Within a Biennale full of blood and guts, the Swatch collaboration with artist Joe Tilson and exhibition of four residents from the Peace Art Hotel in Shanghai strike a notably more positive tone.

Every two years, Swatch teams up with the Venice Biennale to invite one artist to create an original work for the Giardini, and to design an exclusive watch for the brand. Two years ago, Ian Davenport‘s Giardini Colourfall swept across the sun-splattered gardens, and an original dripped, vibrant painted design was scaled down to watch-size. This year, nonagenarian British painter Joe Tilson—an artist who has a long history with the city of Venice, having first visited in 1949 and lived and worked there on and off since the 1950s. He was also married there in 1956—has been invited to take up the mantle.

“His love for and many works inspired by Venice could only be defined as perfectly matching the personality of the project,” says the brand, who encouraged Tilson to explore his long-held connection with the city. Tilson’s large-scale paintings and design work over the years has often taken inspiration from the patterns and shapes that exist within the romantic Italian destination, with nods to stained-glass windows, cobbled streets and intricate architecture. In this particular project, there are references to the forms of gothic windows.

“Here, the lineup of flags that might typically suggest national pride, identification and separation, becomes something collaborative”

The brand approached Tilson after seeing a street installation of his on Regent Street in London, in which his paintings had been translated into fabric, flag-like hangings. “The colours, the texture, the overall positive message that the flags embody touched the soft spot of Swatch,” says the brand. “Thanks to a common friend living in Venice, the contact with the artist happened in a very smooth and direct way. [Tilson] especially liked the Swatch proposal to work again on flags as a message of happiness and freedom.”

Within the at times aggressively melancholic (though thoroughly enjoyable) curated section of the Biennale this year, this sense of joy and freedom strikes a decidedly more positive tone. The flags also feel connected with the nature of the Biennale itself, which is laid out nation by nation—a move that can feel more and more awkward in an increasingly globalized age. Here, the lineup of flags that might typically suggest national pride, identification and separation, becomes something collaborative, with all twenty-four flags sharing the same aesthetic and working in unity.

“The brightness of colours, the geometric structure of the pattern, the patina: all create a reference that can be read at many levels,” says the brand. “From the inspiration of Venice churches and palazzos floors to the iconic Arlecchino character, the visual chosen by Joe Tilson as a signature of the collaboration with Swatch is a sign of happy energy and the signature of an outstanding artist.”

“The brightness of colours, the geometric structure of the pattern, the patina: all create a reference that can be read at many levels”

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  • Jessie Yingying Gong

Within the Arsenale, there is also an exhibition of four artists who have been working on three- to six-month residencies at the Swatch Art Peace Hotel in Shanghai. The artists are all earlier in their careers, and have used the residency to explore elements of their practice that are already in play, and occasionally to engage with the surrounding city and local culture. Jessie Yingying Gong, from China, has been inspired by gendered text, working with Nüshu, a script created by female communities in South Hunan Province. Many of her projects are collaborative, and she has invited participants to embroider their own Nüshu characters onto communal works while engaging in conversation. Santiago Aleman from Spain, Tracey Snelling from the USA and Dorothy M Yoon from South Korea are also included in the exhibition.

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  • Left: Dorothy M Yoon; Right: Tracey Snelling

The visual vibrancy of the Giardini installation continues with the Arsenale quartet of artists—see Dorothy M Yoon’s exuberantly striped fabric and prints and Tracey Snelling’s intricate models of brightly lit, tumbledown buildings—but the agenda is just as punchy as the Biennale’s central show, exploring themes such as gender division, voyeurism and identity.

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