Dogana Days

Linda Yablonsky around the 53rd Venice Biennale


Left: Curator Alison Gingeras with artists Rob Pruitt and Jonathan Horowitz. Right: Miuccia Prada. (Except where noted, all photos: Linda Yablonsky)

ANYONE VISITING VENICE will tell you that La Serenissima is a hypnotic place. That may be because it has a native population whose average age is fifty and who is willing to change only when forced. Never mind the muscle-flexing water-taxi drivers. The pace of life is so unhurried that there is little profit in rushing from place to place when an interminable ride on a sardine-packed vaporetto will get you there, too. Someday.

Local custom, however, does not explain why the fifty-third edition of the Venice Biennale should provide so lethargic an experience of contemporary art. Lines at the American, French, Romanian, Danish, and Nordic pavilions may have been long during previews last week, but most old dogs on the beat felt more compelled to scavenge invitations for collateral events the way greyhounds do for scraps in Giardini, Steve McQueen’s restricted-access nature film at the British pavilion. My own visit began last Thursday with a buffet lunch for 150 on the terrace of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection hosted by Arts Council Korea and Eungie Joo, the New Museum curator who organized the venetian-blind intervention at the Korean pavilion, “Condensation: Haegue Yang.” It attracted an international mix of people whose competing relationships often make for better exhibitions than does much of the art they represent.

Left: Dealer Andrew Freiser, artist John Wesley, and dealer Jessica Fredericks. Right: Artist Cerith Wyn Evans.

Tables here were like islands in the lagoon, only divided by affiliation instead of water––half Korean, half American. As Joo shepherded Yang through a sunny crowd, New Museum–identified guests like Richard Flood, Lisa Phillips, and Stephanie French sat near one another while Studio Museum chief Thelma Golden shared a table with her London-based fashion-designer husband, Duro Olowu, artists Glenn Ligon and Isaac Julien, and dealer Shaun Caley Regen.

When this started feeling too much like home, I hopped a boat to Daniel Birnbaum’s “Making Worlds” and was still outside the cavernous Arsenale section when I spotted Robert Storr, director of the 52nd Biennale, sitting at a café beside artist Joan Jonas, with whom he was about to give a talk. Massimiliano Gioni picked the same spot to meet Nathalie Djurberg for their talk a bit later. It was tempting to stay and keep trading views on the art, but not five minutes into the exhibition hall I found a Stetson-topped Jeffrey Deitch promoting Miranda July’s Eleven Heavy Things, an installation on a distant lawn.

Left: Artist Joan Jonas with curator Rob Storr. Right: Editor Tina Brown.

Whitney curator Shamim Momin was lounging among friends on a hillock watching Kunsthalle Zurich director Beatrix Ruf pose for photographs at each of July’s sculptures, white cast-fiberglass adaptations of the sort of carnival cutouts where people put their heads on painted outsize bodies and have their pictures taken. July’s versions have captions like THIS IS NOT THE FIRST HOLE MY FINGER HAS BEEN IN.

“I make films and write stories,” July said, “but this way people can come and take their pictures with my work and send it around the world on the Internet. Isn’t that great?” Possibly, but mostly because it was less full of itself than the “private” reception for several hundred inaugurating the seventeenth-century customs house known as the Punta della Dogana, one of two semiprivate museums showing off François Pinault’s empire of trophy art in Venice.

Left: New Museum curator Massimiliano Gioni with artist Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg. Right: Curator Francesco Bonami.

The building, ingeniously renovated as an art space by architect Tadao Ando, sits on the point of an island facing the Bay of San Marco, opposite the celebrity-burdened hotel, Il Palazzo. The sunset event was really just a name-dropping opportunity that attracted everyone of importance in Pinault’s several companies, which include Gucci Group and Christie’s. So Naomi Campbell was probably required to be there, as was Stella McCartney, Amy Cappellazzo, and other high-ranking employees who sipped prosecco and took hits of a scrumptious seafood risotto before swanning into the building to see “Mapping the Studio,” a two-part exhibition curated by Alison Gingeras and Francesco Bonami. (The better half is in Pinault’s Palazzo Grassi, a few sweaty vaporetto stops up the Grand Canal.)

“This is like an evening sale at Christie’s,” observed Gavin Brown, gazing at a crowd that included the former empress of Iran Farah Diba, Marc Jacobs, a few Fendis, Lord and Lady Linley, and playwright John Guare with American Academy in Rome president Adele Chatfield-Taylor. American collectors joined Italian, French, and the odd Russian and every dealer Pinault had ever overpaid for an artwork: Larry Gagosian, Jay Jopling, Lorcan O’Neill, Monika Spruth, Massimo De Carlo, Eva Presenhuber, Anton Kern, and Carol Greene, among others.

Left: Dealer Larry Gagosian with Shala Monroque. Right: Curator Germano Celant.

Filling out the mostly Euro business crowd were several artists whose works were on view: Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman, Rachel Harrison, Peter Fischli and David Weiss, Matthew Day Jackson, and Rudolf Stingel, all gussied up and loving it. The exception was Gingeras, who looked great but had to make sweet small talk to all the better-heeled guests. “I am not having a good time!” she exclaimed. “And you can quote me.”

Inside, under the original wooden beams of cathedral-height ceilings, and between new marblelike concrete walls, big works by big-name artists awaited guests who kept praising the building. The piece that attracted the most admirers, especially among the male museum guards, was the ten-foot-tall nude boy by Charles Ray that is now the Dogana’s figurehead, facing the harbor while holding aloft, between two fingers, not a beacon but a white frog, by the tail. The symbolism was lost on no one.

Left: Dealer Lisa Spellman. Right: The scene at Palazzo Grassi.

Hopping a friend’s water taxi across the canal, I skipped up the gold steps of the Hotel Monaco lobby to a ballroom where the PaceWildenstein Glimchers, Arne and Marc, were hosting a party for Lucas Samaras with the Benetton Group’s Alessandro Benetton and the Daily Beast’s Tina Brown, but I could stay only long enough to pick up a custom tote bag, the first of at least a dozen I collected on this trip––this was really the tote-bag biennial––before I had to hightail it to the Teatro Goldoni to catch the gala premiere of No Night No Day, an “abstract opera” by Cerith Wyn Evans and Florian Hecker.

Opera is a misnomer. There were no performers, and the music was mostly of the Cagean whoopee-cushion variety, but by the end of the fifty-minute work, which featured slowly moving dark blobs projected on a large white screen, it became quite tranquilizing. “This was about banishing perfume commercials from our lives,” the tuxedoed Wyn Evans told me when the afterparty spilled into the street. One patron, standing on the theater steps, proclaimed the piece “the most god-awful rubbish,” while another asked whether it wasn’t “the best thing you ever saw.” As commissioning sponsor Francesca von Habsburg led guests like Olafur Eliasson, Marina Abramovic, Alanna Heiss, and Angela Bulloch off to dinner, I headed for the Rialto bridge, where a water taxi was waiting to take my second pair of eyes and me to the Island of Certosa, a glorious nature preserve twenty minutes away, where Irish artist John Gerrard was giving a dinner within the ruined walls of a twelfth-century cloister.

Left: Artist Tony Conrad. Right: Artist Miranda July and Performa founder RoseLee Goldberg. (Photo: Ryan McNamara)

Today, Certosa is where Venetians build yachts and store them in winter. But this time of year, wild goats and rabbits roam through its woodlands and over its beaches––an astonishing sight in this archipelago of sinking islands unable to grow a single tree. It was easy to forget where we were, even among 120 multinational guests who came to see Gerrard’s work for the Biennale, Animated Scene, installed on three screens in a warehouse by the dock. In each animation, which takes Gerrard two years to build from archival photographs, a camera orbits a different preindustrial landscape; the work will run in real time for the duration of the Biennale, passing from day to night and season to season.

But why stop for the night when you can beg for a drink on the terrace of the Bauer Hotel, scene of nightly art-world revelries? This is where Paula Cooper can safely hold down a bottle-strewn table with Sophie Calle, Sadie Coles, and Stefan Kalmar, where artist-friendly London restaurateurs Fergus and Margot Henderson can talk about the Leicester Square Hotel they will open next year, and where Aurel Scheibler can grab the ear of Beatrix Ruf. This is the sort of open party where art-world alliances really form or divide in a nocturnal dance of power that no animation can equal.

Left: Greek-pavilion curator Matthew Higgs with artist Tomma Abts. Right: Artist Peter Fischli.

I went to bed wondering what the next day could bring. I needn’t have worried. It started with a song, literally––German lieder performed by Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson, whom Luhring Augustine was feting with a lunch in a soaring dining room at the Ca’ Sagredo Hotel. For his exhibition in the Palazzo Michiel dal Brusa, Kjartansson is making paintings of his collaborator, performance artist Pall Haukur Bjornsson, accompanied by live and recorded music (the DJs that night were Sigur Ros). You can always tell whether an artist is on the rise by the collectors at his or her lunch in Venice. This one included Maja Hoffman, Alan Hergott, and Beth Rudin DeWoody––an impressive crew of primary-market connoisseurs who buy what they like and like what they buy. When dessert came around, you could see Kjartansson’s prices going up.

That occasioned a trip to the Giardini, but there was no time to relax, not with the opening of the Prada Foundation’s John Wesley retrospective beckoning from the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. There the maverick octogenarian artist held court with his stalwart New York dealers Jessica Fredericks and Andrew Freiser. Frankly, Wesley’s deadpan-naughty, pink-and-blue, Blondie-style cartoon paintings never made more sense than they do here, the last place anyone would ever expect to find such two-cents-plain American art. In fact, Venice was beginning to feel like an American colony until I got back to my hotel in the Dursoduro and discovered that Toby Webster’s Modern Institute was hosting a dinner there for Glaswegian artist Martin Boyce, with dealers Tanya Bonakdar, Eva Presenhuber, and Jorg Johnen.

Left: Curator Eungie Joo with artist Haegue Yang. Right: Artist John Gerrard.

Johnen was ailing, which left a couple seats free at his table, beside Afterall’s Dieter Roelstraete and his wife, Monika Szewczyk, publications chief at Rotterdam’s Witte de With Contemporary Art Center. Venice is like that. A chance encounter with T Magazine’s Stefano Tonchi, walking arm in arm with Francesco Vezzoli and L’Uomo Vogue cover girl Cindy Sherman, helped me crash Gucci’s disco party at Palazzo Grassi, where McQueen had lost his mother in the enormous crush and Rob Pruitt handed out tote bags with Barbara Kruger’s I SHOP THEREFORE I AM image amended to read I SHOPLIFT THEREFORE I AM. He hoped she wouldn’t mind. “It’s an homage,” he said. “I’m not trying to rip her off.” I looked up at the frieze of Piotr Uklanski’s Hollywood Nazi headshots, at his Saturday Night Fever dance floor lighting up the palazzo atrium, and thought: Of course you’re not ripping her off. It’s Venice, and this is the life. Who ever really owns it?

Left: Artist Marina Abramovic with dealer Lawrence Luhring. Right: Artist Cindy Sherman.

Left: Artist Matthew Day Jackson. Right: Dealer Tanya Bonakdar with Richard Edwards.

Left: Artist Francesco Vezzoli with Frieze cofounder Matthew Slotover. Right: Dealer Jeffrey Deitch.

Left: Artist Rudolf Stingel. Right: Dealer Roland Augustine with artist Ragnar Kjartansson.

Left: Artist Doug Aitken with 303 Gallery director Mari Spirito. Right: Collectors Doug Cramer and Adam Lindemann.

Left: Walker Center curator Peter Eleey with Carnegie Museum director Lynn Zelevansky. Right: Curator Beatrix Ruf.

Left: Paula Cooper director Steven Henry with dealer Paula Cooper. Right: Dealer Anton Kern.

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