Encyclopedic Knowledge

Kate Sutton around the opening of the 55th Venice Biennale

Left: Victoria Mikhelson and Venice Biennale artistic director Massimiliano Gioni. (Photo: Kate Sutton) Right: Artist Ragnar Kjartansson (left).

EVEN BEFORE THE FIRST BELLINIS could be served, this year’s Venice Biennale kicked off with a hangover. The S.S. Hangover, to be precise—a repurposed Icelandic sailing ship loaded with chamber musicians, the latest in Ragnar Kjartansson’s endurance-based performances. “When I first saw the boat, I thought it looked like something made by a set designer,” chuckled the artist. “It’s like a bastard of all the boats I could have wanted.” We stood on the lawn beside the Gaggiandre, the dock area outside the Arsenale where the work makes its rounds. At that early hour, 10 AM on Tuesday, I harbored high hopes that the biennial would offer a comparable love child—just the right amount of everything. I wasn’t disappointed.

This year, Venice may have lost its Charles Ray, but the biennial itself saw some welcome updates. Chief among them was the introduction of a sane and orderly Tuesday press preview, which meant relative calm in the Giardini, with manageable queues, artists breathing easily, and tote bags still available at every folding table.

I was a bit taken aback, then, to run into dealer Alexander Hertling and artist Neil Beloufa amid the crowd in front of the Central Pavilion. “I thought today was just for press?” Leery after reports of unreliable weather, some of us had gone out the door in our shabby-chic (and weather-friendly) reporter duds—hardly a match for a fleet of well-dressed dealers. “No, artists too,” Hertling corrected, as Mario Testino sailed by to double kiss a collector in the doorway.

Left: Artist Jeremy Deller. Right: Artists Lawrence Weiner and Sarah Sze.

Anything goes, I suppose, which was certainly the feel of this year’s main exhibition, “The Encyclopedic Palace,” curated by the New Museum’s Massimiliano Gioni. Rather than try to recap trends of the past two years, the exhibition finds inspiration in outsider artist Marino Auriti, who in 1955 took out a patent on an imaginary museum that could contain all manner of human endeavor. Following this conceit, Gioni has transformed the Central Pavilion into a “temporary museum” of knick-knacks, oddballs, and hermetic wonders, a disparate collection of works—from Levi Fisher Ames’s hand-carved creatures to critic Roger Caillois’s rock collections to Maria Lassnig’s electric-lemonade-edged “drastic paintings”—that share one thing: a kind of obsessive relation to the world. Some might complain that the “have your cake and eat it too” encyclopedia scenario enables a dicey slippage between museum and biennial curatorial strategies. But of course historical and structural promiscuity has its advantages—and not just for the curator.

The Central Pavilion was riveting from the get-go, with Achilles G. Rizzoli’s early-twentieth-century “symbolic sketches” of people-as-architecture juxtaposed with Jack Whitten’s bricolage memorial to 9/11. Further on, Ron Nagle’s marvelous Sleep Study ceramics (he makes them before going to bed) canoodle with collages by Geta Bratescu and a procession of lilting shiva linga paintings, anonymous works with tantric purposes. An outdoor garden is punctuated with Sarah Lucas’s sculptures, her puckered “Nuds” now cast in bronze, as evocative as ever, though now with more (literal) gravity. A Dorothea Tanning self-portrait of the artist on the edge of a precipice in Sedona, Arizona, is hung so that the abyss she faces is filled with Fischli & Weiss’s Suddenly This Overview, 1981–, a sprawling collection of witty clay sculptures illustrating phrases ranging from “Doctor Hoffmann on the first LSD trip” (a man on a bike) to “Mr and Mrs. Einstein, shortly after the conception of their son Albert” (a couple in a bed). The oldest works in the “Palace” were a set of intricate drawings from a Shaker community that had experienced visions, which they tried to record in what became known as “gift paintings.”

Left: French pavilion curator Christine Macel. Right: White Columns director Matthew Higgs, artist Anne Collier, and dealers Eva Presenhuber and Toby Webster in the British pavilion.

In the Arsenale, Gioni routed visitors through several gauntlets of photographs by the likes of J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere, Eliot Porter, and Christopher Williams (“He wasn’t kidding about that encyclopedia thing, was he?” a friend mused) before leading into works by Danh Vo, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, Albert Oehlen, and R. Crumb, whose sprawling Book of Genesis appears in full. This was all capped by a new three-thousand-square-foot installation by Ryan Trecartin, a section guest-curated by Cindy Sherman, and a pseudoretrospective of Stan VanDerBeek (via his own “encyclopedic” Movie Mural).

In the Giardini, architecture itself seemed the theme of the day, with Sarah Sze dissolving the bounds between indoors and out with her expansive installation Triple Point at the US pavilion, and Simryn Gill removing the roof altogether from the Australian digs. The Georgian pavilion looked a little Swiss Family Robinshvili, a treehouse tacked onto an older building, but, as artists Sergei Tcherepnin and Gela Patashuri explained, this type of parasitic “kamikaze loggia” is a relatively common feature in Tbilisi. In the Israeli pavilion, a giant hole in the floor marks the “tunnel” used by the long-distance spelunkers of Gilad Ratman’s The Workshop, who leave behind crude clay portraits as proof of their passage. Korean curator Seungduk Kim wanted the country’s artist to feature the pavilion, rather than the other way around. Accordingly, Kimsooja’s To Breathe covered the walls and floor in reflective paneling, drawing attention to the building itself. Visitors removed their shoes and went one by one into a sensory deprivation chamber. An intoxicating experience to be sure, but the combined odor of all that calle-cruising had me wishing for a more sustained olfactory deprivation.

France and Germany swapped pavilions this year, allowing Christine Macel’s installation of a stunning Anri Sala video to take full advantage of the borrowed building’s height. Germany, meanwhile, thematized the shake-up, expanding the concept of “nation” by importing four non-German-born artists, including Ai Weiwei. Meanwhile, at the British pavilion, Jeremy Deller unleashed some English Magic, featuring, among other engagé works, a mural resurrecting Victorian socialist and aesthete William Morris so he could shuck Roman Abramovich’s yacht Luna—infamous for ruining the vista at the last Biennale—into the Grand Canal. Narratives collide in a film playing in the back room, where viewers watched from a seat on an overturned car. “I haven’t seen anything yet,” Gioni moaned, edging closer to the video monitor. He paused, in obvious thought: “You know, that would actually make for a good show title.”

Left: Artist Urs Fischer and dealer Sadie Coles. Right: Dealer Alexander Hertling and artist Neil Beloufa. (Photos: Kate Sutton)

Show titles made up the substance of the Romanian pavilion across the bridge, where artists Alexandra Pirici and Manuel Pelmus used Tino Sehgal–tested tactics to present An Immaterial Retrospective of the Venice Biennale, which retold pivotal moments of the exhibition’s history through choreographed miming with what, at first, seemed incidental audience members. I walked in on David Lamelas’s Office of Information. “There was a desk,” the narrator announces, as one performer gets on his hands and knees. “And a window,” the narrator continues, spurring a second figure to flatten himself into a more or less convincing pane. Next door, crowds recollect their own highlights while waiting for Konrad Smoleński’s bells to ring (every hour on the hour) at the Polish pavilion.

The waning crowds and peeling bells reminded me of other, “collateral” commitments. So then it was off to the Palazzo Pisani Moretta for a lavish dinner in honor of Gioni, cohosted by the New Museum, Lietta and Dakis Joannou, Beatrice Trussardi, and Leonid Mikhelson, who presented the man of the week with a photo from an ice-fishing expedition in Russia. “I hooked two fish at once,” the curator beamed. “I don’t know how or what it means, but I did it.” Later on, New Museum director Lisa Phillips stood up to give a toast: “Massimiliano has raised the bar, not only for biennials, but for museums as well.” Gioni ducked under his napkin in embarrassment, then countered with a toast of his own. Pulling out a set of cards (“I know I’m supposed to be the youngest director, but I’m already losing my memory”), Gioni graciously thanked those who have stood by him: “There is this quote I like about how art is exercise to learn the things you can’t understand. Let’s just say, the New Museum has been my gym.”

As everyone turned back to their risotto, Dakis Joannou stood to give the last word: “Massimiliano, Lisa said you reinvented fire. The problem now is that you’ve set us all on fire too.”

Left: At the Romanian pavilion. (Photo: Kate Sutton) Right: Artist Helen Marten (left).

Left: Julie Abdessemed and Adel Abdessemed. Right: Milla Jovovich performs. (Photos: Kate Sutton)

Left: The Georgian pavilion. Right: Ei Arakawa and Sergei Tcherepnin work on the Georgian pavilion.

Left: Artist Jesper Just at the Danish pavilion. Right: Artist Valentin Carron with collector Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Swiss pavilion curator Giovanni Carmine, and Eugenio Re Rebaudengo.

Left: Artist Vadim Zakharov at the Russian pavilion. Right: Artist Terike Haapoja at the Nordic pavilion.

Left: Artist Akram Zaatari with dealer Andrée Sfeir-Semler. Right: Art historian Claire Bishop with Portuguese pavilion curator Miguel Amado.