Opening Ceremonies

Kate Sutton on “Argumenta” and Commercial Break at the Venice Biennale

Left: Elton John with artist Nicolae Mircea. (Photo: Sergei Illin/Pinchuk Art Centre) Right: The crowd outside “Argumenta.” (Photo: Kate Sutton)

THE VENICE BIENNALE may be frequently deemed the Olympics of Art, but one sometimes forgets the workout it provides during the preview, when one finds oneself propelled through three days of palazzo-hopping on a diet of “O”s: prosecco, espresso, and gelato. On Thursday, my first prosecco of the day was at the opening of the Montenegro pavilion, which doubled as a breakfast reception for the Marina Abramović Community Obod. “The thing I love about the name is that it puts the emphasis on community,” curator Svetlana Racanovic ventured. Does it now? Abramović clarified: “It’s not that I want to see my name everywhere, but I understand its power as a brand. When people see it, they know they aren’t getting sculptures, they aren’t getting paintings—it’s about performance.”

Next up was a quick spin around the “TRA” exhibition at Museo Fortuny and then, alas, a longer spin around San Samuele, searching for the vaporetto stop that would take me directly across the water to the Palazzo Papadopoli for the Pinchuk Art Centre’s Future Generation Art Prize. The works of the nineteen finalists—including laureates Cinthia Marcelle and Nicolae Mircea—were lusciously installed throughout, beginning with Katerina Sedá’s whimsical tea party in the front garden, where she served visitors sweets while they stood waist-deep in holes in the ground.

In addition to advocating for emerging artists, Victor Pinchuk has become something of an ambassador for Ukrainian pop music. I cornered him briefly to gush about last Biennale’s concert by the inimitable Verka Serduchka, Russia’s first drag superstar. “The problem is, everyone remembers the party, but no one ever remembers the performer’s name,” he shook his head with a smile. “We’ll try to change that this year.” Before he could elaborate, we were interrupted by the announcement that Elton John had arrived. (People didn’t seem to have much trouble remembering his name as he chatted with nominees Rubens Ochoa, Nico Vascellari, and Nicholas Hlobo.)

Left: Artist Nicholas Hlobo. (Photo: Kate Sutton) Right: Gelitin performance in the Arsenale.

Now in the mood for cabaret, I vaporettoed back to the Giardini for Nils Bech’s performance, part of the program of events taking place in and around Oscar Tuazon’s “para-pavilion,” a fresh feature Bice Curiger has introduced into the Biennale. Over at the back end of the Arsenale, artist Loris Gréaud had beached his “Gepetto Pavilion,” an enormous sculpture that offered volunteers the chance to spend twenty-four hours in the belly of a whale. The artist showed me around the all-white interior, sparsely outfitted with a bed, water tank, toilet, and a terrarium with a live cricket. “Wouldn’t you go crazy in there?” I wondered, feeling my heart beat faster the minute the door clicked behind us. “I’m not sure,” the artist confessed, before motioning to his studio manager. “But he spent twenty-six hours here once.” The assistant nodded weakly to confirm. “I talked to the cricket.”

Back outside, I traded whales and crickets for rats. Impresario Vito Schnabel, continuing his quest for art-world domination, had secured Sestiere di Castello, a marvelous palazzo around the corner from the Arsenale. Hans Ulrich Obrist, Klaus Biesenbach, and Schnabel père lined the stately inner courtyard, silently regarding Terence Koh, who was lying prostrate in the center, his face suspended over a well for his performance Telling It like It Is. Behind was a sprawling lawn speckled with chill-out zones, picnic blankets, and—naturally—giant inflatable rats (part of Bruce High Quality Foundation’s “Argumenta”). “We’ve been coming here every day,” one of the members of the collective mused. “Just hanging out, playing pickup soccer. It’s amazing how you can forget there’s a Biennale.”

In that moment, I almost did. I was snapped from my reveries, though, by the PR girl, who tramped through the field squawking at the picnickers. “Guys, Terence is leaving now! Come see him go! He’s been there for ten hours—tennn hours!” (Telling it like it is?)

Left: Artist John Giorno. (Photo: Andy Guzzonatto) Right: Artist Oscar Tuazon with dealer Daniele Balice. (Photo: Kate Sutton)

Dashing through exhibitions by Corban Walker and Anton Ginzburg, I arrived at the honeysuckled garden of Palazzo Zen ai Frari for the Hugo Boss dinner. An outburst of rain brought guests including Indianapolis Museum of Art curator Lisa Freiman, Charlotte Sarkozy, and Oleg Baibakov to seek shelter alongside the most elaborate buffet I saw all week. (“Oh, I remember vegetables . . . !” one guest proclaimed, with a triumphant scoop of zucchini.)

Another prosecco down, I returned to Pinchuk for follow-up festivities, where Jeff Koons, Christian Jankowski, and dealer Mollie Dent-Brocklehurst watched the crowd baffled by the Delphic cheerleader/Ukrainian pop phenom Jamila. Dealer Pamela Echeverria and artist Héctor Zamora swore that the headlining Brazilian samba band (whose name I conveniently forgot) was “absolutely not to be missed,” but alas, that was the word on every event that night—particularly the next two on my agenda.

You know a party will be ridiculous when people begin circulating tactical disinvite emails, but no one anticipated the brutality of the scene at the Bauer Hotel, where Dasha Zhukova, Alexander Dellal, and Neville Wakefield were hosting a party in honor of “Commercial Break,” an exhibition of over 130 artists that originally touted a “giant mobile video screen traveling the length of the Grand Canal.” It turned out to be slightly less of a “conspicuous intervention” than the press release promised: In an eerie foreshadowing of future Biennales, the video-barge idea was nixed and the “pavilion for this century” was reconceived as purely an iPad app.

Perhaps the party would have been better experienced virtually as well. Outside the hotel, a mob flocked like moths to the glow of the iPad guest list. Not that being on the list meant much. “Excuse me, I think there is a misunderstanding,” one particularly distinguished guest began. “I’m—”

“They all are,” said the security guard, shoving him to the side.

Left: Artist Terence Koh. (Photo: Kate Sutton) Right: Jacqueline Anderson and Indianapolis Museum of Art director Maxwell Anderson. (Photo: Andy Guzzonatto)

Past the first doors, we found ourselves somewhat magically in the midst of a John Giorno reading, an unrelated event somehow sandwiched between the PR checkpoints. Revived, we rallied around the next set of doors, where guests pushed their faces against both sides of the glass, pointing in vain at stranded companions. Once past the second ring, the frenzied push for what turned out to be straight Beluga in a cocktail glass and yet another VIP zone would have rendered the situation truly comical, but for the aftertaste of the manhandling at the door. When the security guards at last consented to open the door to let me out, they warned I couldn’t come back. Grazie mille.

Having had more Bauer than I could bear for one evening, I began the trek to Piccolo Mondo for the Gavin Brown/Balice Hertling/Gio Marconi/Herald St. bash. Between the two parties, I got swept up in the massive crowd spilling out of the Giglio bar. Turns out Piccolo Mondo was nearly impossible to get into as well (no small wonder when the roster of hosts alone already exceeded the venue’s tiny capacity).

I cast a wary eye at the lines for drinks at Giglio, spotting artists Wade Guyton, Andro Wekua, and Trisha Donnelly edging to the purportedly closed bar across the piazza. “They’ll still serve us!” Guyton called back. “But they don’t have any ice.” “Va bene,” curator Massimiliano Gioni beamed. “We’ll make our own Piccolo Mondo!”

Left: Artist Anton Ginzburg. Right: Artist Sigalit Landau and dealer Kamel Mennour. (Photos: Kate Sutton)

Another bottle of prosecco down, I decided to try my luck at the real Piccolo Mondo while others left in search of the Bjarne Melgaard “sex party.” It was already 3 AM, but the door was still jammed. “Sir, you don’t know us, but we’re actually very popular,” pleaded the rock-star ingenue pressed against my back. I was only saved by the “conspicuous intervention” of cohost Alexander Hertling. “It’s very important she get in, because . . . ” He paused, fumbling for a reason before blurting out, “She’s my wife!” Maybe not the most appropriate alibi for a club known as the place to pick up sailors, but it worked better than “very popular.”

A spatter of green LED lights swirled over the dance floor, where I squeezed past dealers Darren Flook, Max Wigram, Sylvia Kouvali, and Bridget Donaghue. The Joy Division–laced set list made it all feel like a 1980s music video. “Weird listening to the Cure in Venice,” dealer Eivind Furnesvik observed. “It’s like, can this city get any gloomier?” He paused to reconsider. “Though it’s probably very educational for the city.”

By then, I was past the point of education. What’s more, another grueling workout lay ahead—kicking off with the Paris Triennale breakfast and ending (as if days in Venice ever ended) with Le Baron’s last-minute bash at B Bar. Maybe time for that espresso?

Left: Artist Cyprien Gaillard and Salem's Jack Donoghue. (Photo: Andy Guzzonatto) Right: Artist Loris Gréaud. (Photo: Kate Sutton)

Left: Art Production Fund cofounders Yvonne Force Villareal and Doreen Remen. (Photo: Andy Guzzonatto) Right: Artist Nils Bech. (Photo: Kate Sutton)

Left: Collectors Oleg Baibakov and Victor Pinchuk. (Photo: Andy Guzzonatto) Right: Curator Vito Schnabel. (Photo: Kate Sutton)

Left: Cristina Elisabet Fernández de Kirchner, president of Argentina. Right: New Museum curator Eungie Joo and artist Adrián Villar Rojas. (Photos: Andy Guzzonatto)

Left: Susanne Gaensheimer, curator of the German pavilion. Right: Artist Marta Minujín. (Photos: Andy Guzzonatto)