“Courageous . . . ”
“I hate this place.” I heard this more than once, and really, Venice can be such a drag. It’s a town of hyperbole and hubris, the sort of place where you can park your 377-foot megayacht right against the Sestiere Castello and set up a security fence blocking off half the street, detouring the yachtless hoi polloi who have to walk to the Biennale. A place where one might spot guardian snipers in buoys floating in the shallow waters surrounding such yachts. The sort of place from which, just for fun, a prominent collector may fly out several dozen “friends” for a one-night rendezvous at El Bulli. A place where Courtney Love might appear at a party like an apparition, breeze through three tiers of velvet ropes, have a conversation with Michael Stipe and Jay Jopling, and then walk, barefoot, through the broken glass back to her hotel room. “It used to be you’d just go to the Giardini, go to your dinner, go to your afterparty, and then go home,” curator Christian Rattemeyer sighed at that particular party. Did the billionaires ship Miami to Venice?
The Giardini was quiet enough when I arrived on Monday afternoon and began to peek through Bice Curiger’s Biennale, “ILLUMInations.” Mike Nelson had transformed the British pavilion into a rambling, caliginous apartment complex, which broke into a skylit courtyard in the center. Christian Boltanski had filled the French pavilion with an eye-roll-worthy rotary press running anonymous baby faces. WE MUST FIGHT AGAINST TRANSPARENCE EVERY-WHERE, a banner proclaimed in Thomas Hirschhorn’s crystalline labyrinth at the Swiss pavilion. TRIUMPHANT SECRETIONS SCULPTED IN FOUL MIST DEHYDRATED SPECTRAL BIRTH . . . , began Steven Shearer’s verbose billboard raised above the Canadian pavilion. Everyone had something to get off their chest.
I spotted Maurizio Cattelan, Jean Pigozzi, and Francesco Bonami being followed around the grounds by a small Danish camera crew. As they walked, Cattelan trailed Bonami and ripped off black electrical tape to “slyly” make an anarchy sign on the back of the curator’s pale blue blazer. The Danes prodded Bonami: “Do you think the art world is open to unknown artists?” one asked as they passed Sigalit Landau at the Israeli pavilion.
“There is no such thing anymore as the ‘unknown artist,’ ” Bonami said with a flourish, disappearing in the direction of the British pavilion before I could hear him finish the thought. Welcome to the age of the known unknowns.
I poked around some more—Christoph Schlingensief’s ludicrous Fluxus cathedral for the German pavilion, with its Valie Export grannies and cardinal grannies flickering on screens, was one high point; Omer Fast’s video and Kerstin Brätsch/Das Institut’s installation in the Italian pavilion another. I ran into installers (the unknown knowns?) still making adjustments and Golden Lion jurist Christine Macel trying to keep up with her tribe. It seemed a bit early to be making calls.
After a couple more hours of snooping, I joined several colleagues on the terrace of the Biennale’s HQ, the fifteenth-century Ca’ Giustinian. “Well, I’m still alive,” said Curiger, somehow looking both pained and relieved. “But the making of the Biennale might be lost to history.” The night prior, her MacBook Air had slipped from under her arm and into the Grand Canal as she was boarding a boat, the neoprene sleeve acting “like a sponge.” She didn’t look convinced when I suggested (optimistically, I thought) that it gave her narrative pathos. (“Undocumented experience is life thrown down the lavatory!” a character admonishes in Nathaniel Mellor’s twisted video in the Italian pavilion. But at least the evidence of all that hard work is here.)
The next day was the first of several official “openings” for the Biennale. “Who needs other people when you can fuck your seat?” a prominent critic asked as we stood watching a gymnast wrap her body around a replica of a business-class airplane chair inside Allora & Calzadilla’s Olympics-inspired US pavilion. Outside, a crowd of press and curators hooted for the athletes who were assembled for a photo shoot behind an upside-down tank: “America! That’s America!” (Applause as pavilion curator Lisa Freiman posed campily with the squad captain.)
Venice is so often a send-up of its “classy,” historic self. Which is at least part of why it’s Francesco Vezzoli’s milieu, the context where, several years back, we finally “got” him, this art star who, like all good, resourceful stars, seems ambivalent about the getting.
We ran into the master charmer at Palazzo Grassi and he shuttled Eli and Edythe Broad, Dominique Lévy, Maria Bell, and soigné curator Caroline Corbetta to the Prada Foundation for a preview of its new Venetian exhibition space in the eighteenth-century pile Ca’ Corner della Regina. “I have to give a tour now,” he said, turning to me. “Don’t make fun.”
We wended through the building, which the foundation restored to glory in a brief five months. (The enamel on the handrails is still tacky.) “Can you believe the beauty of this? This installation?” Bell said. We stopped at Cattelan’s sculpture of an ostrich, its head buried in the floorboards. “Oh boy . . . ” Eli grinned.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” chuckled Edy.
“And here’s the grand finale,” Vezzoli said coyly at his installation, featuring a pair of busts: a rendition of the artist coquettishly admiring a replica of the Apollo Belvedere.
“You’re so beautiful!”
“But this will fade,” Vezzoli said, looking slightly overcast. “The statue remains, though. And they erased my wrinkles.”
“You’re teasing us!” someone squealed, poking at the barricade. “Let us in!”
After Vezzoli’s quick (“Ten more minutes, I promise!”) meeting with Rem Koolhaas, Miuccia Prada, and curator Germano Celant, we hitched a ride to the Enrico David installation at the Palazzetto Tito and then the preview for Anish Kapoor’s subtle Ascension at the Basilica di San Giorgio. “Anish, it’s a bust!” said MoMA PS1 board member Richard Chang, catching the spirals of smoke in one of its waning moments. “Just wait,” Kapoor told him. Then, seconds later: “Aha . . . ”
When I walked into the dinner for the US pavilion at the Cipriani that night, they were playing Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the USA” and Michael Stipe was leaving with RoseLee Goldberg and Klaus Biesenbach. I snacked on some eggplant parmesan while watching the gymnasts dance to the Clash and then Vezzoli picked me up (“I just want to be known as the columnist’s driver,” he implored sweetly) and dropped me off across the water at San Giorgio Maggiore, just south of where the Missonis had docked their boat. I removed my shoes and joined Sadie Coles and Angela Missoni’s dinner for Gabriel Kuri and Urs Fischer (two certainly knowns), finding that, alas, most of the guests were already repairing to other parties. So, shoes on, then another water taxi to the Bauer Hotel and past a done-up lady “going for some jet-lag rehab—ciao!” and then a quick walk (“Everyone gets just one ‘hello’ along the way!”) to the Bungalow 8 pop-up (don’t ask) in the Starck-ified Palazzina Grassi and Amy Sacco was yelling above the din, “Welcome to Venice!”
Oh boy . . .