Floating Feasts

Linda Yablonsky around the 59th Venice Biennale

Artist and composer Latifa Echakhch.

WHEN IT COMES TO ART, there is no such thing as a glutton. Not in Venice, where one can never get enough, certainly not during the VIP preview of a Biennale. The current edition, the fifty-ninth, has brought such a cornucopia of material from so many parts of the world to so many places around the lagoon that one might think every appetite would be sated. Alas, no! The social deprivations of the pandemic created a hunger for the IRL company of others in numbers that Covid protocols continued to repress. As Pinault Foundation curator Caroline Bourgeois told me, “Monsieur Pinault did not feel that this was the moment for a dinner for eight hundred, as before.” True. But how deep an impact can art make without the historicizing dialogue and argument that gives it extended life?

For that we need a place to convene.

On Wednesday, April 20, the eighteenth-century Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista in San Polo was such a place. In two ground-floor rooms, Ugo Rondinone had installed “Burn Shine Fly,” the descriptive title for the three works in as many spaces, starting with the giant, gilded hoop of a sun at the entrance. Bronze, pastel-pigmented candles “burned” on the floor above the graves of a crypt. Most spectacularly, human “birds” clad in the skin of a deep blue ocean “flew” in the upper reaches of two baroque rooms—earthly delights out of heaven. A jammed “cocktail  dinatoire” garden party hosted by six galleries—Presenhuber, Sadie Coles HQ, Esther Schipper, Gladstone, Kukje, and Kamel Mennour—attracted so many enthusiasts that Rondinone hid in a corner, perhaps out of the Covid caution that I shared—the only time in Venice I felt at risk, even in the midst of the sublime.

On Thursday, the Hotel Danieli seemed safer. Welcome-back-to-the-world smiles on the faces of the Biennale  artists, collectors, curators, and friends who gathered on the terrace for a buffet lunch were almost enough to brighten the overcast skies above. Gladstone once again cohosted, this time with Sprüth MagersGallery. When I arrived, Monika Sprüth was hugging Sterling Ruby, and Barbara Gladstone was embracing Gavin Brown, the dealer who merged his business with hers early in the pandemic. “People still are asking if Gavin and I actually get along,” she exclaimed, drawing him even closer. So, let’s put the rumors to rest. As Gladstone put it, “We get along beautifully!”

As do their artists. Certainly, Amy Sillman was thrilled to see Arthur Jafa walk onto the terrace. On the way, he must have passed Joseph Kosuth, who has joined Anish Kapoor in what seems to be the latest minitrend by buying a palazzo on the Grand Canal for himself. “I left London after Brexit!” he said, happily. “Come visit!” Well, okay! For the moment, I was happy to find a seat beside Gary Garrels, who introduced me to the Swedish collector Per Ovin, a steward of the Moderna Museet. (On the money as ever, the museum recently acquired a pisser of a triptych by Biennale artist Louise Bonnet.) Since getting #MeToo-booted from his position as chief curator at SFMoMA—unfairly I believe—Garrels is now flexing his considerable curatorial muscle for Gagosian in London, where he’s organizing what sounded like a supershow of abstract painting from three generations of artists.

Louise Lawler took the words right out my mouth when she said,“I’m really enjoying this!” On the way out of Venice, she would be stopping in nearby Padua to see the Giottos. Jafa was heading to Arles, where Maja Hoffman has given him full run-of-the-sheds at her Luma Foundation. “It’s so huge!” he said, fearing that even his largest screens would be swallowed by all that space. (From what I’ve heard, he needn’t have worried.) For his part, Ruby was going off to Monza, where he’d be treated to a pit stop seat at Italy’s Formula One Grand Prix. Afterward, he’ll return to the residency that he began in Venice last week with his installation of the first in a four-act show of relief sculpture. A loose interpretation of an Amish hex—its presence on the facade of Palazzo Diedo, marks the future home of Berggruen Arts and Culture.

“Have you noticed,” Sprüth asked, “how the main show of the Biennale is 90 percent women and yet every single collateral event is male?” Ruby’s laugh sounded nervous. Indeed, the striking imbalance made even Anselm Kiefer’s gargantuan takeover of the most awesome hall in the Palazzo Ducale seem so yesterday. “I used to be famous,” he whispered, when I saw him at a private reception organized by Gagosian. “Back in the ’80s,” he added, with a  gentle poke to my ribs. “Remember?”

I remember. But nothing could have prepared me, or anyone else present, for the protean scale and breadth of the paintings that Kiefer made for the Sala delle Scrutinio, the vaunted hall of elections for the doges. Titled Questi scritti, quando verrannobruciati, daranno finalmente un po’ di luce (roughly, “These writings, when burned, will finally cast a little light”), after the twentieth-century Venetian philosopher Andrea Emo, the works are installed on billboard structures around the room. Together, they distill the political, social, and environmental history of Venice—most  significantly a 1577 fire that nearly destroyed the room’s decor—in the visceral vein of Kiefer’s representations of postwar Germany.

It’s remarkable enough that the Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia would invite a non-Italian artist to work within the ornate, cathedral-like architecture of a space that is practically a sacred monument of the Serenissima Republic. It’s even more impossible to imagine the paintings anywhere else. “Kiefer regards them as a single piece,” Gagosian Rome director Pepi Marchetti Franchi told me. What will happen after October 29, when the exhibition ends? “We hope someone will buy it,” she replied, in a tone that acknowledged the challenge of finding anyone with a home that would up to the task of giving it a new history. If anyone can place this outsize paean to ambition, Marchetti Franchi can, though Kiefer reportedly has expressed a desire to sink the whole of it in the lagoon. “I’m already onto the next show,” he said, dismissing the whole subject.

There were certainly others to pursue in Venice, so many that I couldn’t take it all in. On a train to Milan, I was filled with regret over missing any number of social events, not to mention Kapoor’s exhibitions in the Academia and the Palazzo Manfrin, the screening at Teatro Goldoni of Wu Tsang and Sophia Al Maria’s adaptation (with music) of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick; or the Whale (which I also missed in New York), Mary Weatherford’s exhibition at Museo Palazzo Grimani, and the Romanian pavilion, which Van Gogh Foundation curator Julia Marchand said was really good. (Word of mouth carries the day in Venice.) Come to think of it, I didn’t even run across Hans Ulrich Obrist! And sadly, just as I trekked to Gian Maria Tosaiti’s immersive Italian pavilion, technical difficulties shut it down for the day. Worse, my hotel in Dorsoduro was situated within a one-minute walk of both the Punta del Dogana and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection (the hotel’s sole amenity), and yet I reached neither the Bruce Nauman show in the former nor “Surrealism and Magic” at the latter, both of which I heard were not to be missed.

Oh, well. Three days in Venice were not enough, not this year, or probably ever. All the same, I feel lucky to have  experienced Anicka Yi’s retrospective, “Metaspore,” on show at HangarBicocca with Steve McQueen’s “Sunshine State”; the title work may be the best, most evocative, and personal McQueen yet. To top it off, Elmgreen  & Dragset’s “Useless Bodies?” sent me to another world entirely. A future world, where a posthuman ecology—also a subject of Cecilia Alemani’s gorgeous Biennale exhibition in Venice—looms large.

View of Elmgreen & Dragset’s “Useless Bodies?” at Fondazione Prada.

Though the duo conceived the show before the work-from-home pandemic, they created the sort of workplace that makes robots of the labor pool and denies them any chance for intimacy with another human; now eerily empty, it requires no human presence. Another windowless room with brushed aluminum walls and twisted chairs evokes the sad life of the lonely architect who presided over the artists’ past shows in Venice and at the Victoria and Albert in London. Only here, Elmgreen told me, he represents the billionaires who build bunkers to keep themselves safe from nuclear attack and take day trips to outer space. “Billionaires always have very uncomfortable furniture,” he  noted. “This one has a designer kitchen, though he can’t cook (the stove has no gas and the refrigerator doesn’t open), and he has a glory hole through which you can see a distant Planet Earth.” He also has a robotic dog for a pet (it doesn’t shit), a fireplace that has no need of wood, and a private morgue; his body is in it.

Bleak? Yes. Also beautiful. In another part of the show, the artists’ contemporary representations of the male figure are demonstrably indistinct from the classical and neoclassical sculptures that fill our museums.

What else can I say but “Useless Bodies?” is not to be missed!

Dealer Philomene Magers.

The author with Anselm Kiefer.

Milanese independent curator Milovan Farranoto.

Portuguese pavilion cocurators Luis Silva and João Mourão.

Dealer Tommaso Calabro.

Dealers Barbara Gladstone and Gavin Brown.

Artist Wyatt Kahn.

Artist Ugo Rondinone.

View from a Venice water taxi. All photos: Linda Yablonsky.

Swiss pavilion manager Maud Châtelet with commissioner and Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen curator Francesco Stocchi, artist Latifa Echakhch, and gallerists Chiara Repetto and Francesca Kaufmann.

Reception for Anselm Kiefer in the Sala dello Scrutinio, Palazzo Ducale.

MoMA curator Stuart Comer and writer Fanny Singer.

Kunsthalle Zurich director Daniel Baumann and his predecessor, the multi-institutional and current Hartwig Foundation curator Beatrix Ruf.

View of Elmgreen & Dragset’s “Useless Bodies?” at the Prada Foundation, Milan.

View of Anika Yi’s “Metaspore” at HangarBicocca.

Gian Maria Tosatti.

Artist Arthur Jafa.

Curator Gary Garrels.

Collectors Shelley Fox Aarons and Phil Aarons.

Collector Per Ovin.

Artists Marianne Vitale and Rudolf Stingel.

Artists Ingar Dragset, Simon Fujiwara and Michael Elmgreen.

Artist Sterling Ruby with dealer Monika Sprüth.

Artist Joseph Kosuth with his daughter Noemi.

Artist Charline von Heyl.