspired by the minimalist sculptures of Richard Serra. Built from concrete and steel, it contains 240 square metres of exhibition space and the exterior is covered in black granite from Zimbabwe. Australian granite was the goal, but it didn’t happen. “The quarry has been bought by China and they were not able to supply the blocks,” said John Denton.
The challenge was to keep it “clean and concise” said Denton, who won the design brief from a shortlist of six Australian firms. This is the first new building to descend on this leafy, elegant spot of park in 20 years (South Korea was the last country to put a pavilion here in 1995).
“As Australians, it’s nice to be a bit enigmatic but make it interesting enough for the people on the bridge or on a boat to look over and wonder ‘What the hell is that?’ and want to come over to see it,” said Denton. “It’s reserved but it attracts.”
The architecture hides among big, bushy foliage, a nod to Arthur Phillip, the British naval officer and founder of Sydney, being watched by the Indigenous people of the land from behind trees as he arrived. This piece of architecture is the Australians coming to Europe and “observing from the edge of the trees”, says Denton.
The building has a pair of “flaps”, stone panels roughly two metres by three metres, that open to reveal the entranceway. In winter, when the garden is closed to the public, the flaps will fold over the front, allowing the pavilion to hibernate from graffiti and vandalism, a recurring problem in the park. The retractable panels will also allow future artists working to make work outside the building.
For now though the spotlight is on Hall and her solo show, Wrong Way Time, featuring 1000 works laid out like a cabinet of curiosities. Hall’s latest series, All the King’s Men, features handcrafted figures in military uniforms dangling from the ceiling. In the cases, shredded American dollar bills make up a family of bird’s nests. The exhibition also features pieces of driftwood, an AK47 made from a bread loaf and QR-painted cuckoo clocks that ring off unexpectedly.
It was the Melbourne restaurateur Rinaldo Di Stasio who kickstarted an “ideas competition” for a new Australian pavilion in 2008. The first Venice Biennale was held in 1895. Australia joined in 1954 with an exhibition by the realist painter Russell Drysdale and opened its first pavilion, designed by Philip Cox, in 1988. Intended only as a temporary space (though it stood for 26 years), city authorities never listed it as a heritage-listed building.
Elaine Chia, director of major international projects at the Australia Council, said more than 200,000 visitors are expected in the next six months, after 12,000 guests poured through during the private preview week. “I’ve kissed 200 people,” she joked as donors left the building around dinnertime. “It’s like a big family.”
While the last building wasn’t heritage-listed, this permanent space will be. The old pavilion has been dismantled and is on its way to Australia. “Di Stasio is putting it on his vineyard,” said Denton. Chia said the space will probably become an art gallery and architecture lab. Stay tuned.
- Fiona Hall’s Wrong Way Time opens at the 56th International Art Exhibition, Venice Biennale, on 9 May and runs until 22 November
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