Merchants in Venice


Left: Venice Biennale curator Robert Storr. (Photo: Sarah Thornton) Right: Artist David Altmejd with dealer Andrea Rosen. (Photo: Ryan McNamara)

When does the Venice Biennale experience begin? On a plane full of familiar art-world faces? As one views a Whistler-esque nocturne from the rooftop terrace of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection or walks up the Giardini’s historic, tree-lined Viale Harald Szeemann? Perhaps it’s when one forgets the crowd and finally feels the joy of being overwhelmed by a work of art? There are at least seven circles to the oldest, most anxiety-ridden biennale. The trick is not to worry about whether you’re in or out of any of them.

This year, for the first time, two “pavilions,” both curated by the Guggenheim’s petite powerhouse intellectual Nancy Spector, are flying the American flag. Tuesday night saw the opening of the first, unofficial entry—Matthew Barney and Joseph Beuys’s “All in the Present Must Be Transformed” at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. Since Guggenheim died in 1979, the museum has not dared to deinstall the collection in the summer, but on this occasion no one seemed to care that the move might have violated the difficult terms of the dame’s will. In the words of one official, “reinterpretations” are necessary for “imaginative programming.” And it is imaginative: A drawing-lined corridor is the backbone to an eight-room installation in which both artists’ sculptures burst out of their domestic frames like aliens in a 1970s sci-fi film. Later, at the white-tablecloth dinner held in the garden courtyard, guests were divided between those hot for Barney’s Field Dressing (from the artist’s 1989 Yale degree show) and those keen on Beuys’s Honey Pump.

Wednesday morning was overcast. At 10 AM, the gates of the Giardini admitted holders of coveted VIP passes. No stampede, just a steady flow of cotton and linen in comfortable shoes. I headed straight for the so-called Italian pavilion, curated by Robert Storr, where rooms by mature white guys like Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, and Bruce Nauman were self-consciously offset by spaces devoted to Nancy Spero, Kara Walker, and Steve McQueen. Early-bird shoppers (like François Pinault), wisecracking curators (everyone’s favorite, Richard Flood), and even the Biennale's director himself roamed the pavilion. Storr was meandering quietly on his own in a panama hat and beige jacket, as if on safari in his own show. In preparing his exhibition, Storr was careful to distinguish between the “zeitgeist” and the “present tense,” explaining that “the present tense doesn’t pretend to forebode.” About his exhibition, the clearheaded Yale professor explained: “It’s not about masterpiece displays. It’s about creating texture out of art, against which art can make more sense and mean more.” Storr has no desire to be a star, impresario curator. “If you do it well and you do it right, curating is an honorable profession, but I don’t strategically seek to enhance my . . . Anyway, I figure I’m due for a good bruising. It’s the way the art world works.”

Left: Artist Kristin Baker, collector François Pinault, and Palazzo Grassi curator Alison Gingeras. (Photo: David Velasco) Right: American commissioner Nancy Spector. (Photo: Ryan McNamara)

After the Italian pavilion, I walked through the Giardini’s Disneyland-like anthology of world architecture—past the folkloric Hungarian pavilion, the Rietveld-designed Dutch structure, the Russian mini-Kremlin—up the symbolic incline to the triumvirate of the British, French, and German pavilions, now showcasing the three graces, Tracey Emin, Sophie Calle, and Isa Genzken. The UK pavilion is a parody of British Palladian architecture, the French is a mini-Versailles, while the German is a Nazi wonder designed by none other than Albert Speer. Not wanting to accept that architectural legacy, Genzken cloaked her pavilion in bright-orange-netted scaffold that made the building appear to be under repair.

Tracey Emin’s show took its title from an English-heritage paint color called Borrowed Light. The raving-fragile, jolie-laide expressionist delivered her spread-legged drawings and confessional neons with the humor and media-savvy theatricality that one has come to expect. Apparently, Julian Schnabel, who Emin told me was her “only artist friend in America,” jetted in to help fine-tune the installation. He made it “less polite, more rude.” About representing the UK, she said it was “nationalism on a sweet, lovely level.” A few UK newspapers, however, were bothered that the British Council commissioner chose Emin against the wishes of the distinguished committee, something that surprised few insiders, as Emin is not the kind of artist who gets unanimous votes.

As I was leaving the pavilion with its giveaway goods, I bumped into Anish Kapoor, whose own 1990 pavilion was the first to issue the now de rigueur tote bags. It began to rain as we chatted, so Kapoor rummaged in his recently acquired tote and pulled out a white hat embroidered in pink with the words ALWAYS WANTING YOU . . . LOVE TRACE X. He punched his fist into the hat and put it onto his head inside out.

Left: Artist Sophie Calle. (Photo: Sarah Thornton) Right: Artists Lisa Ruyter and Matthew Barney. (Photo: David Velasco)

Tucked away behind the British building like a colonial embarrassment is the Canadian pavilion. Artists are often defeated by this notoriously difficult tepeelike venue, so it was a surprise to enter the mirror-clad wonderland created by David Altmejd. The thirty-two-year-old French-Canadian artist had mastered the space by creating a woodland-boutique environment full of business birdmen, phallic fungi, and a laid-back giant. One lost one’s bearings amid the mirrored walls. I couldn’t help but share the secret pride of being Canadian with Altmejd’s dealer, Andrea Rosen, who hails from Kingston, Ontario.

It was a special day for Rosen. Not only was there a long and not-entirely-orderly queue of collectors (including Greek tycoon Dakis Joannou) vying to buy Altmejd’s work, but the late Felix Gonzalez-Torres (the artist featured in her gallery’s inaugural show, in 1990) was being celebrated down the pebbled path at the American pavilion. When I found Spector, the pavilion’s curator, dressed in the black and silver palette of the exhibition and basking in the warm glow of a lightbulb work called “Untitled” (America), I asked her about the Cuban-born artist’s attitude toward national representations. “Felix embraced the ideal of being an American citizen,” she said. “And he was critical of things that didn’t live up to that democratic ideal.”

Having had enough of G8 countries, I jumped into a water taxi and raced up the Grand Canal to the privately funded Ukrainian pavilion, housed in the fading grandeur of the Palazzo Papadopoli. Its curator, Peter Doroshenko, faced with the problem of drawing attention to the artists of a country better known for exporting vodka, steel, and supermodels, decided on a mix of four Ukrainian and four relatively high-profile Western artists. Doroshenko’s conceptualization of the “branding” of the newish nation was as much pragmatic marketing as high-minded argument. But I’m inclined to agree with an honorary Ukrainian, British artist Mark Titchner, who told me, “The problems of representing another country are as numerous as representing your own.”

Sarah Thornton

Left: Dealer Jeffrey Deitch with collector Dakis Joannou. (Photo: Ryan McNamara) Right: Sydney Biennale board member Amanda Love and artist Tracey Emin. (Photo: David Velasco)

Left: Artist Steve McQueen and Bianca Stigter. (Photo: David Velasco) Right: Dealer Stuart Shave. (Photo: Ryan McNamara)

Left: Curator Chrissie Iles. (Photo: David Velasco) Right: Artist Sigmar Polke. (Photo: Jason Hendeles)

Left: Artist Christian Jankowski. (Photo: David Velasco) Right: Artist Anish Kapoor. (Photo: Ryan McNamara)

Left: Artist Juergen Teller. (Photo: David Velasco) Right: Anna Baldessari and artist John Baldessari. (Photo: Ryan McNamara)

Left: Serpentine codirector of exhibitions Hans-Ulrich Obrist. (Photo: Ryan McNamara) Right: Whitney chief curator Donna De Salvo. (Photo: David Velasco)

Left: Artist Lawrence Weiner. (Photo: David Velasco) Right: Artist Kara Walker. (Photo: Sarah Thornton)

Left: Artist Monika Sosnowska, representing Poland. Right: Artist Masao Okabe, representing Japan. (Photos: Ryan McNamara)

Left: Artist Andrey Bartenev, representing Russia. (Photo: Ryan McNamara) Right: Olivier Garbay and artist Sarah Lucas. (Photo: Sarah Thornton)

Left: Artist Christine Streuli, representing Switzerland. (Photo: Ryan McNamara) Right: Dealer Irit Sommer with artist Yehudit Sasportas (representing Israel) and Eigen + Art's Judy Lybke. (Photo: Sarah Thornton)