VENICE MAY BE one of the most romantic places in the world, but during preview week of its Biennale, it is as infuriating as it is magical. The best-laid plans go awry, only to be rescued from disaster by serendipitous happenstance. Getting around without a hideously expensive water taxi is, as artist Rashid Johnson put it one evening, “a nightmare,” while traveling the Grand Canal on a vaporetto overloaded with sweating tourists is a very special kind of hell.
Yet this year’s behemoth Biennale offered an embarrassment of riches as well—emphasis on the rich. The profligate display of wealth was second only to the naked representation of vanity, not a sin in Venice but something akin to an art. The actual art––ostensibly the reason for this gathering of tribes from a record eighty-nine participating countries––too often played the supporting role usually relegated to the art world’s social structure. Then again, the wealth was shared so benevolently, and in so many soigné corners of the Veneto, that one could only be grateful to Planet Art for its celebratory nature whenever the soul went adrift in the maze.
“Something definitely happened this year,” dealer Lorcan O’Neill observed on Thursday, after a night of enough parties to sink the city. “It’s all now so big, so full of . . . ” He didn’t have to say what. Repeatedly, conversations began not with “What did you see today?” but “Where are you going tonight?”—and continued with talk of whether last night’s dinner had been seated or circulatory, in a palazzo or a hotel, on an island or a yacht, and of how many soirees one could take before falling into a canal with her fanny hanging out––the trauma that befell one New York dealer who was briefly the talk of the town.
There were plenty of other tongue waggers during the week, like the afternoon an armed flotilla ferried Shimon Peres up the Grand Canal after he cut the ribbon on Sigalit Landau’s show in the Israeli pavilion. Or the moment in the American pavilion when Allora & Calzadilla’s pipe organ–ATM rejected a certain Chelsea dealer’s debit card. And the night that the American artist duo, after being fêted right and left, forgot to attend their Hugo Boss–sponsored dinner after their Hugo Boss–sponsored cocktail at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. “We got confused,” they said. Small wonder. That’s Venice.
There was plenty of art to raise temperatures as well as hackles. The censorship by the Azerbaijani government of the work by Aidan Salakhova in that country’s pavilion, for instance. The startling films of the late Christoph Schlingensief in the German pavilion, remade into a church with an enlarged photograph of an anus for a rosette. Or the outdoor glass-blowing performance by Gelitin at the back of the Arsenale, where one naked artist submitted to some rear-action noodling by one of his colleagues, while another danced to the music of a hardcore band. “This restores my faith in art,” said a happy Anne Pasternak. “Sometimes,” the Creative Time director added, “the art world is a little too precious.”
When I arrived last Sunday evening, however, La Serenissima was still serene. The streets were so empty that only the banners announcing exhibitions around town hinted at the madness at hand. Until, that is, I ran across Vito Schnabel and his sister Stella. “Come to my party for the Bruce High Quality Foundation tomorrow night,” Vito said. When tomorrow came, however, it was Julian Schnabel who headed the agenda.
The burly artist-director was lunching that Monday with Angela Westwater and Rula Jebreal, among others, at the Hotel Monaco, where I was attending dealer Frederico Sève’s toast to the Latin American artists in the Biennale. After lunch, Schnabel led a private tour of an impressive forty-year retrospective of his paintings that Norman Rosenthal had organized for the magnificent Museo Correr, on a nearly pigeon-free San Marco. Norman Foster, Annie Cohen-Solal, and Jacqueline Schnabel joined the show’s admirers, though the most ardent may have been Schnabel himself. “Look at the way the paint lies on this surface,” he said at one point. “I think that’s pretty nifty.” This was not all braggadocio. “Julian is a very great artist,” Rosenthal confided. “But he is also his own worst enemy.”
On my exit, I ran into Lisa Phillips, Izhar Patkin, Shannon Ebner, Anne Ellegood, and RoseLee Goldberg in such short order that I knew the troops were massing for the invasion. Ebner was heading to the Biennale’s Ca’ Giustinian on the Grand Canal, where she had installed a glowing ampersand sculpture on a balcony. I followed, only to come abreast of a phalanx of Italians––Masimilliano Gioni, Cecilia Alemani, Francesco Bonami, and Maurizio Cattelan––rushing off to destinations unknown. (Rumor had it that Cattelan, whose stuffed pigeons sat atop the Biennale’s international pavilion, was the one responsible for the dearth of live birds in San Marco.)
And so the bacchanal began.
Tuesday found Venice free of vaporetto traffic as well as pigeons, when drivers went on a one-day strike and everyone––and I mean everyone––took to the labyrinthine streets as if called to revolution. Tuesday was also press day at the Palazzo Grassi, to which I raced after learning that François Pinault was providing taxi service to the first Biennale preview in the Giardini, the only day one could get through Mike Nelson’s crawl spaces in the British pavilion without waiting on a very long line.
Some curmudgeons expressed disappointment with what they perceived as Bice Curiger’s submission to overscaled festival art when, as one put it, “If she had just done ten years of Parkett covers, it would have been the perfect Biennale.” More forgiving observers pointed to the thoughtful formality of “ILLUMInations,” excepting her show’s gag-worthy title. Others shook their heads over the plethora of puzzlelike presentations by Nelson, Thomas Hirschhorn, and Markus Schinwald, though Schinwald’s Austrian pavilion handed out the sexiest tote bags, which had the look of black negligee.
As twilight fell, and the hangers-on rushed off to parties, I wandered into a group of interns from the Peggy Guggenheim on their way to the Scuola Grande di San Rocco for the opening of a film installation by Oleg Kulik that I couldn’t quite make out. All over the upstairs walls and ceiling of this astonishing palace, however, were the sixty Tintoretto paintings that have set this place apart. Seeing it was one of the unexpected highlights of my week––worth getting lost for, this time in the Dorsoduro while attempting to find the Hauser & Wirth boat party.
Just when I thought I would faint from hunger, who should emerge from the darkness other than Glenn Lowry and his crew from MoMA––Kathy Halbreich, Klaus Biesenbach, Leah Dickerman, and Laura Hoptman––escaping the prolonged Indianapolis Museum dinner for Allora & Calzadilla. “We’re going for pizza and gelatos,” Hoptman said, and sweeter words were never spoken.
Wednesday was my first visit to the Arsenale, which felt just like home when Naomi Campbell strode by with Peter Brant and Rudolf Stingel. Inside, Stingel was appearing in the form of a larger-than-life burning candle by Urs Fischer, who paired it with a monumental taper replicating Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabine Women. Though many claimed not to care for its pronounced theatricality, judging by the number of camera phones aimed at the installation, Fischer provided the Biennale with its most crowd-pleasing image, even if Christian Marclay’s addictive film The Clock did take the top prize.
Throughout the day, I was told I had to see Karla Black’s Scottish pavilion, Frances Stark’s video in the Arsenale, Erwin Wurm’s Gepetto-like house by the Accademia bridge, Yael Bartana’s return-the-Jews-to-Poland film at the Polish pavilion, the late Ahmed Basiony’s video documentation of the Cairo uprising in the Egyptian pavilion, and especially Bjarne Melgaard’s wild ride in the Norwegian. Oddly, no one mentioned Haroon Mirza, the Brit who would win the Silver Lion for best young artist.
After asking directions from a group of white-robed nuns, I found my way to the cloister near the Rialto bridge where Sadie Coles, Carol Greene, and an absent Gavin Brown were holding a dinner that proved Venice to be the one city in Italy where good food is hard to find. But Sturtevant, who was to receive a Golden Lion for lifetime achievement, was a hoot and a half, especially when she enthused over traveling from Hong Kong to Venice in Pinault’s private plane. “It has bedrooms!” she exclaimed. “I never want to fly commercial again.”
Back on the street, Pruitt and I picked up Richard Phillips and Josephine Meckseper for a short water taxi ride to Palazzo Zen in San Polo, where Lisa Spellman’s party for Mike Nelson was going so full-throttle that a brother from another planet might think it was the only game in town. But it wasn’t. Hopping another taxi with Yvonne Force and Doreen Remen, we sped across the lagoon to Isola San Servolo, where Cattelan was giving what he had advertised as “the worst party ever” for Toilet Paper number three––and he wasn’t kidding. We didn’t stay long. We couldn’t. Amy Sacco’s Venetian version of Bungalow 8 was singing its siren song, but by that time I just wanted to curl up with a book. Death in Venice seemed appropriate.
But the fun was just beginning. The next day included a morning repast with Marina Abramović and Ulay at the Montenegro pavilion, a tour of the Museo Fortuny with PIN-UP editor Felix Burrichter, and a lunch at the Peggy Guggenheim, where Toby Webster, Jeremy Deller, Monika Sosnowska, and Andrew Hamilton swept me off the Astroturf to race through the sanitized Punta della Dogana. Only a pause for a gelato shored me up for the Prada Foundation’s opening in the glam Ca’ Corner della Regina, which one dealer termed “Miuccia’s revenge on Pinault.” And how.
This was the night of a thousand parties, the night it all got to be too much. After touching base at the Peggy Guggenheim, where Maxwell Anderson presided over the reception for Allora & Calzadilla, it was off to the W magazine party for the Starn Twins’ vertiginous Big Bambu, which I resisted climbing. There wasn’t time. Massimo De Carlo’s dinner at the sumptuous Palazzo Brandolini had begun. “It’s so nice here,” said Pruitt. “I don’t want to leave.” Did we really have to go to the Bauer, or the Pinchuk Foundation party at Palazzo Papadopoli, or the Israeli party back at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco? Wasn’t life supposed to be about something more than the next party? On the other hand, perhaps it couldn’t get better than this.
But it did, on Friday, when I had the best meal of the week, thanks to Barbara Gladstone’s curator- and artist-heavy lunch on the Danieli terrace; loved everything in the far end of the Arsenale; and topped the day off with Matthew Slotover and Amanda Sharp’s all-night dance party on Isola le Vignole, which for many was the most down-to-earth fun of the week, though I did finally make it to the top of Big Bambu. I also bumped into Courtney Love outside the Palazzo Contarini degli Scrigni, where Tim Nye and Jacqueline Miro had installed “Venice in Venice,” a stellar show of 1960s works by California artists. “Artforum?” Love said. “My grandfather founded that magazine!” Huh?
Hours later, those hanging around the palazzo for her performance in the garden would (surprise!) have a long wait, because Love was a few doors down at the Palazzo Polignac with journalist Jefferson Hack, watching Marianne Faithfull turn the heads of Maja Hoffmann, Anita and Poju Zabludowicz, Cindy Sherman, Tom Eccles, Richard Chang, Franz West, Andreas Gursky, and a few hundred other guests of Larry Gagosian.
“I recorded that song almost fifty years ago,” Faithfull said, after making “As Tears Go By” sound like a dream. “And people are still asking me stupid questions about Mick Jagger. Who gives a shit?” “It’s all about Keith now,” yelled one kibitzer. “No it isn’t,” retorted the salty chanteuse. “It’s all about me!”
The room erupted in cheers. Everyone understood. The week could not have had a more fitting epitaph.