For over 120 years, the Venice Biennale has been a spectacle of cutting-edge creativity – a grandiose international affair, steeped in history, yet always defined by the ever-evolving novelty of contemporary art.
Every two years, the global art community descends upon the City of Masks. There, amidst the canals and narrow streets, a spectacular array of national pavilions is assembled – paradigms of artistic innovation, each one of them reflecting the distinct visual cultures of their eclectic origins.
Considering the secrecy in which the exhibitions are shrouded prior to their Venice debuts, it was a real privilege to attend a special preview of works by Britain's ambassador to the 2017 Biennale, the acclaimed sculptor Phyllida Barlow. The exclusive tour – led by Serpentine curator Rebecca Lewin – took us to the heart of Phyllida’s London studio, in amidst her magnificent creations, which rise up erratically from floor to ceiling in a mountainous, eccentric display.
Phyllida is renowned for her imaginative use of diverse, inexpensive materials – cardboard, plywood and polystyrene all come together in haphazard harmony. Seeing these unfinished sculptural pieces as they are being put together, you really gain a unique appreciation of the creative process at work. Phyllida told us that, from the outset, she does not always know how each sculpture will ultimately turn out – it is a voyage of discovery, which reveals itself only gradually.
Her works convey a visual aura of instability. It is really no accident that the assembly stage itself can, at times, be quite precarious. Every once in a while, the entire structure might collapse before her, leaving Phyllida with no choice but to start over from scratch. That does not matter, she explains. It is all part of the organic process of creation.
It is easy to see why Phyllida’s work has attracted such critical acclaim. Interestingly though, her international renown has come about relatively recently. Phyllida had previously spent over 40 years of her distinguished career as a professor, teaching at London’s Slade School of Fine Art. Her nomination as Britain’s choice for the 2017 Biennale comes just months after she was awarded a CBE for her services to the arts.
Having had the pleasure of witnessing the fruits of Phyllida’s creative genius in the making, I can safely say that visitors to the British Pavilion in Venice next year will not be disappointed.