WLADIMIR KLITSCHKO, the curator of Ukraine’s contribution to the 53rd Venice Biennale, couldn’t attend his own opening Thursday night, as he was preparing for a June 20 heavyweight title match. His brother, Vitali, did drop by, however, and the presence of one almost seven-foot, two-hundred-and-fifty pound boxer was enough to satisfy everyone. Artist Ilya Chichkan had decided to involve Wladimir—in name only, of course—to avoid curatorial interference in his collaboration with Japanese artist Mihara Yasuhiro, which turned Palazzo Papadopoli, site of the Ukrainian event, into a creepy fun house of drones, dim Christmas lights, and disembodied automatons, haunted by an elfin model on roller skates. In the palazzo’s garden, patron Viktor Pinchuk entertained leaders of the Moscow and Kiev art worlds and received brief visits from Jeff Koons and Naomi Campbell. The party climaxed with a performance by Verka Serdyuchka, a robust transvestite whose numbers—all klezmer-inflected tunes over leaden techno beats—included “Everything Will Be Good” and “I’m All, Like, Dolce & Gabbana.”
Outside russophone lands, Serdyuchka is best known for her 2007 second-place performance at Eurovision, a competition that, to the chagrin of pop fans from the G7, is increasingly dominated by newcomers from the East. So there was a wicked dissonance to seeing Serdyuchka live in the context of this highbrow Eurovision, where the West continues to reign despite the ever-growing ranks of third- and second-worlders. Many commented on the inclusiveness of Daniel Birnbaum’s “Making Worlds,” even if most of the included were already fluent in the Euro-American language of messily spectacular installation. One of the exceptions was Anawana Haloba’s pushcart laden with boxes, each of which was labeled with the name of an internationally valued commodity but in fact held candy. “I don’t care for sweets,” an Englishman complained.
As I walked through the Arsenale on Thursday afternoon, I saw more and more of the handsome red-and-black totes advertising the first-ever UAE pavilion. At that exhibition, the artworks proper were upstaged by world’s-fair-type displays: scale models of proposed arts districts in Abu Dhabi and Dubai and video interviews with local players about the tourism infrastructure. “People keep asking me if I was forced to show that stuff,” Tirdad Zolghadr, the pavilion’s curator, said while on a cigarette break. “Actually, I had to fight to show it.”
Inside was a placard with his name next to one for the pavilion’s commissioner, Dr. Lamees Hamdan. But during the “press conference,” their places were occupied by a much better-looking pair who conversed inaudibly as a prerecorded theater piece by performance group Jackson Pollock Bar played over the speakers. An Arab woman’s voice seemed to be defending the UAE pavilion’s right to exist against attacks from one Mr. Smith, but I could barely hear it over the commotion caused by the arrival of an Emirati aristocrat. “Who’s that sheikh?” I asked an attendant. “I don’t know,” she shrugged. “There are lots of them.”
Their distinctive white headgear dotted the crowd outside, a mass headed for the vernissage of ADACH Platform, an initiative of the Abu Dhabi cultural authority. The UAE capital politely went rogue and sponsored its own collateral show curated by Catherine David. The line for the shuttle across the narrow waterway to the Arsenale Novissimo was long. I spotted a forlorn dinghy with a little red sign for the Russian-organized “Unconditional Love,” which was located a few hundred yards west of the ADACH show, so I went there before walking down the embankment.
“Unconditional Love” has works by a dozen artists from almost as many countries, but it was all garnish for a new piece by AES+F, who outdid their appearance in the 2007 Russian pavilion by expanding their animated glamour shots to three channels on nine big screens, arranged in a panoramic circle. But even if it had been viewable from a single vantage point, I doubt it would have been any easier to follow. I recall a cruise ship, a pagoda, calisthenics, foot massages, a black man chucking a spear, and Asians in Indian headdresses shooting arrows until a tsunami killed them all and a flying saucer crashed in its wake.
By the time I reached the ADACH Platform, dozens of guests were already sacking the buffet. I trailed the (another?) sheikh’s entourage through David’s exhibition, which, like the UAE pavilion, was a meditation on urban development, only here it was filtered through the lens of critical documentary, a time-tested biennial tactic. Zolghadr’s project, on the other hand, struck that elusive balance between difference and relevance—an equilibrium that struck me as important on Friday as I looked at some of the less-visited national exhibitions. Dismayed, perhaps, by apathetic reactions to the kitsch painting at its 2007 debut, the Georgian pavilion conformed and displayed two stylishly somber videos by Koka Ramishvili. The defiant Azeris showed paintings by Tahir Salahov, a venerable socialist realist. “They exhibited my work at the Soviet pavilion in 1962,” Salahov said at a garden party hosted by Russia’s honorary consul in Venice. “But they didn’t tell me. People came up to me in the street in Moscow to congratulate me, and I wondered, ‘What for?’”
The same event had much talk of the concurrent birthday celebration for GCCC founder Dasha Zhukova aboard Roman Abramovich’s yacht. One Russian artist was boasting that he had not only attended a breakfast aboard Abramovich’s boat, he had even taken a shit in the toilet. The rest had to settle for an up-close view of another impregnable vessel, Alexander Ponomarev’s semisubmerged submarine anchored opposite François Pinault’s Palazzo Grassi exhibition space. The work of the “marine artist” (his press release’s words) was a goofy, three-dimensional counterpoint to the usual canal art—banners with platitudes, like I AM NOT HERE. —PATRICK MIMRAN or I WILL NOT MAKE ANY MORE BORING ART. —JOHN BALDESSARI. Incidentally, in the Q&A session following Baldessari’s conversation with Birnbaum in the Teatro Piccolo Arsenale, a woman asked the artist to specify what sort of art he considered boring. After a prolonged pause, he replied: “If I remember it, it’s not boring.” A dubious guideline in Venice, where the competition for a scrap of the audience’s memory is brutal and the methods used to win it often have little to do with art. But who knows? Perhaps Baldessari is a connoisseur of banquets, bellinis, and Ukrainian boxers. “Art is rice and watermelon,” said the Thai pavilion’s ad.