Scotland at the Venice art biennale


by Angela Wrapson

THE 54th Venice Art Biennale, the world’s biggest and most prestigious visual arts event, opens on Saturday 4 June, and Scotland will be represented.

The Scotland+Venice organisation, a partnership between Creative Scotland, the National Galleries of Scotland and the British Council Scotland, will be mounting its 5th exhibition, this time of work by Karla Black, an artist from Glasgow who makes sculptural installations. Her show is curated by the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh.

Nowadays Scotland exhibits as part of the Eventi collaterali, or associated exhibitions. These are a recent initiative, whereby the Biennale recognises exhibitions outside the Giardini, the park where the official exhibitions take place, and where national pavilions are at its core.  

Work from 89 countries is on show this year and over 300,000 visitors are expected. The official United Kingdom exhibition, in the British pavilion, features Mike Nelson, from Loughborough, who makes large installations filled with furniture, magazines, old clothes and other detritus.

Originally launched in 1895, the Venice Biennale is one of the world’s early tourism initiatives, cooked up by the city fathers in Florian’s coffee house. And Scotland exhibited from the outset – not on the fringe but as a nation invited in its own right.

At the 2nd Biennale, in 1897, both Scotland and England were invited, independently, to curate exhibitions, which were held in the main pavilion, facing the main entrance to the Giardini. Fra Newbery, then Director of Glasgow School of Art, showed paintings by the Glasgow boys, including DY Cameron, James Guthrie, John Lavery, Bessie MacNicol, EA and Constance Walton – and himself.

In 1899, Scotland again showed alongside England, and this time in two genres: art, and decorative art. The artists in the second genre included Jessie M. King, the Macdonald sisters, and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, two of whose works were bought by the city of Venice.

In 1901, Scotland was represented independently for a third time, and one of EA Walton’s works was purchased by the International Gallery of Modern Art in Venice.

But from 1903 onwards, Scotland was subsumed into the British shows in the main pavilion. When the UK opened its own pavilion, a converted tea-house, in 1909, Scottish artists took their turn among the rest. The same when the Biennale invented the Aperto, a new category, for artists under 40.

Until 1990, when Glasgow became European Capital of Culture.

Almost as soon as the Capital of Culture announcement was made, a group of enthusiasts, led by Richard Demarco, Clare Henry and Barbara Grigor of the Scottish Sculpture Trust, began to plan an exhibition for the 1990 Venice Biennale.

At first this was to be a fringe exhibition. But the then Biennale Director, Giovanni Carandente, was a great lover of Scotland and had more ambitious ideas. He offered the Scottish Sculpture Trust a huge outdoor space in the Giardini, among the national pavilions. The exhibition curators were Angela Wrapson and Clare Henry. The Trust selected leading Scottish artists David Mach, Arthur Watson and Kate Whiteford, who were asked to create monumental work for the outdoor space.

David Mach conceived five giant bonsai trees, cut out of steel in Aberdeen, trucked to Venice and erected on site, entitled ‘Softening the hardened hearts of men’. One greeted visitors at the entrance to the Biennale. Arthur Watson mounted 13 screenprinted fishermen’s smocks on scaffolding to produce ‘Across the Sea’, and Kate Whiteford laid down a massive land drawing in concrete and gravel called ‘Sitelines’.

Funded by the British Council, the Henry Moore Foundation, the Scottish Arts Council, Glasgow 1990 and Aberdeen District Council, Tre Scultori Scozzesi (Three Scottish Sculptors) was a highlight of the 1990 Biennale and received extensive international media coverage.

Then times changed again. The Biennale ceased to limit its scope to the Giardini and the Corderia. It opened its arms to the city of Venice and created the Eventi collaterali, the associated exhibitions. Since 2003 Scotland+Venice has ensured that Scottish artists have a showcase at each Biennale.

(Angela Wrapson was Co-Curator of the Three Scottish Sculptors exhibition at the 1990 Venice Biennale.)