Art Basel is all about word of mouthcollectors and curators alike seem driven by it, as they spend four frenetic days running from booth to booth and show to show, to see/discover/consume the hottest thing. Cell phones fuel the buzz: my first SMS communiqué, received upon touching down in Basel Monday evening, read: “It’s so much better than the Arsenale!” The surging hoards had arrived from Venice, famished for some aesthetic stimulation and further art schmoozing. As I tried to make my way through the crowd at the Art Unlimited opening to see if my text-message tip was true, I realized that the Venice-Basel comparison is particularly warranted this year. Not only is the cavernous size of Art Basel’s special exhibition hall reminiscent of the Arsenale, its scale poses a similar curatorial challenge. The cacophony of artistic wares created a sense of uninspired curating similar to this year’s Biennale. There was a smattering of painting, some performance, a few monumental sculptures, and even a feminist statement or two (though thankfully no Guerilla Girls installation), while outside on Messeplatz, the public art projects ranged from the ridiculous (Tunga’s gigantic outdoor chessboard with “teeth” as pawns) to the vaguely-amusing-yet-anecdotal (Atelier Van Lieshout’s Bar Rectum) to the conceptually sublime (Allan Kaprow’s Fluids piece, reenacted courtesy of Hauser and Wirth).
Given the maximum-density crowd, it was impossible to have a rigorous look at any of the artworks, and soon it was time to scoot off to dinner at the Gundeldingerhof, Basel’s foodie mecca. Generously hosted by Barbara Gladstone, the seventy or so guests were representative of Art Basel’s target audience: A mix of well-informed, gregarious collectors (I had the pleasure of chatting with Matt Aberle and David Appel most of the evening), museum trustees (e.g. MoMA’s Harvey Shipley Miller), celebs (e.g. Marc Jacobs), and curators (e.g. Beatrix Ruf, James Rondeau, Richard Flood, Douglas Fogle, and Olga Viso). The evening’s conversation oscillated between the Michael Jackson verdict and the collective disappointment with the Biennale. As expected, there was a bit of social one-upsmanship when it came to discussing what everyone did during the two-day break between the end of the professional days in Venice and the opening of Art Basel. Those who attended the opening of Paul McCarthy’s “La-la land parodie paradies” megashow at Munich’s Haus der Kunst emphatically raved about it; others opted for the private view of “Bidibidobidiboo” curated by Francesco Bonami for the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin. There was also the opening of MADRE Napoli, a new museum of contemporary art, that featured installations by Francesco Clemente, Anish Kapoor, and Jeff Koons. The intimate circle of Benedickt Taschen spent the weekend at the Villa d’Este on Lake Como attending his nuptials to Lauren Weiner. Jeffrey Deitch later reported that it was a beautiful, tasteful ceremony; the only risqué touch was a lap dance by “International Burlesque Star” Dita Von Teese (a wedding present to Mr. T from Mrs. T). And a few of the art-weary (myself included) as well as the real jet set had opted to squeeze in a mini-break over the weekend.
Left: Allan Kaprow, Fluids, 1967/2005, installation view. Right: Atelier Van Lieshout, Bar Rectum, 2005, under construction.
After dinner most of the serious collectors headed home for a good night of sleep. The old adage “the early bird gets the worm” is borne out in Basel, though at dinner rumor had it that über-collector François Pinault and private dealer Philippe Segalot (disguised as art handlers, according to a report published this weekend in Le Monde) had already preshopped the entire fairsomething that happens every year, natch. A few of us (the nonshoppers) took a cab to the Kunsthalle’s bar to inaugurate a week of serious partying.
Tuesday morning, I decided to avoid the stampede into the fair’s vernissage to see a few shows in town in relative peace and quiet. The summer lineup at Basel’s contemporary institutions was varied and high caliberfrom the Jeff Wall retrospective at the Schaulager to Simon Starling at the Museum für Gegenwartskunst. Having adored Karen Kilmnik’s show at the Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa in Venice, I turned off my cell phone for the first time in two weeks and made my way to the Haus zum Kirschgarten (a jewel-box historical museum dedicated to Swiss domestic life), where Kilmnik had hung her divine paintings and made deliciously subtle interventions in the museum’s period rooms. The next stop was the Kunsthalle Basel for a sneak preview of their June lineup from director Adam Szymczyk and assistant curators Silke Baumann and Simone Neuenschwander. I loved Carl Andre’s “Black Wholes” show (featuring a massive new floor sculpture and a selection of his text/poem pieces) and an exhibition of works by Artur Zmijewski, the artist representing Poland at the Biennale this year. It contained an excellent selection of early video and sound projects, but the tour de force was the creepy room-size sculpture used as a set for RepetitionZmijewski’s riveting documentary film, now showing in Venice, that features a timely (think Abu Ghraib) recreation of the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment.
Left: Installation view of Artur Zmijewski's exhibition. Right: Installation view of Carl Andre, 44 Carbon Copper Triads, 2005. Both exhibitions at Kunsthalle Basel. (Photos: Serge Hasenhöhler)
After a leisurely lunch in the sunny Kunsthalle garden, I was prodded into making my way to the Messe to determine the veracity of my latest text messages. (One read: “Leipzig painters on the decline!”; another, “Poland is the new Scotland.”) I breezed through the blue-chip offerings on the first floor and made a beeline up the stairs to see the winners of this year’s Baloise Prize, awarded annually to one or two artists in the fair’s Art Statements section, an enclave of younger galleries and artists. While former Forcefield member Jim Drain (presented by New York’s Greene Naftali) and London-based 2005 Beck’s Futures Prize nominee Ryan Gander (presented by Amsterdam’s Annet Gelink Gallery) were the winners this year, my hands-down favorite was Nate Lowman at Maccarone, inc. His punk rock aesthetic combined with politically pointed work was absolutely apropos in such a setting. The most context-specific workand the only one not for salewas a t-shirt (obtained by the artist from Kenneth W. Courtney's “Ju$t Another Rich Kid” website) that read, “I fucked Richard Prince.” Worn during the inauguration by gallery director Blair Taylor, the t-shirt subtly acknowledged the current market infatuation with Dick Prince as well as his uncanny ability to maintain his mystique in the eyes of the young and hip.
Left: The (GBE) Modern booth, with a sculpture by Anselm Reyle and a neon work by Martin Creed. Right: Jeff Koons, Diamond.
After taking in the Statements section, I began to wander around the various other contemporary offerings on the second floor. Belying the view that art fairs are morally corrupt and devoid of soul (e.g. Jerry Saltz’s post-Miami Village Voice missive), the quality and variety of art on display at this year’s fair was extremely edifying. It seems that galleries and artists alike put maximum effort and thought into assembling top-quality works in relatively well-curated displays. There was almost too much good work to digestso much so that the fair might deserve a “serious” review. In the handsome-booth category: Gavin Brown’s surprisingly coherent and grown-up presentation of his stable (with a superb new abstract sculpture by Anselm Reyle, who also looked good at The Modern Institute’s booth), David Zwirner (great Chris Ofili triptych and Iza Gensken sculptures), kurimanzutto (Mexico City’s usual suspects along with a good new Gabriel Orozco sculpture), Massimo de Carlo (exquisite minimalist “paintings” from Manzoni to Pivi), Gladstone Gallery (loved her Fontanas and Boettis), as well as Sadie Coles, Regen Projects, and neugerriemschneider (to name but a few veteran exhibitors). There were also excellent singular works. A few of my favorites included: Wilhelm Sasnal (the word “WARSAW” burned into the wall of Foksal’s booth), Christof Buchel (9-11 Muslim prayer rug/car sculpture/installation at Hauser and Wirth), Jeff Koons (P-Diddy-size green diamond sculpture from the “Celebration” series at Gagosian), Urs Fischer (a new series of photos/drawings at Galerie Eva Presenhuber), and Reena Spaulings (a flag sculpture by the fictional artist/gallerist/heir apparent to John Dogg, shown by Galerie Chantal Crousel). The list could go on and on. But, having spent most of Tuesday afternoon at the fair, I started to OD, so at six o’clock, I unplugged altogether and made the pilgrimage to Munich to see the McCarthy exhibition for myself. After thirty-six hours in Basel, McCarthy’s “La-la land” sounded like paradise.
At the Monday opening of the sixth annual Art Unlimited exhibition, Art Basel director Samuel Keller was quick to remind everyone, “The artworks here are for sale”an announcement that functioned like the bell at the New York Stock Exchange, signaling the beginning of the week’s trading. Keller was making an important point, because while this section of Art Basel, held in a large hall next to the fair’s main space and devoted to large-scale works that do not fit in regular booths, looks like (and is) a curated exhibitionorganized by Switzerland-based artist and independent curator Simon Lamunièreit’s still part of the fair. That means that galleries pay to play, but have no say in how their works will be installed. This year, one gallery’s representatives had decided at the last minute to remove their artist’s paintings because of a less-than-ideal placement, then changed their minds when threatened with a substantial penalty fee. Despite such unpleasantness, the galleries continue to pony up because Art Unlimited is superlative in all respects. Everythingnot only the art, but the exhibition space itself (almost 130,000 square feet), and even the size of the doormen’s musclesis just, well, bigger. And let’s not forget the ever-inflating prices of the artworks themselves.
With Swiss precision, everything was ready at 4pm sharp, and the show was inaugurated with a raucous combination of performances, music, and Moët and Chandon-a-go-go. When I called Lamunière on his cell phone to ask him to get me inI had forgotten my passhe was understandably a bit stressed, but also happy that so many artists had shown up to install their pieces themselves: “It means they understand that it’s not just a commercial thingthat it can be as important to show here as in Venice.” In total, seventy-two participating artists from twenty-seven countries were on hand. Marina Abramovic was lying naked on a shelf protruding from a wall, performing her Self-Portrait with Skeleton (price upon request at the gallery). “Look,” cried one woman, a Miami collector dressed in head-to-toe canary yellow. “She’s bleeding!” “No,” somebody corrected her, “she’s crying.” “Yes, but she’s crying blood. I wouldn’t like that in my dining room.”
Left: A muscled doorman outside the exhibition hall. Middle: A collector's dog with an official fair badge. Right: Gianni Motti's Broker.
Gianni Motti (who represents Switzerland in Venice) created Broker, a “living sculpture,” by putting a boy in a cage. The guy was in fact the Swiss national badminton champion. The locals were wondering, “Does he need money?” My concern was more practical: How could he get to the bathroom? Motti was the subject of much buzz, but not for this piece. Over at the main fairnot yet open but already visited by important, eager collectorshis bar of soap supposedly made with fat left over from Italian prime minister Sylvio Berlusconi’s liposuction was the subject of intense speculation. Twenty thousand Swiss francs at Zurich Nicolas von Senger gallery. “Does it smell good?” someone asked.
Doug Aitken was represented by two pieces and three dealers (Eva Presenhuber, 303, and Victoria Miro). For one work, he organized a sort of new-age concert with five people dressed in white drumming a hardwood table that he defined as “both a mesmerizing musical instrument and a place for conversation.” (It’s available in an edition of six, performers not included.) Florence Bonnefous, director of Air de Paris gallery, was a bit disappointed because she and Casey Kaplan were presenting a sound pieceOh Egypt by Trisha Donnelly but during the opening, a DJ was playing so loud that everything else was drowned out. “Might as well stop the piece and get a drink,” she declared.
It was all a bit much, of course, but the notable thing about Art Unlimited is that it offers the chance to experience installations that even institutions have difficulty showing. It was a pleasure to see Richard Artschwager’s Janus III (yours for a mere $150,000), to walk through Swedish artist Henrik Hakansson’s upside-down garden, with real plants and fog, or to jump on the wooden steps floating above a pool of water in an artwork by Matti Braun. From ‘60s pioneers like Walter de Maria, Joseph Kosuth, or Thomas Bayrle to young stars like John Bock, Martin Creed, and Jonas Dalhberg, the sixth edition of Art Unlimited was consistently strong. The juxtapositions were sometimes strangefor example a huge, color-saturated wall painting by Jean-Luc Moerman applied directly to the outside walls of Alan Charlton’s otherwise entirely gray 750-square-foot maze. But why not?
What was even stranger, I noticed, was the curious way people had begun referring to the works by dealers’ names, instead of artists’. “The Mennour piece is sold!” exclaimed a French critic. “You mean the Attia piece,” I answered, pointing out that the artist was Kader Attia and the piece was presented by Kamel Mennour Gallery. Oddest of all was the sensation of wandering through an exhibition and seeing a gallerist in front of every work, cooing, “It’s a great piece!” on repeat. But I got used to it.
When the party finished at 7pm, the armies of collectors who couldn’t wait for the opening of the fair proper at 11am the next day ran to vernissages for two younger, “edgier” ancillary fairs: First LISTE, and then, just a short ferry ride away (Venice dèjá vu) the Volta Show. The latter is in its first year of operationit seems that alternative fairs are spawning their own alternatives. In any case, between the three, there should be something to suit every taste and, of course, budget.
On Thursday night, the Fondazione Prada is exhibiting Francesco Vezzoli’s 2004 film Le Comizi di Non Amore at the Fondazione Cini on Darsena, the Island of San Giorgio Maggiore; a cocktail party follows for Vezzoli and Rem Koolhaas, Carsten Höller, and Mariko Mori, all beneficiaries of Prada’s largesse (in one way or another) who are exhibiting in the Biennale. I’ve always been a fan of Vezzoli. Though he has had his share of notable admirers, for years now I’ve also noticed a remarkable knee jerk hostility toward him. Too smooth an operater? Too attentive to his career? Too smart for his own good? I can think of many worse offenders. In any case, the prevailing attitude may be changing with the warm reception accorded Gore Vidal’s Caligula, his best film to date, in the Italian Pavilion. Even erstwhile skeptics seem to have grudgingly enjoyed Vezzoli’s latest effort, which takes the form of a very funny short trailer for a remake of the 1970s porno-deluxe movie that screenwriter Vidal later unsuccessfully sued to have his name removed from. This “trailer” doesn’t lack for real stars, either: Helen Mirren as the Emperor Tiberius, Karen Black as Agrippina, Milla Jovovich as Drusilla, Benicio del Toro as Macro, and cracked actress and rock star Courtney Love as the depraved Caligula himself. Unlike most of Vezzoli’s earlier efforts, this one doesn’t depend especially on knowledge of the often obscure stars’ historiesone common critique of the artist that I find unconvincing. Why are people so lazy in the art world? But the backstory is interesting: For instance, the ultimately disastrous team who put together the original film, among them its producer, Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione, Jr., and, in Vezzoli’s words, “ass maniac” director Tinto Brass.
Le Comizi di Non Amore takes the form of a pilot for a reality/talk show, and features its share of big stars as wellCatherine Deneuve, Marianne Faithfull, Jeanne Moreauas well as Antonella Lualdi, the star of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1964 film Comizi d’amore. At more than thirty minutes, this is by far Vezzoli’s longest filmalmost tediously so. Upon leaving the screening, I discover that the party is in full effect, and search high and low for Vezzoli himself. I ask Jessica Craig-Martin why Vezzoli has such an iffy rap in certain quarters. “Why would anyone dislike Francesco?” she replies while busily snapping pictures. “He’s so smart and funny and witty, and besides he’s gorgeous.” I find him seated with Yvonne Force-Villareal (naturally a fan, I assume); he looks tired and very stressed, not his usual charming self. “I can barely stand, David,” he tells me. We arrange to speak the next day. As he writes down his number for me, the Wexner Center’s Sherrie Geldin comments, “Oh Francesco, you give your cell phone number out to everybody.” “I am a whore,” he replies with a slight smile.
Left: An Italian couple in Venice. (Photo: Jessica Craig-Martin) Right: Rem Koolhaas, Francesco Vezzoli, Miuccia Prada, Mariko Mori, and Carsten Höller.
I cannot find anyone I know who is going on to the night’s hot ticket, the party for this year’s U.S. representative Ed Ruscha, whose “Course of Empire” is featured in the American Pavilion, so I share a water taxi with Sam Orlofsky from Gagosian Gallery. (Word has it that Vezzoli will show with Gagosian, although I also hear that Mitchell-Innes & Nash are interested. And indeed both Lucy Mitchell-Innes and Jay Gorney, director of the downtown space that the gallery is opening on the site of the former Gorney Bravin + Lee, are in attendance.) We get seriously lost on our way to the Palazzo Papadopoli, where the Ruscha party, hosted by Larry Gagosian, is being held, but arrive pretty much right on time (albeit an hour-and-a-half late). A coveted blue wristband is supposedly the only means of gaining entry. “Where did you get yours?” I overhear someone say. “On eBay?”
Inside, the palazzo is very grand, but after so many events at Venetian palazzi the splendor is growing rather commonplace. It’s crowded, and, feeling quite dazed, I can’t make out all the famous people. I recognize Richard Prince and several Gagosian artists. Miuccia Prada is there with Vezzoli. My friend and fellow Artforum contributor Alison Gingeras introduces me to Franz West, with whom I enjoy a long conversation. Yes, he liked Gore Vidal’s Caligula, too. Michael York (of Cabaret and Logan’s Run fame) is there, still looking very good. A great lady of my acquaintance points out Stephanie Seymour, commenting, “Can you believe how much work she’s had done, and she’s only, what, thirty-eight?” The dinner is not sit-downexcept for Cy Twombly’s room, which I never penetrate, and where presumably Ruscha, Gagosian, and other eminences are ensconced.
Left: Octopus, Paul Allen's yacht. Right: Shoes left dockside by Octopus visitors. (Photos: Jessica Craig-Martin)
As the Ruscha party winds down, there is something of a melée at the dock outside as guests frantically attempt to secure water taxis. Many are on their way to the Frieze party at the Palazzo Zenobio. The dock feels as if it might suddenly sink under the weight of so many rich people, so many jewels and blown-out hairdos, and so much power and influence. “Nick Serota stole our water taxi!” somebody screams. For the first time during this Venetian sojourn, I am feeling very tense.
The following morning I meet Vezzoli for breakfast on the terrace of the Hotel Westin Europa e Regina. “Tell me, was everyone in Comizi di Non Amore wearing Prada?” I inquire. “Actually, no one was,” he answers, “except Antonella Lualdi, because she is so fat. Miuccia was adamant that there should be no Prada product placement, but in this case I had to run over to the Prada store and buy a large black dress for Antonella.”
Later that day, I am hanging out at the fantastic villa that Jeffrey Deitch has taken on the Giudecca, right behind Palladio’s Church of the Redentore. Jeffrey has brought his entire staff to Venice, as well as the painter Kehinde Wiley and his boyfriend Donovan Gilliard; Bec Stupac, an assume vivid astro focus collaborator who will have a solo show with Deitch this fall, is there too, with her hula hoop. Bec is an eminent hula-hooper. Tim Noble and Sue Webster are also his guests, as am I, my stint at the Europa e Regina having ended. Jeffrey and I occupy the piano nobile, while the “kids” are shacked up on the third floor. “They’ve got into the habit of referring to the villa as ‘the house,’ which reminds me of MTV’s series ‘The Real World.’ The Real World Venice Biennale,” he comments.
Left: Jeffrey Deitch and Kiki Smith. Middle: Artist Tim Noble. (Photos: Jessica Craig-Martin) Right: 50th Venice Biennale director Francesco Bonami.
That evening, we leave en masse for the MoMA party at the Cipriani, celebrating the museum’s acceptance of the Judith Rothschild bequest, a multi-million dollar collection of works on paper assembled by Harvey Shipley Miller and his assistant, Andre Schlechtriem, with funds from the Judith Rothschild Foundation. The bequest, which includes works by the relatively young and untested as well as the blue-chip, has been a subject of heated speculation, and it was rumored for some time that the museum might not accept it. “Some of the trustees are very conservative,” one big-deal dealer, who understandably requests anonymity, informs me, before giving me her own lowdown on the situation. “For all the stuff they acquired, it will still fit comfortably in a few flat files at the museum. And if they want to, later on, the museum can sell off the Polkes and Richters and Tuymanses at auction.” The mood at the party, however, remains ebullient, and the general feeling is that Shipley Miller did a very good job. Everybody who was everywhere else in the last several days seems to be here. As I am leaving, I notice that the doorkeeper is giving Eddie Ruscha and his wife a hard time because apparently they aren’t on the list. “That’s Ed Ruscha’s son and his wife, and you really ought to let them in,” I explain to the majordomo. “Are you sure?” he asks. “Yes, I am really totally sure.” He lets them in.
Left: The entrance to the Giardini. Right: Artists Tino Sehgal and Gilbert and George. (Photos: Roman Mensing)
Who would have thought we’d be pining for the chaos of “Utopia Station”? This year’s Arsenale show, “Always a Little Further,” was a pared-down affair, but featured so much heavy-handed installation that it seemed a major throwback to the eighties and nineties. Indeed, with a veteran feminist agenda to boot, much of the work was well past its sell-by date of 1989. The fact that “best newcomer” prize was given to young Guatemalan body artist Regina José Galindo says it all: She shaves herself naked in public, creates a trail of bloody footprints in the streets, and videotapes her own hymenoplasty. Did Abramovic and Mendieta achieve nothing? As Tino Sehgal’s ironic prancing invigilators in the German Pavilion would say, “This is so contemporary!”
Left: Joana Vasconcelas’s tampon chandelier in the Arsenale. Middle: Sergio Vega's parrot phones. Right: Guillermo Calzadilla on a midnight vaporetto.
The Arsenale was my first experience of this year’s Biennale, and it got off to an unequivocal start: A roomful of Guerilla Girls posters and a tampon chandelier by Joana Vasconcelas. This introduction couldn’t help but highlight the fact that much of the work in the Arsenale was by women. Given its dubious quality, I’d have preferred not to have registered this fact. Curator Rosa Martinez had recycled a fair number of weak pieces from her Moscow McBiennial (Pilar Albarracín, Blue Noses, Gupta Subodh) and added a whole lotta Hispanic Catholic baroque (Paloma Varga Weisz, Cristina García Rodero, Maria Teresa Hincapié de Zuluaga). Curatorial juxtapositions veered less towards fruitful analogy than conceptual whiplash. (Leigh Bowery and Mona Hatoum?) A number of artists had been encouraged to give up the day job and wrestle with something new: Gregor Schneider tackled the clash of civilizations by proposing to install a black cube Ka’Ba in Piazza San Marco (no! go back to Die Familie Schneider) while Ghada Amer abandoned her perfectly serviceable embroideries to make a ying-yang Zen garden by the docks. Conceptual concision and restraint were a rare treat (Emily Jacir, Micol Assaël) in a show otherwise resembling a back issue of Flash Art. As one Swedish curator said to me, “it’s a user-friendly disgrace.”
The afternoon brought a stroll around the Giardini: Queues for more elaborate installations (Annette Messager for France) and long video works (Artur Zmijewski for Poland and de Rijke/de Rooij for Holland), none of which really rewarded the wait. The off-site pavilions proved more successful: Central Asia offered a tight and cogent group show of ten artists; Pipilotti Rist made a deliciously sexy chill-out zone in the Church of St. Staë; Bedwyr Williams’s residency for the Welsh pavilion (an attempt to forge links between his homeland and Venice) provided the only genuine laugh in the whole Biennalewith the work, not at it.
Left: Leigh Bowery outfit on display in the Arsenale. Middle: RoseLee Goldberg and Jens Hoffmann. Right: Guerilla Girls poster.
Socially the whole event seemed less frenetic than in previous years. The combined strategy of cutting back on artists (from several hundred in 2003 to ninety-two this year) and imposing stringent press-preview entrance policies paid off: The vibe was calmer and more relaxed without the clutter of a zillion museum minions and kitten-heeled gallery girls. Even so, most parties ran out of drink several hours before they were due to end; I had to resort to a half pint of limoncello at the Frieze party. The best bellinis came courtesy of Art Review and Jens Hoffmann; the best outfits were at the Guggenheim (elderly Peggy wannabes robed in lurid hues and complex textures). For these smartly dressed punters, Martinez and María de Corral’s commercially digestible biennale-cum-art-fair was just the ticket. In retrospect, 2003’s curatorial excess and engagé impenetrability looked staggeringly radical. We need biennial displays to push “always a little further” than this year’s skin-deep feminist number-crunching.
Left: French Pavilion curators Suzanne Pagé and Béatrice Parent. Middle: Annette Messager with the Golden Lion for Best Pavilion. Right: Pierre Cardin.
Representing one’s country at the Venice Biennale is undoubtedly an honor. It can pump up an artist's careerbut it can also take the wind out of one's sails. There is no other exhibition in which artists must stand at their own front doors, so to speak, making themselves available to critics and passersby. “Like prostitutes,” said one visitor to the Giardini. The up side: “Those who used to think you were full of shit might suddenly love you because it’s ‘your moment’or because you have the right dealer.” Artists know it’s just a game, but when it’s their turn they may find the going is tougher than they expected. Dutch duo de Rijke/de Rooij risked alienating devoted fans of their bon chic bon genre abstract films with a very disturbing play, recorded on 16mm filmbut I loved it. On the other hand, Tino Sehgal, the hip young conceptual artist-slash-economist who, along with Thomas Scheibitz, represented Germany, failed to impress with his piece, which had performers shouting, “This is so contemporary, contemporary, contemporary!” Auf wiedersehen!
With her exhibition at the French Pavilion, Annette Messager seems to have picked up on the capricious nature of the whole affair. On the neo-classical façade, she covered the word FRANCIA with a neon sign that reads CASINO. Inside, in a three-part installation, she allegorized the Venetian figure of Pinocchio. Casinos are “places of pleasure and perdition, where you play with money,” the artist explained, cryptically intoning, “We’re on show even when we’re alone. I love the phrase ‘losers win.’” As for Pinocchio, the liar, the machine who tries to be human: “We all lie,” said Messager.
This year marks the first time that France has selected a female artist to represent the country, and Messager was duly rewarded with the Golden Lion for Best Pavilion. (Another Lion, presented by Walker Art Center director Kathy Halbreich, went to Harald Szeemann, and was graciously accepted by the late curator’s wife, Ingeborg, and daughter, Una.) In fact a feminist vibe was unsurprisingly pervasive. The rather flat and curiously anachronistic Arsenale exhibition, curated by Rosa Martinez, set the tone with an outsized Guerilla Girls poster that pointed out the woeful male-female imbalance of Biennales past. Statistics, we hate that.
Left: Bob Colacello and Gloria von Thurn und Taxis. Right: Una Szeemann with her father's honorary Golden Lion.
Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessey sponsored Thursday night’s official French post-opening dinner partyto the tune of a few hundred thousand Euros. Continuing its public-relations policy of having a finger (or whole hand) in every contemporary art pie, the luxury goods conglomerate had chosen nothing less than the Palazzo Ducale on Piazza San Marco for its fête, which felt a lot like a jet-set wedding. Few artists, but lots of designers and CEOs representing their multiple brands. At least the food was good. But I couldn’t help recalling the night before, when Jarvis Cocker, on the train to Venice to DJ at Thursday's Frieze party, ingenuously asked, “What’s the difference between this and Art Basel?” Nobody could come up with an answer.
Left: The Guerilla Girls and Yvonne Force-Villareal. Right: Gilbert and George with Rufus Wainwright. (Photos: Jessica Craig-Martin)
It’s a dismal truism that a writer’s life is hell, but it has its momentslike this one, as I begin my Venetian epistle on the terrace of my hotel overlooking the Grand Canal and the gleaming white domes of Santa Maria della Salute. John Ruskin had a no less splendid view of the comparatively austere but even more distinguished San Giorgio Maggiore from his window at the Danieli, where he habitually stayed when visiting the city he described in such loving detail in The Stones of Venice. But by just cocking my head thirty degrees to the left I have a fine vista of that grandest of Palladian churches too. Waiters are busily shooing away the pigeons that settle on tables, as well as the cuter but probably no less desperate uccellati that circle incessantly. Luxurious and desperate: Are these adjectives not adequate in evoking the atmosphere here during the Biennale’s opening week? But hey, the weather’s great, a glorious contrast to the 2003 inferno.
At 11am I meet Stefania Bortolami and Amalia Dayan, the glamorous former Gagosian directors who will open a gallery in New York together in September, at the Giardini for the first day of the four-day “preview.” We make a beeline for “The Experience of Art” at the Italian Pavilion, where Stefania introduces me to its curator, María de Corral, a relatively patrician presence. (Corral made Madrid’s Reina Sofia a venue of note during the roaring ‘80s.) She tells me that press information is available at the Arsenale. As if I wanted to hit her up for a catalogue! But she looks seriously weary and it isn’t yet noon. “No talking, just looking,” Stefania admonishes as we navigate the show. The many projections and videos in the Italian Pavilion make this feel more like the typical Arsenale installation (this year’s “Always a Little Further,” curated by Rosa Martínez, is no exception), especially because, overwhelmingly, they are a chore. The shadows of people nattering on their cell phones constantly pass by the often black-and-white, concerned projections: Concerned with something political, or racial, or genderish, and tedious. The great exception: Francesco Vezzoli’s new film, Gore Vidal’s Caligula, which looks like the succès fou of this Biennale.
It seems that dead artists are quite favored at Corral’s show: I counted Francis Bacon, Philip Guston, Agnes Martin, and Antoni Tapiesthe last incorrectly, as Stefania informs me that in fact Tapies is still alive. The Bacons are great, the Guston’s tepid, the Martins rather less than A+. And Marlene Dumas, whose paintings occupy one gallery in the Bacon-Guston-Tapies enfilade, looks dead on the wall. As I recall, there was only one dead artist, Andy Warhol, in the show organized by Francesco Bonami and Daniel Birnbaum for the Italian Pavilion in 2003, which in retrospect looks all the more lively. Corral includes a great deal of contemporary Spanish art in her show, which is unsurprising but also telling in a bad way. Almost all of this work is of little consequenceodd, considering that Spain occupies an important place in the geography of modernism. Corral paired mostly black-and-white Agnes Martins with mostly black-and-white Joan Hernández Pijuans, apparently in the interest of fostering a dialoguea failed one, as it happens, because the Pijuan paintings are simply awful.
Left: Rufus Wainwright. Right: Guests entering Francesca von Habsburg's birthday party. (Photos: Jessica Craig-Martin)
I meet Amalia and Stefania for drinks on the terrace of the Hotel Bauer Grunewaldthe best hotel in Hamburg, except it’s in San Marco. We don’t tarry, because the birthday party for Francesca von Habsburg (Archduchess of Austria to you) is apparently in full swing at the Palazzo Volpi. As we depart, I see Ron Wood, looking glamorously Death in Venice in a white suit that matches his spectral pallor, not to mention his Dirk Bogarde-black hair: Ron von Aschenbach. The Palazzo Volpi is beyond. I particularly admire the vast salon in which immense gilt-framed mirrors alternate with seventeenth- and eighteenth-century portraits of Counts Volpi. I stop to kiss-kiss Elizabeth Peyton and Tony Just, before making my way to another table, where artful paparazza Jessica Craig-Martin, her father, London painter and YBA éminence grise Michael Craig-Martin, Art Production Fund co-founder Yvonne Force-Villareal, and the photographers Todd Eberle and Vera Lutter are settling down for dinner. “Tim Noble and Sue Webster love Mother Inc.,” Stefania tells Yvonne regarding her art-world girl-power band. “They listen to it all the time. They know all the lyrics.”
Should we or shouldn’t we go to the Gilbert & George fête at the Palazzo Pisini Moreta? Yvonne rings art consultant Mark Fletcher. “It’s fun, really fun!” he exclaims over her mobile, which is equipped with speakerphone. So we go, arriving on the late side. As we enter the candlelit Palazzo, Rufus Wainwright is in the midst of a shortishor longish, depending on your tasteset, which has gone rather underappreciated by all but a gaggle of the faithful, including cohost Jay Jopling, who is pressed to the stage. The party’s packed with people eager to congratulate the duo on their belated British Pavilion debut, but soon the crowd begins to thin. Those who remain happily supply details of the glittering soirée we missed preceding this “after party” hosted by the British Council. Apparently, while we were breaking bread chez the archduchess, some 150 guests sipped prosecco in the courtyard of the Ca’ Rezzonico and then proceeded to dinner upstairs, in a grand (even by Venetian palazzi standards) trompe l’oeil-resplendent salon, hosted by Sonnabend, White Cube, Lehmann Maupin, and Thaddeus Ropac. The guests of honor chatted conspiratorially with their long-time dealer and the grandest of art-world grande dames, Ileana Sonnabend, and with Sir Nicolas Serota (the Tate has recently announced a hometown retrospective for G & G). The evening’s highlight came when British Council Visual Arts Director Andrea Rose’s very sweet toast brought real tears to Gilbert’s eyes and the room erupted in a spontaneous standing ovation.
Left: Artist Justin Lowe and P.S. 1 curator Bob Nickas. Right: Jerry Saltz and P.S. 1 director Tony Guererro. (Photos: Larissa Harris)
Losing track of my party, I hook up with P.S. 1 curator and Artforum colleague Bob Nickas, who is the pasha of a clutch of young artists, among them Fia Backstrom, the curator of “Lesser New York,” and some Greater New Yorkers, including Justin Lowe, Jen DeNike, and Peter Coffin. Justin prevails on me to go with them to the usually reliable after-party spot Haig’s Bara mistake, it turns out, because by the time we arrive the booze has run out.