The Hong Kong Artists’ Guide to Venice

Each spring, an ordinary looking villa across from a 700-year-old naval base is transformed into Hong Kong’s base in Venice. Laundry dries on lines strung over a spacious courtyard as visitors take in the city’s official exhibition at the Venice Biennale, whose art and architecture editions alternate from one year to the next. It’s a microcosm of Hong Kong in a typically Venetian scene: a creative symbiosis between two outward-looking maritime cities. 

There’s a bewildering amount of things to see at the biennale itself, but there’s also a fascinating city beyond its limits – an ancient agglomeration threaded by canals and stone passageways, unique in history, character and atmosphere. With millions of visitors a year, Venice has suffered from the effects of over-tourism like few other places, and its population has been in continuous decline for decades. But it remains a living city, not a museum, and there is much to explore for the conscientious, curious visitor. 

Photo by Leung Chi-wo

It helps to have a guide. As the Venice Biennale of Art prepares to open its 60th edition, we reached out to some of the artists who have represented Hong Kong at the biennale, past and present, to tell us about their favourite places in La Serenissima. Here’s what they shared.


William Lim 

William Lim is an architect, artist and art collector. His studio, CL3 Architects, is behind the H Queen’s and H Code towers in Hong Kong, as well as the interiors of the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore and other luxury hotels around Asia. His work has twice been featured in the Hong Kong exhibition at the Venice Biennale of Architecture: in 2006, when he exhibited Ladders, an installation made up of red neon lights and 500 bamboo ladders, and in 2010, when the Hong Kong Pavilion featured his installation “Elastic Streetscape,” which centred around the trolleys that are still used to ferry goods through the streets of the city. 

 

The Olivetti Showroom
Piazza San Marco, 101 

One of Lim’s favourite places in Venice is not one of the city’s famously grand palazzos, but a 20th-century shop: a showroom for Olivetti, a manufacturer of typewriters, calculators and computers. “The most amazing East-meets-West architect, Carlo Scarpa, designed this showroom interior in 1957, the year I was born,” says Lim. Scarpa was born in Venice and spent most of his life in the city, but was also deeply inspired by Japanese design. The showroom is famous for its mosaic floors and clever use of concrete, marble, stone and polished timber. “I discover something amazing every time I visit,” says Lim.

 

Fondazione Querini Stampalia
Campo Santa Maria Formosa Castello, 5252 

The Fondazione Querini Stampalia is a museum that preserves the home, library and art collection of the Querini Stampalia family. Among the works in the family’s collection are paintings by Giovanni Bellini and Giambattista Tiepolo. The 16th century palace was turned into a museum in 1869, and then the ground floor and the garden were refurbished by Carlo Scarpa in 1963. “This project blends seamlessly architecture, interior and landscape,” says Lim. “It’s an architectural gem.”

Il Fondaco dei Tedeschi
Calle del Fontego dei Tedeschi Rialto Bridge

“This is a department store designed by OMA,” says Lim, referring to the international studio co-founded by celebrated architect Rem Koolhaas. “It is a beautiful integration of contemporary retail facilities — like escalators and display systems — in a historic palazzo.” Although the building is now packed with luxury clothes, watches and jewellery in its current incarnation as a DFS T Galleria, Lim’s favourite feature is not something you can buy. When OMA converted the palazzo, the architects added a rooftop terrace, which you can visit for free, although you must book a ticket online beforehand. “It has one of the best views of the Grand Canal,” he says.

 

The Ca’d’Oro was once covered in gold leaf – Photo Ca’d’Oro

The Ca’ d’Oro
Cannaregio, 3932

This palazzo — also known as the Palazzo Santa Sofia — dates back to the 15th century and is one of the best surviving examples of Venetian Gothic architecture. Originally, its façade was covered in gold leaf, a fact that draws thousands of tourists to it every year, even though the gold has long faded. Lim says he loves the building for a different, more sentimental reason: “I remember as a student at Cornell, we studied the building’s façade,” he says.


Nordic Pavilion of the Venice Biennale
Giardini della Biennale

A number of countries maintain pavilions in the Giardini della Biennale in which they host their national exhibitions during the Venice Biennale. One of these buildings is the Nordic Pavilion, which is co-owned by Finland, Norway and Sweden. “My favourite pavilion in the Giardini in terms of architecture is this building designed by Sverre Fehn,” says Lim. The building was designed in the 1950s and completed in 1962. Lim adds that the modernist design is simple and elegant, “which makes it perfect for contemporary art exhibitions. The most stunning part is the three large trees that puncture the roof of the structure.” (Another Hongkonger impressed by the pavilion is artist Stanley Wong, whose impressions are below.) 


Stanley Wong

Stanley Wong is an artist and designer who often works under the moniker anothermountainman. Wong’s art regularly references his hometown of Hong Kong and he is perhaps best known for his redwhiteblue series of posters, sculptures and installations that celebrate the famous tri-coloured plastic canvas that was popularised in the city in the 1960s. This material is now seen as a symbol of Hong Kong culture, thanks partly to Wong, who in 2005 represented the city at the Venice Biennale with an exhibition dedicated to the fabric. Wong has only returned to Venice once since that show, but there is one place in the city that he recommends all visitors should see.

Nordic Pavilion of the Venice Biennale
Giardini della Biennale

Like Lim, Wong was moved by Sverre Fehn’s Nordic Pavilion. “I was totally touched by Fehn, who preserved the trees in the middle of the space,” says Wong. “I’ve got to confess: I spent the same amount of time [looking at] art as these trees. After all, art is life. Life is art.” Wong is reluctant to give any other recommendations, saying the best thing he experienced in Venice “by far” was standing “side by side with these trees” under Fehn’s roof.

 

Leung Chi-wo and Sara Wong

Leung Chi-wo in Venice, 2023

 Artists Leung Chi-wo and Sara Wong are partners in life and work. They collaborate on installations, photographs, performances and more that often explore forgotten moments from history or overlooked aspects of urban life – two interests that make Venice an enduring source of inspiration for the couple. They are also the co-founders of the independent art space Para Site, which they set up in 1996 with a handful of other artists. Outside of their work together, they maintain their own artistic practices and Wong works as a landscape architect.

Their work was featured in the Hong Kong Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2001, when they showcased City Cookie (Venice Biennale Version), a multi-faceted photography, installation and participatory performance project. The pair walked around Venice, taking photos of the sky, which in the images is framed by the roofs and spires of nearby buildings. Leung and Wong made cookie cutters in the shapes of these irregular slices of sky, then used these to make biscuits that were then offered by coffee shops around Venice. But there was a final twist: the biscuits could not be bought with money. Instead, visitors had to trade something for them. The pair then used these items — which included origami, keys, postcards and much more — to make an installation which was part of their exhibited work.
In 2023, they returned to the city and undertook a residency at the Emily Harvey Foundation.

 

The Historical Archive of Contemporary Arts
Via Delle Industrie 23/9

The Historical Archive of Contemporary Arts is the archive of the Venice Biennale and contains materials dating back to the very first edition of the exhibition back in 1859. It also houses materials related to the city’s other cultural festivals, including the Venice Film Festival and the Biennale of Architecture. “It’s in the industrial zone in a super cool, loft, factory-type space,” says Leung. “Here we found the correspondence between Hong Kong filmmaker King Hu and the Venice Film Festival.” But be warned: you must make an appointment to visit the archives.

 

No. 2 Vaporetto from Piazza San Marco

Venice’s ferry service has multiple lines that take you in very different directions. “We’d recommend taking the ferry that goes from St. Mark’s Square out to the canal between the main island and Giudecca, then westward to Tronchetto. Here the water is more open, and you can see the grand Molino Stucky, now the Hilton hotel, in the sunset,” says Wong. If you want to get off and stretch your legs, they suggest stopping at Tronchetto, an island at the very tip of the city that is the last place you can drive to from the mainland before entering Venice’s densely built and car-free city centre. From Tronchetto, you can get a “surreal monorail” back into Venice.  


The Venetian Ghetto and Dorsoduro

The former Venetian ghetto is located in the district of Cannareggio – Photo by Henrik Berger Jorgensen via Creative Commons

 Leung and Wong say these two districts are must-sees for lovers of art and architecture. The Dorsoduro is home to many of the city’s best-known art institutions, including the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, which houses masterpieces of European and American art from the 20th century, and the Galleria dell’Accademia, which traces the development of Venetian painting from the 14th to the 18th centuries through the work of masters of the Venetian School, including Giovanni Bellini, Giorgione, Tiepolo and Titian. “We’d also recommend a stroll around the west side of the neighbourhood. There are some hidden gems such as the IUAV University of Venice and the Chiesa Parrocchiale di San Pantalon,” says Wong.

The former Venetian Ghetto is the district in which Venice’s Jewish community was forced to live between 1516 and 1797. (Its name is the source of the word “ghetto” in other languages; its origins are unclear, but some scholars speculate it refers to the word “getto”,  copper foundry in Venetian, as the first ghetto was established near the site of the city’s old foundry.) Today, it still bears traces of its Jewish presence, including five historic synagogues and the Jewish Museum of Venice. But it’s also part of Cannareggio, a lively, eclectic district whose canals are lined in the evenings by revellers enjoying some of the city’s best bars and restaurants. It’s only 15 minutes by foot from the crowds of San Marco but a world apart in terms of ambiance.

 

The first bar dedicated to natural wine in Venice opened in 2014 – Photo courtesy Vino Vero

Vino Vero
Fondamenta de la Misericordia, 2497

Leung and Wong say that Vino Vero is a favourite of people who work in the art world in Venice. It was the first bar devoted to natural, low-intervention wines in the city and now claims to offer one of the largest selections of natural wines in the world. The interior is just large enough to accommodate a bar stocked with delicious cichetti, the distinctive snacks — creative combinations of meat, veg or seafood layered on pieces of bread — that are a staple of Venetian evenings. Customers spill outdoors, sitting around canal-side tables and on the steps of an adjacent bridge. “It’s also open until midnight, which is very rare in Venice,” says Wong.

 

Cemetery of San Michele – Photo by Leung Chi-wo

Cemetery of San Michele
Isola San Michele 

The pair’s last recommendation is the Cemetery San Michele, which is the resting place of dozens of legendary artists, musicians and writers. (Another artist who likes to visit the cemetery is Trevor Yeung, who gives his recommendations below.) 

 

Trevor Yeung 

Artist Trevor Yeung is representing Hong Kong at this year’s Venice Biennale with his exhibition Courtyard of Attachments, Hong Kong in Venice. Yeung is best known for thought-provoking installations that use plants as a metaphor for human relationships. These have been exhibited to critical acclaim around the world, including in major exhibitions in London, Sydney and Shanghai. For his exhibition at the Venice Biennale, Yeung has made installations out of fish tanks to explore how acts of care can also be systems of control. Yeung believes that duality defines our relationships with pets – and sometimes our relationships with each other.


Cemetery of San Michele
Isola San Michele 

The San Michele Cemetery, which is located on its own island, has been a place of pilgrimage for artists since soon after it opened in 1807. Several legends of art, music and literature are buried here, including the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, the American poet Ezra Pound and the Russian art critic Sergei Diaghilev. “There is a huge contrast between the cemetery and the city itself,” says Yeung. “The sense of emptiness and peace in the island gave me a different perspective towards Venice.” (Leung and Wong similarly recommended the island as a place to escape the hustle and bustle of the city centre.)

 

Ocean Space is located in the Church of San Lorenzo in Venice – Photo courtesy Ocean Space

Ocean Space
Campo S. Lorenzo, 5069

This arts space describes itself as an “embassy for the ocean” and hosts art exhibitions and public programmes that explore the sea and humanity’s relationship with it. Yeung first visited Ocean Space in 2023 to see the exhibition Thus Waves Come in Pairs. He was particularly impressed by “Lunar Ensemble for Rising Seas,” an installation by Berlin-based artists Petrit Halilaj and Álvaro Urbano, who created 40 large-scale sculptures of imaginary creatures. “The work was beautiful. I was also amazed by [the] friendly and passionate staff who provided me a guided tour there,” says Yeung.

 

Museo di Storia Naturale Giancarlo Ligabue
Salizada del Fontego dei Turchi, 1730

As Yeung’s art is often inspired by—and sometimes features—plants and animals, it’s no surprise that one of his favourite spots in the city is its natural history museum, which has been operating out of the Fontego dei Turchi palazzo for more than a century. Its collection includes more than 2,000 objects and its library has more than 40,000 books. “I always find new and surprising things there,” says Yeung.

 

Luigino Antiquariato
Fondamenta de la Misericordia, 2541

This unassuming antiques shop draws Yeung’s eye whenever he’s in the city. Its windows are not dominated by glamorous antiques, but by everyday, functional items: small lamps, door knockers and even taps. “This shop has a good collection of old electrical adapters and switches,” says Yeung, who uses adapters in some of his artworks. His Night Mushroom Colon series features small, light-up sculptures of mushrooms that appear to sprout out of clusters of adapters. It has short opening hours, but that doesn’t bother Yeung. “To me, it is good enough to look in the shop window,” he says.

 

Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana – The Pinault Collection in Venice
Palazzo Grassi: Campo San Samuele, 3231
Punta della Dogana: Dorsoduro, 2 

These two contemporary art galleries are funded by François Pinault, one of the world’s biggest art collectors and the founder of the luxury group Kering. The Punta della Dogana is located at the mouth of the Grand Canal, across from the palace of the Doge, the ruler of Venice, and was originally home to the Venetian customs office; no merchandise entered the city without stopping there first. Both the Punta della Dogana and the Palazzo Grassi were renovated by acclaimed Japanese architect Tadao Ando, who also renovated the Bourse du Commerce in Paris, home to Pinault’s foundation.

Today, the two buildings host temporary exhibitions that bring some of the biggest names in contemporary art to Venice. Currently, Palazzo Grassi is hosting Julie Mehretu: Ensemble, the largest exhibition of the Ethiopian-American artist ever held in Europe, while Punta della Dogana is showing Pierre Huyghe. Liminal, which brings together major works that the French artist has made over the past decade, including works in the Pinault Collection. “I’m always impressed by their exhibitions,” says Yeung. 

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