Australian Pavilion in Venice, panels open
Australian art has a new home at Venice Biennale

Australian art has a new home at Venice Biennale
by Katrina Strickland
AFR Magazine 26 February 2015

The 56th International Art Exhibition at the Venice Biennale runs from 9 May to 22 November 2015 and Australia now has a brand new base in which to show off. The story of how it got there is a work in itself. 

Elaine Chia calls it her "sanity run". The woman charged with overseeing the building of Australia's new art and architecture pavilion in Venice rises between 4am and 5am when in Italy. She spends a few hours on the phone and email to Australia, then heads out for a jog before the serious business of negotiating with Italians begins. From the Castello she runs along the Riva degli Schiavoni to Sant'Elena and back again.

"It's a great way to meet the locals and de-stress," says Chia. "They've been watching this building emerge in the Giardini over the past year and they often ask me what's happening there. When I tell them they say, 'they work on Saturdays'. And it's true, the builders have been working on Saturdays. They also work through the rain – and there's a lot of that in Venice."

The reason for the extreme work ethic is simple: there's a non-negotiable deadline in the form of one of the world's biggest cultural events, the Venice Biennale, the 56th iteration of which opens in early May. Australia has been exhibiting art at the biennale since 1954 and architecture since 1991, but when it does so this year it will be in a brand new building. This latest model, which finally faces the canal it sits alongside, will no longer be best known for its proximity to the toilets – which, incidentally, have been relocated.

The Denton Corker Marshall-designed pavilion is significant not just for Australia but for Venice. It will be the only 21st century building in the Giardini, the public gardens in which there are 29 national pavilions plus one for the host country. In those pavilions each country exhibits some of its best contemporary art and architecture, in alternate years. (Sometimes the art lives up to that tag, sometimes – boy, oh boy – it does not.) The last building added to the Giardini was the Korean pavilion and that was two decades ago. No other countries have been allowed to rebuild their pavilions, which are heritage-listed, and for good reason. "The history of the pavilions tracks that of the world; the rise and fall of superpowers," Chia says. "There's a real sense of heritage and history that Venice does not want meddled with."

Belgium was the first country to build a pavilion in the gardens, opening its structure in 1907. Between the two world wars came Spain (1922), Czechoslovakia (1926), the US (1930) and Denmark (1932). The German pavilion originally represented just Bavaria; it was refurbished in the 1940s and reopened by Hitler and Mussolini. Australia secured the penultimate spot in the Giardini in 1988, its bicentennial year, beating 16 other countries to do so. After Korea opened its pavilion in 1995 the gardens were declared closed. Countries without pavilions are still able to exhibit in Venice, but they do so in rented spaces scattered throughout the cobbled laneways of the city.

That Australia was allowed to replace its pavilion, designed by Philip Cox as a temporary structure and left there since 1988, says something about the delicate dance a small but determined team led by Sydney corporate adviser Simon Mordant – Australia's commissioner to the 2013 and 2015 biennales – has had to engage in. That group includes Melbourne architects John Denton and Barrie Marshall, engineers Arup, and the Italian architects, engineers and construction firms brought on board to work with them. There's also a suite of people from federal arts funding agency the Australia Council, which owns the building on behalf of the Australian public. Integral to it all has been the Council's project director Chia, whose job it is to bring this Italian-Australian baby home, on time and on budget. "Every time I get a bit jaded and think 'this is never going to end' I go to Venice, as I regularly do, and watch the reaction of the people I take onto the site," says Chia. "It absolutely inspires me to finish it."

That this team took on such a project says something about the length of time art lovers have been complaining about the Cox pavilion, the determination of Mordant to do something about it, and a desire among members of the art community to better promote our contemporary artists internationally. Unlike Australian singers, actors, musicians and even circus performers, our visual artists do not have a high profile offshore. There are some limited exceptions but the bald truth is that, while Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman and Cate Blanchett are household names in Europe and the US, the same cannot be said for any of our visual artists.

It's one of the reasons Rachel Griffiths and her artist husband Andrew Taylor donated to the project. They're among 81 people and foundations who contributed the lion's share of the new pavilion's $7.5 million budget. Griffiths, who first visited Venice at age 18, remembers motoring in for the 2011 biennale via water taxi, straight up the Grand Canal.

"There was this giant Absolut bottle floating down the canal and a piece of performance art happening inside," Griffiths recalls. "I was like, 'oh wow, this is a different Venice'. It's the one time every two years that contemporary creativity can possibly compete with the historical weight of that city, and the cruise ships."

That historical weight and those canals are integral to the magic of Venice but they are also what made building in Venice – by a country on the other side of the globe – a crazy brave thing to do. Chia's first response to a risk assessment by the Italian construction firms running the project was to laugh. They had helpfully marked all the potential hazards on a map of the city – and the map was littered with dots. "Thank goodness we'd hired locals who knew how to work in Venice by then," Chia says.

Venice is, after all, a city in which building materials have to be moved about by barges. It's a city run on Italian bureaucracy, which is very different to Australian bureaucracy, and a city which is fiercely and justifiably protective of its historical built landscape. Blight that at your peril.

Italian regulations required solar panels to be used but Venetian rules meant they weren't allowed to be seen from the sky (solution; matt black ones); the pavilion's motorised panels that lift upwards to give views of the canal had to be classified as screens not doors; and sub-contractor issues meant the South Australian black granite the architects wanted to use had to be replaced with granite from Zimbabwe. Securing the building permit – which took 12 months rather than the expected six – required lugging 553 drawings and documents, all hand-signed, across multiple bridges to the various departments with an interest in the project.

The project team took all this on and looks to have got there. Barring any last minute disasters, the new pavilion will open in early May. It will have the same size footprint as its predecessor but almost double the exhibition space in a single square gallery with five-metre high ceilings, a viewing platform and vastly improved back-of-house and function facilities. It will be inaugurated with an indigenous smoking ceremony and performances by indigenous artists William Barton, Matthew Doyle and Djakapurra Munyarryun, following which dignitaries will be ushered inside to view the exhibition by Fiona Hall, a South Australian artist long overdue this honour.

Simon Mordant has vivid memories of his first visit to the Venice Biennale. It was 1990 and he and wife Catriona had only been married a couple of years. In recent years dozens of Australians have attended the art biennales, their numbers boosted by a successful donor program in which art lovers are treated to special gallery tours, cocktail parties and dinners in return for their largesse. Back in the early 1990s, however, there was no such donor program and Australian awareness of the biennale outside a tight circle of artists, curators and collectors was not large.

"There were only about six Australians at the Vernissage [Biennale opening] that year," Mordant says. "I remember running into Annie Lewis and she asked us to join her for dinner." Lewis, who died in 2011, was a gallery owner, philanthropist and much-loved mover and shaker in the Australian art world, one who also sat on the international council of New York's Museum of Modern Art. Mordant recalls: "We said 'where should we meet?' and she said 'Harry's Bar, we have a few people coming.' Typical Annie, one of the people at that dinner was the chairman of MOMA. All of a sudden we felt completely engaged with this global contemporary art world."

From that moment on, the Mordants were hooked. They helped Lewis install Bill Henson's work for the 1995 biennale, and through the mid-to-late 2000s helped subsequent commissioners raise money for the Australian exhibits. In 2011 Mordant was appointed commissioner for the 2013 and 2015 biennales.

His focus at this stage was on another building project, the $53 million redevelopment of Sydney's harbourside Museum of Contemporary Art, of which he was soon to become chairman. Mordant and the late financier David Coe had kicked off the fundraising drive for that redevelopment with pledges of $5 million each. Despite the global financial crisis and other hurdles, including Coe's own financial troubles, they managed to raise the budget from a mix of private and public donors, the latter straddling three tiers of government. By the end of that process the Mordants had upped their pledge to $15 million.

Not long before the MCA was due to reopen, Mordant scheduled a meeting with James Strong and Kathy Keele, then chairman and chief executive of the Australia Council respectively. He had a model for art developments that appeared to work, involving a lead private donation that could be used to convince government to get on board, and a fundraising roadshow in which interested individuals would be asked to contribute.

"I said, 'I've just raised $53 million for the MCA and I think I can raise the money for a new pavilion. I'd like to commission a feasibility study to see what can be done. We'll fund half if the Australia Council funds the other half.'"

Everyone knew the temporary Cox pavilion needed replacing. Prefabricated in Australia at minimal cost using donations from BHP and Transfield, it was shipped to Venice in great haste in 1988 after Australia received the green light to build in the gardens. Designed around two trees and on split levels, it proved difficult for some artists to show in, particularly as art practice moved away from paintings on walls and toward the installation, sculptural and video work so popular at biennales.

In true bureaucratic style the pavilion was left there indefinitely, but much to Cox's chagrin, not left entirely untouched. Air conditioning was added despite it being designed to use natural air currents, and a storeroom was plonked in the middle of the largest space, "destroying the very essence of the connectivity of the two levels", according to Cox. Writing in the Australia Council book Australia's Pavilion in Venice, the architect leaves no doubt as to his view: "The pavilion has been abused, kicked around and until recently restored, mutilated on most occasions."

In 2008, Melbourne restaurateur Ronnie di Stasio held a competition for ideas for a new pavilion, which were pulled together in a book. There was broad agreement in Australian art circles that a new pavilion was needed. The real question was whether Venice would allow it. The Venetian consultants retained by Mordant and the Australia Council to answer this question came back with a qualified yes. "Australia had the only non-heritage listed site in the gardens and it was the only country with a temporary pavilion," Mordant says. "Therefore, given the architect was still alive, yes, we would be able to build a new pavilion. I read that report five or six times looking for a catch, but couldn't find one."

He returned to Strong and Keele with a deal: he and Catriona would pledge $1 million towards a new pavilion if the government supported it; the pavilion was a government asset, after all. They would then lead the campaign to raise the rest. The pair agreed. They were off and running but Mordant was under no illusions. The budget, first estimated at about $6million but which grew once the design was costed to $7.5million, was nothing like that of the MCA. But the degree of difficulty was in many respects higher. "The pool of Australians who have engaged with Venice is not big ... and because it's Venice you have a whole lot of other difficulties. So I knew it would not be easy."

The fundraising part was, in the end, not the most difficult, which speaks to Mordant's powers of persuasion and the fact there was a group of ready-made donors from the fundraising campaigns for the exhibits of the last decade. These people had visited Venice, loved the biennale and felt tightly associated with it. The roll call of those committing funds to the new building is blue chip, including Malcolm and Lucy Turnbull, Allan and Maria Myers, Sir Ron Brierley, Janet Holmes a Court, Naomi Milgrom, Griffiths and Taylor, Cate Blanchett and husband Andrew Upton, Andrew and Cathy Cameron and members of or foundations associated with the Meers, Ainsworth and Myer families.

Among the big donors are members of the Belgiorno-Nettis family, whose late patriarch Franco Belgiorno-Nettis, founder of Transfield, helped convince the Venetian authorities to allow Australia to build in the gardens in the first place. The Australia Council gave $1million and the Mordants doubled their pledge to $2million when they saw the winning design.

"What surprised me is that some people who I thought would support it didn't," says Mordant. "We got a few early nos, so there was a short period early in the campaign when I felt a little anxious. But there were some left-of-field surprises, people who I hadn't thought would be supporters who came on in a really meaningful way."

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16 April 2015: Update from The Australia Council