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In Conversation With Paolo Baratta, President, Fondazione La Biennale Di Venezia

Sep 24, 2014

With the Venice Biennale, now in its 119th year, Elaine Chia, Director Venice Biennale projects, took the time to sit and talk with Paolo Baratta, President, Fondazione la Biennale di Venezia.

Paolo Baratta gives us his insights and reflections on the evolution of the Venice Biennale, the important role of national pavilions, and Australia’s ambition in establishing a new, permanent pavilion.

The Venice Biennale organises some of the greatest events in the world, and continues to grow with each edition. What changes have you seen over your time as President?

When I commenced as President in 1998, a relatively high percentage of public opinion, here and particularly abroad, felt that the International Exhibition, based only on foreign pavilions, was an obsolete form of exhibition presentation, and that perhaps this model should cease.

So, confronted with this opinion, what did we do? We did exactly the opposite. We recognised the importance that each country attaches to their pavilion, and we concluded that the task to represent the world could be better distributed. The Biennale would share the load with the national pavilions by appointing a curator to realise a new, large, main international exhibition of the Biennale.

We also decided, as part of this approach, to increase our spaces.  We restored 17,000m2 and doubled the spaces in the Arsenale for our own exhibition, so as to give our own exhibition enough room to be proportionate to the idea that the main exhibition, balanced alongside the national pavilions, would be representative of the world.

After that, the number of countries wanting to participate started increasing. In 1998, there were around 58 national pavilions. Last year, in 2013, there were 88. There is also an increasing number of countries asking for a permanent pavilion.

Australia is lucky in that you were one of the last countries to be granted a site in the Giardini. After Korea, the authorities considered the Giardini full. In response to demand, we started allocating parts of the Arsenale to new countries, which otherwise would have had to choose a palazzo or a venue outside the main walls of the Biennale itself. We are continuing to restore the Arsenale, giving countries new spaces for at least 20 years, a sort of semi-permanent pavilion.

This year, we have reached the situation where the Arsenale hosts the same number of countries as are present in the Giardini.

What is the value that national pavilions bring to the Venice Biennale?

I consider the purpose of the national pavilions to be two-fold. Firstly, a country wants to show to the world something which is specific to that nation – for example, the way the nation conceives art, a sense of national spirit and culture, your national identity.

The second purpose is exactly the opposite. By participating in the Venice Biennale, countries show that they wish to co-exist in a global world. You are contributing your capability and the vital energies of the country, expressed through the instrument of art and/or architecture.

I think this is true of Australia. Australia wants to be here because Australia wants to be in the middle of the world of art.

The result is that we have an international exhibition of art where we have our own curator, and 88 curators working together. There is no other place in the world where you have 89 curators working, each autonomously, not curating just a section of an exhibition, but each being fully independent and contributing his or her personal view.

Globalisation is a phenomenon of the world of tensions, and of economic and political geography. The Venice Biennale is the place where you see what happens in the world through a better pair of lenses. This is the forum where the global world can be better analysed. This is the melting pot of shared knowledge.

A country decides to establish a pavilion because they believe that an exercise in architecture is a message of what you are, of what you believe. So modern architecture, from what I can see of the design for the new Australian Pavilion, is something to which Australia places value. That is the first thing. Then we will see what you exhibit in it!

The new Australian Pavilion is in itself a contribution of a work of art that has a permanent place. It reveals the intelligence, passion and interest of the contributors: it reveals a nation speaking to the rest of the world.

What do you think the rest of the world will say about the new Australian Pavilion?

Without doubt, some countries will envy you. There are countries that have been considering changes to their pavilion but apparently it is not so easy. In any case, there will be no more pavilions built in the Giardini. You should be very grateful to those, who in 1988, secured the site for your country.

You are one of the youngest participating countries in the Giardini, and you already have a history of two pavilions . In the Arsenale, the national pavilion is an exhibition space, but within the architecture of the Arsenale. The architecture in the Giardini is much more engaging.

With this new pavilion, Australians have chosen to be part of the world of contemporary architecture with a bang! Your new pavilion is a surprise, whatever assumption others may make about Australia. That is a good thing.