Supermarket shelves to seascapes at the 57th Venice Biennale

 Visitors peruse the central exhibition of the 57th Venice Biennale. Image taken by Anna Seaman

Visitors peruse the central exhibition of the 57th Venice Biennale. Image taken by Anna Seaman

In Christine Macel's statement for the current (57th) edition of the Venice Biennale she wrote: "Today, in a world full of conflicts and shocks, art bears witness to the most precious part of what makes us human. Art is the ultimate ground for reflection, individual expression, freedom, and for fundamental questions."

With that in mind she subtitled the event Viva Arte Viva - pushing artists to the fore and bringing to mind the 19th century Bohemian statement 'art for art's sake'.

While many have criticised her for this, saying the biennale lacked depth and a grasp of the chaotic and desperate state of the world around it, I do believe that if you let the artworks speak, then a truth will emerge for those patient enough to see it.

Hassan Sharif's Studio (Supermarket) 1990-2016 on display in The Pavilion of Artists and Books at the 57th Venice Biennale. Image taken by Anna Seaman

Detail from Hassan Sharif's Studio (Supermarket) 1990-2016. Image taken by Anna Seaman

I've just finished a short visit to the stunning city on the water and whilst I do agree that the international exhibition lacked a cohesive flow, I was impressed with the spread of global artists and I made some interesting discoveries.

The UAE has two artists on show, the late great Hassan Sharif's  Studio (Supermarket) contains scores of works made between 1990 and his death last year (2016) displayed in Perspex-bound supermarket shelves. His work is piles of every day detritus such as plastic slippers, cloth, cardboard and rolled newspaper all tied together with rope. It criticises consumerism to its core and is increasingly relevant in a world being sunk in its own mess.

Abdullah Al Saadi's Diaries (2016) is also on display. It is a collective piece of 30 years of diaries kept on small notebook pages and packed in tobacco or sardine tins. As is typical of Al Saadi he uses painstaking detail and sometimes only makes coded marks which are indecipherable. His work is slow, meditative and made seemingly without a second thought for a possible audience and so, fits neatly into Macel's art-for-art's sake-vision.

Hajra Waheed's Our Naufrage 1-10 (2014), on display in the central exhibition of the 57th Venice Biennale. Image taken by Anna Seaman

I also loved the work of Canadian artist Hajra Waheed. Her oil-on-tin paintings were entrancing as were her panels of seascapes titled Our Naufrage 1-10. Her work is beautiful and delicate and was one of the few corners of the exhibition that forced me to stop and take my breath. Her work was next to a room full of paintings by the late Syrian born Marwan, which amounted to a small retrospective.  It was wonderful to see so many of his works on show in the central pavilion and for that I applaud Macel. Marwan is another artist whose works seem to engulf the viewer and are made with an immersive passion. As with the others mentioned above, they all offer moments of pause and reflection. 

One of Marwan's paintings that illustrates his way of depicting the human face as a landscape. Image taken by Anna Seaman.

In the country specific pavilions, mostly dotted around Venice's Giardini and Arsenale, I felt a great concern among artists about the absurdity of our current society. I was catapulted from augmented reality torture victims (Russia) to communities ruled by fear (Egypt) and, of course, into the much lauded Faustian apocalyptic vision of Anne Imhof (Germany).

Whilst it's impossible to see it all, perhaps the fact that Macel's central show set a calmer and more gentle pace next to the powerhouse pavilions, gave the overall experience a balanced feel.

57th International Art Exhibition la Biennale di Venezia. May 13 - November 26, 2017