THE ONLY WAY to negotiate a city built on water is to go with the flow. That was the lesson of Tuesday, May 28—arrival day for the VIPs and art professionals invited to preview the Fifty-Fifth Venice Biennale for three days before its June 1 opening. First on the agenda: “The Encyclopedic Palace,” the central exhibition organized by Massimiliano Gioni, whose previous shows as chief curator of the New Museum in New York and the Trussardi Foundation in Milan gave many of us reason to expect the best, or at least the most acceptably compromised, Biennale ever.
Expectations are never a good thing to bring to an art show, especially in Venice, where surprise is rampant and the path to enlightenment takes more detours than one could possibly map. Two minutes after heading out for the Giardini, for example, I bumped into New York collectors Marty and Rebecca Eisenberg. They were hankering for a sneak peek at the Palazzo Grassi’s first exhibition devoted to a single artist, Rudolf Stingel. I went along.
Inside, we found dealer Tim Blum and his wife, Maria, staring up at an awesome sight. With his collaborator, curator Elena Geuna, Stingel had covered the floors and walls of the three-story palazzo with what press materials quaintly described as “oriental” red carpeting. Its installation was so total that it transformed the seventeenth-century building into a kind of Bedouin tent displaying a retrospective hang of Stingel paintings. The Grassi has not looked better since François Pinault took it over. The big grin we found on the collector’s face on our return to the ground floor suggested that he thought so too.
I caught a vaporetto for the Giardini. It was the wrong vaparetto, but in Venice one must trust to chance. Next thing I knew, I was at Pinault’s other Venetian museum, the Punta della Dogana. Curator Caroline Bourgeois and Los Angeles County Museum of Art director Michael Govan were just beginning a tour of “Prima Materia,” the exhibition they organized from Pinault’s collection to coincide with the Biennale. Prima materia, Govan told the group, which included artist Will Cotton, LACMA trustee Wendy Stark, curator Jarrett Gregory, and bookseller Dagny Corcoran, is the basic material of alchemical transformation, something that engages everything and nothing all at once—like Gioni’s exhibition, Govan observed.
Though he tried hard to give the Pinault Foundation’s recent acquisitions of works by Mark Grotjahn, Theaster Gates, Llyn Foulkes, and Adel Abdessemed the significance of historical pieces by Bruce Nauman, James Lee Byars, and the Mono-Ha artists, “Prima Materia” felt more like a sacrificial offering to appease the market gods rather than a counterpoint to it. “Art comes from everywhere, and every culture, to define the moment we’re in,” Govan said, a moment that the Internet-mediated, physical space of video installations by Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch perfectly capture, he said.
Meanwhile, what I heard people talk most about that day was a show that had nothing to do with this moment, other than its coincidence with the Biennale—“Manet: Return to Venice,” at the Palazzo Ducale. No one, I was told, should leave without seeing this show, which puts Manet’s Olympia right beside Titian’s Venus of Urbino, a stunning juxtaposition unlikely to occur at any other time or place.
The talk began right after the Dogana walk-through, at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection on the Grand Canal, where the Guggenheim Foundation’s Richard Armstrong and Ari Wiseman; dealers Franco Noero, Andrew Kreps, Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, and Anton Kern; collectors Richard Massey and Adam Lindemann; and several dozen others were celebrating the winner of the 2013 Calder Prize, Darren Bader. “It’s nothing and it’s everything,” he said, after his introduction by Sandy Rower, grandson of Alexander Calder and president of the Calder Foundation. “It’s all beautiful.”
I didn’t have far to go to crash the next party. At Casa Artom, next door to the Guggenheim Collection, Los Angeles dealer Mary Cherry was hosting a party for Wake Forest University’s Venetian outpost, where twenty-one students are currently in residence. By now it was twilight—the only evening of a rainy, chilly week when skies were clear—and time for the New Museum’s dinner for Gioni at Palazzo Pisani Moretta. Getting around Venice isn’t like walking through Chelsea. It’s far more maddening and also more fun. Inevitably, one takes wrong turns. Just as inevitably, they lead to the right places.
After mistakenly stumbling into the German pavilion dinner, and grazing the candlelit tables at the Gioni/New Museum soiree, I happily accepted the offer of a ride in a water taxi to the Biennale buffet dinner and dance party hosted by Barbara Gladstone, Gavin Brown, Sadie Coles, Jose Kuri, and Monica Manzutto at Palazzo Zeno. If it seemed as if everyone from New York was at the Pisani Moretta dinner, everyone else from New York, London, Berlin, Glasgow, Zurich, and Mexico City was at this one, drinking around the fountain on the ground floor, hanging over the first-floor balcony or hobnobbing in its salon or rolling in its bedroom, or dancing in a side room to music spun by White Columns director Matthew Higgs. Though it didn’t seem as if the party would wind down anytime soon, I joined another group water-taxiing to the late-night Biennale clusterfuck at the Bauer, where Shaun Caley Regen, Beth Swofford, Daniel Buchholz, Peter Currie, Dillon Cohen, and a thousand other revelers were calmly passing the time.
Next morning brought the official first preview of the Biennale, which I reached in time for lunch at Nuovo Galeon outside the Giardini, where a contingent from the Bronx Museum, commissioner of the US pavilion, took over most of the outdoor tables, prior to a lunch for Bahamas pavilion artist Tavares Strachan. Passing through the Museum of Everything’s encampment in the Giardini greenhouses, I passed the Danish pavilion, which looked closed, followed the serpentine trail of Valentin Carron’s simple but rewarding installation in the Swiss pavilion, passed on the long line for Anri Sala’s film at the German pavilion—for this Biennale taken by the French—peeked at the group show of non-German artists in the French pavilion (now Germany’s), and pushed into Jeremy Deller’s “English Magic” show at the British pavilion.
Already people were saying the Golden Lion for best artist was a toss-up between Deller and Sarah Sze, who had opened up a wall of the American pavilion for a seamless melding of inside and outside. “It’s all about systems of understanding,” said co-commissioner Carey Lovelace of the complex assemblages Sze created for the show, “Triple Point,” named for the condition of a substance where a substance exists as a gas, liquid and solid at once. “It’s a lamentation,” said Siddhartha Mukherjee, Sze’s husband and the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Emperor of All Maladies. “It’s a world within a world within a world,” said Sotheby’s chief auctioneer Tobias Meyer. “It’s a compass,” Sze would say later, when she wasn’t surrounded by reporters.
This is what is so stimulating about an international biennialthe conflicting perceptions, the range of ideas, the assurance that there is never any one way to think about art. After watching Mathias Poledna’s Imitation of Life, an animated musical short at the Austrian pavilion, Austrian president Hans Fischer asked, “How do you know you like it?” A fair question. At first, I thought it was fun to watch Disney-like characters sing “I’ve Got a Feeling You’re Foolin’.” After considering that the principal character was an ass, and that the film reinforced 1930s ethnic stereotypes, it felt more troubling.
At the Israeli pavilion, Gilad Ratman installed The Workshop, a multichannel video and sound installation with a fictional narrative involving caves and an underground tunnel that emerged in the pavilion. “It’s visceral,” the artist said. “That’s what I do.”
I found Gioni sitting on a curb taking a breather from his exhibition, a kind of museum of the knowable that he said was jammed with visitors. “It’s a jungle in there,” he said. “The show looks terrible with so many people in there.”
Actually, it didn’t. I had a clear view of everything, from the Carl Jung drawings that began the show, through the Rudolf Steiner blackboard drawings and the performance in the rotunda by the actual Golden Lion for best artist winner Tino Sehgal, and all of the artworks by outsiders, by insiders, by the autistic, the imprisoned, the clairvoyant, the depressed, and the expert obsessives that individually attempt to represent the invisible, the ideal, the abject, and the impossible. For Gioni, the line between outsider and insider, natural and artificial, is mighty thin. “It’s about knowing who you are through images,” he would tell me later, speaking of his show as “the prehistory of Wikipedia”—one way to say it was about everything and nothing, I guess. It was really about the idea of the human body as the primary medium of the brain, a spiritualist who can manifest the invisible.
It was hard to know where to go first that evening, which offered an array of pavilion parties, including the French, the American, and the British, but all of them came after the opening of “When Attitudes Become Form: Bern 1969/Venice 2013” at the Prada Foundation’s Ca’ Corner della Regina. This was Germano Celant’s recapitulation of the seminal exhibition by Harald Szeemann, one that included the major American and European Minimalists and Conceptualists when they were young and daring. Though he was in Bern for the 1969 opening, Celant relied on documentary materials from the Getty and collaborated with Rem Koolhaas and Thomas Demand to re-create not just the obstacle-course installation of the original show but the whole Kunsthalle Bern within the Prada’s seventeenth-century palazzo. Some people hated the juxtaposition. Others were grateful to see the works displayed the way the artists had chosen—willy-nilly, as no institution would dare do today—though to see how Eva Hesse and Barry Flanagan situated themselves was all kinds of cool. A few artists, like Keith Sonnier and Lawrence Weiner, returned to remake their contributions. Broken chalk lines drawn on the floor like those at a crime scene marked sculptures that no longer exist. It all felt both melancholy and inspiring.
From there, the American pavilion dinner, in the fish market plaza by the Rialto bridge, felt anticlimactic. Initially a celebratory affair, it took on unpleasant us-and-them overtones when most of the crowd, including Sze’s dealers Tanya Bonakdar and Victoria Miro, realized that only a few people—the artist and friends like Lisa Yuskavage, Cindy Sherman, John Currin, and Yvonne Force Villareal—were seated for dinner service while everyone else had to line up for a buffet and retire to low banquettes, to eat with their plates on their laps.
Slow boats and no taxis kept me from going to the party for Deller, on Isola Vignole some distance away, though I heard it was the best of the night. There was the Bauer, of course, to deliver everything and nothing. Which it did. I left before any fistfights broke out, walking through the now ever-present rain and looking ahead to the Arsenale, the radiant arguments over art and fragile moral compass of this untidy universe, and the night of all parties to come.