Tale of Two Cities

Linda Yablonsky at the 14th Venice Biennale of architecture

Left: Artist Christopher Williams and architect Rem Koolhaas, director of the 14th Venice Architectural Biennale. Right: Fashion designer and collector Muiccia Prada. (All photos: Linda Yablonsky)

WHILE IN VENICE, I didn’t hear a single joke about architects. This is a profession that appears to take itself very seriously—no bad behavior while away from home. At least, that’s how it seemed over three preview days at the Fourteenth Venice Biennale of architecture—my first. Experienced people predicted that there would be more artists involved than in any edition before, and probably the best one to break my virginity. The reason, they all said, was “Rem”—Rem Koolhaas, the exhibition’s curator and an architect so widely respected that even those who turn up their noses at his ideas pay them close attention. What kind of show would he make? Not the usual kind, to be sure.

From the moment of my arrival on Wednesday, June 4, Venice did seem quieter than it is when the art world is in town. Not that it wasn’t around. A passel of artists, dealers, museum directors, and architects were lunching that afternoon at Ca’ Corner della Regina, the eighteenth-century palazzo where the Prada Foundation is in residence while its new museum complex in Milan (designed by Koolhaas) is under construction.

The attraction was an exclusive preview of Germano Celant’s “Art or Sound?,” which features works dating from the fifteenth century to the present, from the Surrealist, Fluxus, and Arte Povera movements as well as the latest from Haroon Mirza and Tarek Atoui. It is not about sound art but objects that make or suggest sound and may or may not be art. “Museums have grown too quiet,” Celant said. “There are rules. No fire. No animals. No bad smells. But now there is sound everywhere. So we did it our way, which is to look at the history.”

Left: Prada Foundation curator Germano Celant. Right: Moderna Museet director Daniel Birnbaum and Charlotte Birnbaum.

Spread over two floors were musical instruments that looked like sculpture (a nineteenth-century violin with nails for strings, a military cornet shaped like a serpent); sound-emitting sculpture (Dennis Oppenheim’s tap-dancing marionette, Man Ray’s metronome, Robert Rauschenberg’s radio-transmitting junkyard, Oracle); and quiet sculpture (Christian Marclay’s soft guitar, Ed Kienholz’s furry blonde cello grotesque, a ball of twine by Duchamp that supposedly rattles when shaken). “They borrowed the Duchamp from us,” said Moderna Museet director Daniel Birnbaum. “It’s the most boring object in the show but also the most important.”

At least, I think that’s what he said. What with all the chiming clocks, working calliopes, birdcalls, buzzing alarms, dog barks, drumbeats and electronic beeps to drown out the nattering nabobs, I couldn’t be sure. Serpentine Gallery cocurator Hans Ulrich Obrist— organizer of the biennial’s Swiss pavilion—was there from the jump with Tino Sehgal and Haus der Kunst director Okwui Enwezor, curator of the next Venice art biennial. On their heels came Carsten Höller, Thomas Demand, Peter Fischli, Koo Jeong-A, Tate Modern director Chris Dercon, and Wolfgang Tillmans (the last, the only artist participating in “Fundamentals,” Koolhaas’s exposition for the biennial).

Mrs. Prada made only a brief appearance during the lunch, which gave Metropolitan Museum president Dan Brodsky and the Met’s modern and contemporary chair Sheena Wagstaff a chance to show off the museum’s first architecture curator, Beatrice Galilee. “This is the first time ever that so many people from the art world have come to an architectural biennale,” said the Milanese dealer Giò Marconi. “It’s a big thing.”

Actually, there didn’t seem so many overall. Absent were the dealers and collectors who turn the art biennale into a business transaction; Pin-Up magazine editor Felix Burrichter and I nearly had the Palazzo Grassi to ourselves. Possibly, that was an illusion, the effect of vertigo induced by the Doug Wheeler environment that introduces “The Illusion of Light,” in one of the more coherent shows I’ve seen there. It had standout works by Julio Le Parc, Bruce Conner, and Troy Brauntuch, as well as “Autoerotic Asphyxiation,” the peekaboo Danh Vo installation that debuted at Artists Space a few years ago.

Left: Metropolitan Museum president Dan Brodsky with architect Carlos Brillembourg. Right: Haus der Kunst and 56th Venice Art Biennale director Okwui Enwezor with artists Wolfgang Tillmans and Tino Seghal.

That evening brought rain and increasing overlap between architecture and art to the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, where David Landau and Marie-Rose Kahane welcomed guests to Le Stanze del Vetro, the glassmaking museum they founded on the grounds of a magnificent Palladian cloister. There stood Hiroshi Sugimoto in traditional Japanese garb, the better to introduce his latest structure, Mondrian, a glass teahouse that appeared to float above a blue-tiled reflecting pool set within a fragrant garden. “It’s my art in three dimensions,” Sugimoto said of the sculpture—er, house—where tea ceremonies would take place all week. “We weren’t sure this dream could be realized,” said Kahane, “but we worked very hard for two years and now here it is—and it’s wonderful.”

It was tranquil, all right. Hundreds of people spoke in hushed tones as they walked to a buffet dinner in the cloister’s glorious courtyard, where a pair of enormous cypress trees seemed to symbolize the towering ambitions of architects everywhere. By contrast, the Bauer terrace was almost deserted when I stopped in afterward with d.a.p. communications director Alex Galan. This would never happen during an art biennial, even in rain. Perhaps architects go to bed early.

Next morning, skies were clear over the Giardini as I headed for the Swiss pavilion, where Obrist was holding one of his marathons of yak. Anri Sala was just finishing a conversation with his old friend Edi Rama, an artist who went on to become the current prime minister of Albania. (What are the odds?) The talks, unfortunately, put the exhibition, “Lucius Burckhardt and Cedric Price: A Stroll Through a Fun Palace,” on temporary hold. It didn’t have much to do with Switzerland, frankly, but it did involve choreography by Sehgal, an enormous archive on loan from the Canadian Center of Architecture, and a window shade by Philippe Parreno that went up and down.

Koolhaas had imposed a single, historical theme on all of the national pavilions: “Absorbing Modernity: 1914-2014.” It brought the biennial a welcome unity but also turned the whole enterprise into a giant research project that sent architects out to excavate the architectural soul of their nations before the homogeneity of globalism set in. Blueprints and models were scarce, replaced so often by text and photos that the biennial began to feel like a Dan Graham show. An exception was the Austrian pavilion. It had no printed images, just the white architectural models of 160 national parliament buildings, made to scale and hung in a grid pattern on white walls. Seldom has a country’s estimation of its own sense of power been so visible.

Left: Serpentine Gallery cocurator Hans Ulrich Obrist with artists Peter Fischli and Koo Jeong-A. Right: Dealer Gió Marconi.

Artists Space director Stefan Kalmár tipped me off to that one over lunch with Alessandro Bava, Luis Ortega, and Octave Perrault, the three young architects who created an ad hoc “Airbnb Pavilion” near the Grassi. Together they had rented a Jacuzzi-equipped, €180-per-night apartment from Airbnb, and recruited dozens of other young architects and artists to install drawings and videos for a five-day exhibition. “There have been a lot of people,” Bava said. “Sometimes we have to turn them away, because we need to shower or something. But come by later. The jacuzzi’s great.”

Instead, I stepped under the false ceiling that begins Koolhaas’s show, “The Elements of Architecture”—and was baffled. Conditioned by years of art biennials, I didn’t know what to make of a show that had almost nothing new in it. The exception was Tillmans’s contribution, A Book for Architects, which wasn’t a book but photographs of urban homes projected as if they were on the pages of a book. I liked it. There was text everywhere else. There were antique objects—toilets, doorknobs, fragments of walls, windows, elevators, or ramps—in displays that invoked either the ghost of Gordon Matta-Clark or early works by Haim Steinbach, and films that spliced together together scenes of toilets, windows, doors and so on, totally Christian Marclay style. The corridor section was pure Bruce Nauman. Make that impure. How lucky for Koolhaas that all of these artists came before him. He must see everything. Or as one visiting architect put it, “It’s Rem’s version of history—what he’s been reading and absorbing for years. We’re seeing the inside of his brain.”

I moved on. The German pavilion cut two ways (conceptual and historical) at once, by inserting an actual structure—the near replica of a bungalow built in 1964 for Chancellor Ludwig Erhard and known almost entirely through photographs—into the pavilion’s existing Fascist architecture. The juxtaposition neatly conflated and destabilized the political associations of each. (For an unrelated, collateral presentation in Santa Croce, twenty-two German architects imagined new designs for the pavilion, which has never shed its Nazi-era past.)

Left: Metropolitan Museum Department of Modern and Contemporary Art chair Sheena Wagstaff with the Met’s associate curator of art and design Beatrice Galilee. Right: Tate Modern director Chris Dercon.

In the Russian pavilion, I found the garish real estate promotions and McDonald’s aesthetic offensive. On the other hand, if it was meant to function as a critique of commercial architecture, it was quite effective. There was a lot to read at the American pavilion. Commissioned by the Storefront for Art and Architecture, each room is set up as an office where research is taking place throughout the six-month run of the biennial. Brochures for each firm that had designed official buildings elsewhere in the world line the walls; one room has photographs of American embassies in sixty-seven countries by Elizabeth Gill Lui. In another, Alan Shwabe and Daniel Fernandez Pascual are conducting a study of the relationship between one thousand buildings and food. “Come for lunch!” Shwabe said.

The pair counted among the nine hundred or so people—architects, curators, Storefront board members, architecture junkies, and rich people—attending a US pavilion cocktail at the Peggy Guggenheim that evening. Many were knocking back “The Guggenheim Effect,” a colorful drink that Pascual and Shwabe concocted for the party, which followed yet another cocktail on the terrace, where the New York Guggenheim launched a design competition for its proposed branch in Helsinki. According to deputy director Ari Wiseman, six hundred people registered immediately.

When it got too crowded I ducked into the temporary show, a knockout collection of grotesquery from the private collection of Basel’s Richard and Ulla Dreyfus-Best that went from Bosch to Barney and back again. Thank goodness for art! It saved the day. Then again, it was an architect, Charles Renfro, who took me with him to an art-world-style dinner hosted by Koolhaas and his longtime domestic partner, designer Petra Blaisse. There could not have been a more striking couple in Venice that night—unless it was that of their friends Christopher Williams and Ann Goldstein, who stepped into the bar only to run smack into Beatrix Ruf, Goldstein’s replacement as director of the Stedelijk.

Koolhaas had a private dining room for friends like Phyllis Lambert, the Bronfman family member who got Mies van der Rohe to design the Seagram Building, founded the CCA, and would soon receive a Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement. The rest of the party—including Dan and Estrellita Brodsky, New Museum director Karen Wong, and Renfro—had to make do with the sumptuous buffet. So there were plenty of art types around after all, and after the dinner they repaired to the rooftop terrace of the Gritti Palace, where collector Maja Hoffmann was giving a cocktail under the silvery moon.

Left: Serpentine Gallery director and cocurator Julia Peyton-Jones and artist Philipe Parreno. Right: Le Stanze del Vetro founder David Landau.

Returning to Celant’s show the next day, I caught Carnegie Museum architecture curator Ray Ryan speaking into Laurie Anderson’s altered 1979 phone booth, and then lucked into a performance by Ken Butler, a New York sculptor who has made four hundred musical instruments out of found objects—a guitar with hockey-stick fretboards, a pool-cue cello, a door-handle violin—and plays them all expertly. He performed beside a Walter Marchetti assemblage of toilet paper rolls stacked together in the shape of a grand piano. “This show fills a big curatorial hole,” Butler said afterward. “What I do isn’t about experimental music or sound art. It’s sculpture, but it never fit into any category. And now it has a place in history.”

And Lisson Gallery collaborated with Berengo Studio to find a place for that other, much maligned species, public art. Day or night, Ai Weiwei’s ballooning assemblage of steel bicycles, Forever, stood before the Palazzo Franchetti, overlooking the Grand Canal by the Accademia Bridge. Couldn’t get more central. Silently, the sculpture advertised “Genius Loci (Spirit of Place),” an exhibition of public artworks by Lisson Gallery’s Greg Hilty that includes Joana Vasconcelos, Anish Kapoor, Daniel Buren, and Lawrence Weiner—the lone selling show I could find among the biennial’s collateral events.

After a hackle-raising lunchtime panel with Richard Wentworth and Vasoncelos—public art never fails to draw fire—it was off to the Arsenale, which was totally devoted to the architecture of Italy, moving south to north. I wasn’t sure why, but there were a number of avant-garde dance performances going on within regional exhibits, one of which provided a catalogue of homes that had been inhabited by Mafia chieftains, all quite modest and generic. Generally, the show used popular culture to tell the story of Italian cities through the wars, natural disasters, and political upheavals of the last hundred years. Really, it was kind of cool.

More chilling—and weirder—was “IK-00: The Spaces of Confinement,” an exhibition about the architecture of prison life at Casa dei Tre Oci, which is sponsored by the billionaire Leonid Mikhelson family’s V-A-C Foundation in Moscow. Right off the bat I was trapped in a room behind a glass door that refused to open. Just as I thought I would faint from lack of air, Tate director Nicholas Serota appeared, pantomiming an order to stand perfectly still instead of panicking. When I did the door opened. He saved my life!

Or, at least, he made it possible for me to get back to the Peggy Guggenheim terrace for the fiftieth birthday party that Charles Renfro was throwing for himself and a hundred guests. “This is the single most indulgent thing I’ve ever done in my life,” he said. Now, with partners Elizabeth Diller and Rick Scofidio, he can go back to figuring out what the hell to do about MoMA while the rest of us indulge in Art Basel.

Left: d.a.p. vice president Alex Galan with Young Kim and dealer Rose Lord. Right: Artists Anri Sala and Asad Raza.

Left: Artists Space director Stefan Kalmár with architect Alessandro Bava. Right: Artist Ken Butler and photographer Elizabeth Gill Lui.

Left: Performance artist Alon Shwabe and architect Daniel Fernandez Pascual. Right: Guggenheim Museum deputy director Ari Wiseman with Venetain Heritage Foundation president Valentina Marini-Clarelli with foundation director Toto Bergamo-Rossi.

Left: Architect Charles Renfro. Right: Collector Maja Hoffmann with Fondation Beyeler director Samuel Keller.

Left: Curator and dealer Louise Neri. Right: V-A-C director Teresa Mavica and curator Katerina Chuchalina.

Left: Teresa Serota, collector Victoria Mikhelson, and Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota. Right: Pin-Up editor Felix Burrichter.

Left: The Jewish Museum director Claudia Gould. Right: “AirBnb Pavilion” creators Alessandro Bava, Luis Ortega, photographer Noah Rabinowitz, and Octave Perrault.

Left: Dealer Francesca Kaufmann and Art Basel director Marc Spiegler. Right: Former Stedelijk Museum director Ann Goldstein with Stedelijk Museum director-elect Beatrix Ruf.

Left: Fiorucci Art Trust curator Milovan Farranato with collector Nicoletta Fiorucci. Right: Guggenheim Museum director Richard Armstrong.

Left: Kunsthaus Zurich director Bice Curiger with dealer Monica Sprüth and architect Aldo Cibic. Right: Lisson Gallery curator Greg Hilty.

Left: Artist Adrian Paci. Right: Architect Richard Olcott with Guggenheim Museum communications director Betsy Ennis.

Left: Publicist Tommaso Speretta and architect Nicola Visentin. Right: Artist Andreas Slominski.

Left: Art Basel Miami Design director Rodman Primack. Right: Dealer Sara Meltzer with designer Paul Marlowe.

Left: Artist Mary Ellen Carroll. Right: Lisson Gallery content chief Ossian Ward.