It’s Reigning Men

David Velasco at the opening of the Venice Biennale


Left: Artist Georges Adéagbo. Right: LA MoCA chief curator Paul Schimmel with artist Hernan Bas.

I ARRIVED IN VENICE late Monday night for Daniel Birnbaum’s Biennale and boarded what felt like the last vaporetto from Ferrovia. Destination: San Zaccharia and a predictably cramped and overpriced hotel. Leafing through my 2007 tourist guide for directions, I noticed a then-speculative news brief in the “Dorsoduro” chapter titled “Pinault in the Punta?” I briefly considered the tediously lubricious undertones. It seemed a bit tasteless on the book’s part, until I realized I was thinking in Spanish slang, not Italian. Still, François Pinault is indeed “in the Punta” this year, meaning the Punta della Dogana, which Tadao Ando has overhauled to accommodate the collector’s swelling art collection. My newfound faith in the guide’s prescience was only tempered by my skepticism over its current usefulness. Thankfully, change is anathema to Venice.

Bumming around the Giardini on Tuesday, the day before the first invitational preview, I found that few of the pavilions were accessible or even finished. (Some weren’t quite done by Wednesday, either. On Thursday, it seemed Guyton\Walker added a whole new component to the lobby of the newly coined Palazzo delle Esposizioni. I’m only half-willing to commit to the pun here on “installation art.”) Pinault, flanked by cool curators Alison Gingeras and Francesco Bonami, was one of the very few enjoying a private stroll through the park. From all appearances, he got a kick out of his early walk-through of Elmgreen & Dragset’s already much-buzzed-about Danish and Nordic pavilions. The winsome and expensive-looking show, titled “The Collectors,” is something of a camp satire on the market and its protagonists. (A friend jovially recalled the Ab Fab episode in which Edina sublimates her fear of dying by buying a bunch of art.) Most of the rest of the buildings were blockaded by art handlers and press teams preparing for the onslaught. “Countries with populations of over seven million won’t let anyone in this early,” said Liam Gillick, the New York– and London-based British artist who’s incongruously representing the German pavilion. “It’s a symptom of some sort of postcolonial imperialist anxiety, I’m sure.”

Left: Elmgreen & Dragset's real-estate guide. Right: Yvonne Force Villareal.

There wasn’t much more to see, so I walked across the bridge to the Accademia for a preview of Renzo Piano’s new additions to the Fondazione Vedova, then moved on to a buffet dinner hosted by art pranksters Piero Golia and Fabian Marta at the Spazio Culturale Svizzero, followed by a Galleria Continua afterparty at the popular pile Palazzo Pisani Moretta. The vibe was a bit weddingish, with well-heeled older Italian women grinding to Motown and disco classics. All told, a relatively low-key night.

I headed back to the Giardini at 10 AM the next day, when the first round of “professional previews” commenced. There seemed to be far fewer visitors this year—or at least recognizable ones. “I’ve only seen four people I want to avoid since I arrived,” noted curator Bob Nickas. Perhaps it’s true that, as one New York dealer buoyantly put it, “The recession has made VIP VIP again.” One heard more Italian on the boulevards, saw fewer Americans at events. Naomi Campbell was indeed in town (attending a Cipriani luncheon under the banner “MoCA New” with Eli Broad and museum trustee John Baldessari), but she seemed less ubiquitous than 2007. Didn’t see her once around the Giardini—not even for a photo op.

Left: Artist Sandra Hamburg, dealer Christine Kim, and MoMA associate curator Christian Rattemeyer. Right: Curator Sir Norman Rosenthal with daughter.

Unlike the last edition, when Tracey Emin, Sophie Calle, and Isa Genzken ruled three of the major pavilions, this year marks the return of the alpha male. The larger nations have all given the reins to men, a situation hardly leavened by the various collateral events. (One exception might be the new UAE pavilion, which is fronted by the stylish young photographer Lamya Gargash.) Gillick tackled the ever-difficult Albert Speer–designed German pavilion with IKEA modernism suffused with Theory. There was something to do with his cat and R. Kelly’s “Sex in the Kitchen,” though I didn’t quite catch the details. (“Some have complained about the choice,” Süddeutsche Zeitung critic Holger Liebs noted later, “but Gillick’s perhaps more German than the Germans.”) Gillick said that after much contemplation he’d decided to “embrace weakness” and leave the pavilion itself untouched. Across the path, Claude Lévêque did precisely the opposite with the French pavilion, disguising the architectural flourishes with stark, mute walls and transforming the Belle Époque building into an ambivalent, eschatological allegory (blowing black flags, claustrophobic prison bars, air conditioning turned up to a bitter chill). “I hated the Rococo architecture,” sneered the refreshingly thuggish-looking Lévêque, standing before his sparkly silver walls. His curator, Christian Bernard, was more upbeat: “Lévêque sought to seize the pavilion in a single gesture.”

Meanwhile, Bruce Nauman’s American pavilion around the corner sticks out like a sore thumb—aesthetically coarse in Nauman’s usual charming way and filled largely with heady (and hand-y) sculptures and videos from the mid-1990s. (Two attendant off-site projects were more tantalizing, though it seemed few had made it to see them.) To some, though, it was an unexpected selection of pieces. “You’ll have to ask Carlos,” Nauman shrugged, deferring to the American-pavilion curator Carlos Basualdo when pressed to discuss the show. “He chose the works.”

Left: Hayward Gallery director Ralph Rugoff (left) and Suzanne Pagé, director of the Louis Vuitton Foundation for Creation. Right: Artist Sarah Morris.

The two apparent favorites—certainly the slickest—were Steve McQueen’s moody film Giardini for the British pavilion and the Danish and Nordic pavilions. (Sturtevant went against the grain as usual and picked Lévêque.) In what some considered an almost fascistic act of bureaucratic procedure, the Brits required prospective viewers to commit to prescheduled time slots. As we stood loitering outside the adjacent German pavilion, I reassured Michael Craig-Martin that it was a mere thirty minutes. “Half an hour?” he asked, blooming into exaggerated outrage. “That’s a lifetime.”

At the center of it all is Birnbaum’s smartly textured exhibition, “Making Worlds,” at the Padiglione Italia. (Some found the focus on globalism a bit too polite. “‘Making Friends’ is more like it,” one critic was overheard to say.) “I’ve done it before, so I knew what I was up against,” he noted, referring to his stint in 2003 as cocurator, with Bonami, of the then Italian Pavilion. The initial stretch, which featured three younger artists, could be considered something of a risk, though each carried a certain imprimatur. Guyton\Walker (Artforum covers), Tomás Saraceno (Walker solo show), and Nathalie Djurberg (Fondazione Prada beloved) form a chain leading into the pavilion’s heart. Beyond, there’s a melancholic atmosphere, with the show hosting a bevy of artists who didn’t live to reap their just rewards: Öyvind Fahlström, Gordon Matta-Clark, Blinky Palermo, André Cadere—the last of the bunch used to sneak his colorful sticks into exhibitions, guerrilla-style; now, postmortem, he’s there officially. Cruel irony.

Left: Jason and Michelle Rubell (left). Right: Dealer Emi Fontana.

The Elmgreen and Dragset dinner was about to begin in the extravagant Palazzo Contarini Polignac, again on the Accademia. According to the seating labels, Tate Modern curator Stuart Comer was to sit between Kim Cattrall and “Mr. Sturtevant,” though neither guest was able to attend. (Apparently, James Franco was sick with the flu in New York; Michael Stipe had to bail, too, which cleared up a few seats.) We entertained ourselves by rehearsing their prospective conversation. Would Sturtevant ask Cattrall to fake an orgasm? There was no trouble filling the seats. I couldn’t make out all the faces at the other end of the two l-o-o-ng tables, but there were more than a few of the usual troublemakers among those I could see: artists Maurizio Cattelan and Terence Koh; curators Paul Schimmel and Massimiliano Gioni; Yvonne Force-Villareal and Doreen Remen; dealers Victoria Miro, Emmanuel Perrotin, and Massimo De Carlo; Beatrice Trussardi of the Fondazione Trussardi; and, of course, the Rubells. “It looks like a Buñuel film,” said MAMbo curator Andrea Villani, peering down one of the candlelit tables. “I can’t believe so many people showed up for our wedding,” Michael Elmgreen announced, camping it up. Everyone left in good spirits, speed-walking first to the McQueen party at (again) Pisani Moretta before taking water taxis to a vaguely debauched affair at the Bauer hosted by Koh, Stefano Tonchi, and David Maupin. Everyone knew they would see each other again at the next party. I left without saying good-bye.

Left: Artist Paul Ramírez Jonas. Right: Artist Dorit Margreiter.

Left: Dealers Rachel and Jean-Pierre Lehmann. Right: Artist William E. Jones.

Left: Whitney Biennial cocurator Gary Carrion-Murayari with Whitney director Adam Weinberg. Right: LA MoCA curator Alma Ruiz with artist Dario Escobar.

Left: Artist Miwa Yanagi. Right: Artist Elke Krystufek.

Left: Venice Biennale curator Daniel Birnbaum. Right: Artist Steve McQueen. (All photos: Ryan McNamara)

Left: Artist Shaun Gladwell. Right: Artist Krzysztof Wodiczko.

Left: Serpentine director Julia Peyton-Jones with Serpentine international codirector of exhibitions Hans Ulrich Obrist. Right: Writer Sarah Thornton with artist Maurizio Cattelan.

Left: Dealer Carol Greene, artist Paul Chan, collector Dakis Joannou, and dealer Jeffrey Deitch. Right: New Museum chief curator Richard Flood.

Left: Artist Fiona Tan. Right: Gagosian's Louise Neri with curator Okwui Enwezor.

Left: Artist Wolfgang Tillmans and dealer Maureen Paley. Right: Artist Jane Rosenblum and P.S. 1 founder Alanna Heiss.

Left: Dealer Stefania Bortolami and Whitney curator Shamim Momin. Right: Artist Michael Craig-Martin.

Left: Whitney Contemporaries founder Lisa Anastos, dealer Meredith Darrow, curator Cay Sophie Rabinowitz, collector Vanessa Arelle de Peters, and Art Production Fund's Doreen Remen and Yvonne Force Villareal. Right: Artist Sturtevant (left).

Left: Artist Michelangelo Pistoletto. Right: Studio Museum director Thelma Golden with New Museum director Lisa Phillips.

Left: Artist Claude Lévêque. Right: Dealer Jay Jopling.

Left: Artist Bruce Nauman. Right: Dealers Eva Presenhuber and Esther Schipper with Liam Gillick.

Left: Artists Liam Gillick and John Baldessari. Right: Artists Ingar Dragset and Michael Elmgreen.