Back to the Futures

Linda Yablonsky at the 56th Venice Biennale

Left: Architect Jonathan Caplan with collector Beth Swofford and writer Angus Cook. Right: Jeanne Greenberg-Rohatyn.

ONCE THE CURTAIN opens on a Venice Biennale, the tourists have to move over to make way for the art gang. The world’s oldest and most important international exhibition attracts an unstoppable force. It takes over restaurants and palazzos for private parties, books every available water taxi, and storms the gates of the Giardini in packs so swift and so vociferously divided in opinion that they would be the envy of barbarians anywhere.

The upside of opening week at the Fifty-Sixth Venice Biennale was the breathtaking quantity and variety of art going on view at a single moment. The downside was exactly the same. There was so much visual information to reckon with from the jump that a person could get her fill of exhibitions—and the competing social events around them—without ever setting foot in the Giardini.

As “All the World’s Futures,” the 2015 Biennale’s title, suggests, we can only see where we might be going by looking hard at where we’ve been. This edition, directed by Okwui Enwezor, tells us where we’re at, which is not in the best place imaginable—something most of us already know.

Left: LACMA curator Stephanie Barron. Right: Stephen Prina and Sabine Eckmann.

It’s just that the present condition of humanity looks different to people from different parts of the world, who engage in different sorts of conflict and debate, have different cultural references, live according to different systems of value, work with different materials, and proceed from different personal concerns. Yet, remarkably, all speak the language of contemporary art. And there lies the wisdom of Venice—in the visual language of many tongues. Some, as many here learned firsthand, are not so easy on the ear.

Tuesday began on a promising note with the morning preview of an exhibition by Jimmie Durham at the Carlo Scarpa–designed Fondazione Querini Stampalia. I would hear people speak of it all week as the most poignant in Venice. Like many other shows, it had political content but it also came with feeling—for the underappreciated and underpaid Venetian labor force that makes the lagoon city such a lovely place for tourists like us, represented by way of strange and beautiful objects made from broken bits of old Murano glass.

Traditionally, Tuesday of opening week is the best day to explore the national pavilions in the Giardini without having to face long lines, so I went there first. It’s the day reserved for folk with privileged passes—curators, artists, and collectors like Beth Swofford, who gave support money and somehow toured the entire biennial before lunchtime. That has to be some kind of record. (In three days, I didn’t even see half.)

Much of Sarah Lucas’s British pavilion was painted as cream yellow as her catalogue’s tote bag and the macho, Franz Westian, pretzel-twisted bronze phallus with testicle sacs and legs that stood at the entrance and basically gave the finger to all comers. Inside were plaster life casts of women’s lower torsos—Lucas’s “muses”—sprawling over a deep-freeze here or hugging a toilet there, some with cigarettes in their pupics. Black, octopus-like cats gripped the floor. Lucas isn’t usually given to overstatement, but this was Venice and one biennial where subtlety was more the exception than the rule.

Left: Collector Maria Baibakova. Right: Dealer Maureen Paley, artist Ann Hardy, and ICA London director Gregor Muir.

At the Danish pavilion, Danh Vo’s gift for understated provocation took several forms. One was architectural. Vo had returned the building to its original state by opening up long-covered clerestory windows and removing all artificial lighting. Another had to do with Vo’s love/hate relationship with Catholicism, a religion his father adopted before the family left Vietnam for Denmark.

The walls of one room were covered in a papal carmine silk. (The color derived from parasitic Mexican beetles.) Another room had a “Judas” table by Danish Modern designer Finn Juhl. And if you could read the letters inscribed—backward—on two glass walls by Vo’s calligrapher father, you would see nasty quotes from The Exorcist. The film also gave title to sculptures that were violent mash-ups of things loved and not. (Vo dubbed a seventeenth-century polychromed wooden cherub sprouting nails with the lyrical phrase Your mother sucks cock in Hell.)

As the Giardini filled with people, the word on the street was for Hito Steyerl’s virtual, computer-game video installation in the basement of the German pavilion. It had bots. It had dancing. It had music. It had freedom of choice and the most exhilarating experience of the morning.

Céleste Boursier-Mougenot would have liked the trees that moved on little robots around the French pavilion to travel the Giardini paths but didn’t get the go-ahead for that. Too Disney, I guess. Representatives from the Spanish pavilion handed out small comic books of gay life by Francesco Ruiz that culminated in a porno newsstand within. And Pamela Rosenkranz filled the Swiss pavilion with a deep pool of flesh-colored, bubbling liquid that looked both pretty and poisonous.

Left: Ludovico Pratesi and Pattie Cronin. Right: Protocinema founder Mari Spirito.

So much for the fun stuff. Call me partial, but I had the most profound experience in Joan Jonas’s legacy exhibition, “They Came to Us Without a Word,” at the American pavilion. In video, drawing, performance, and sculpture, this generous and poetic show is a meditation on, and confrontation with, the threat of extinction. Here is a seventy-nine-year-old artist at the top of her game looking back over the themes of her life and work while passing it on to younger generations. Most moving was a video where Jonas drew on her hooded face, marking time and place and a life in art. It felt all the more poignant in light of the sudden death, on April 29, of Jane Farver, former director of MIT’s List Visual Arts Center, the commissioner of Jonas’s exhibition. (The two had been working together in Venice on the show’s catalogue.)

“It was sad, sad,” she said at the Gritti, where Shane Ackroyd was giving a lunch in honor of both Jonas and Lucas. The sun was shining and the artists were enveloped by friends from London and New York—Gregor Muir, Stefan Kalmár, Kiki Smith, Clarissa Dalrymple, Adam McEwen. It felt just like home, with great risotto.

Meanwhile, over on the Bauer Hotel terrace, the Kurimanzuttos were hosting an even bigger and more international lunch for Durham. I found Kunsthalle Zurich director Daniel Baumann rubbing shoulders with Hans Ulrich Obrist and Koo Jeong A, Martin Hatebur and Peter Handschin, Nairy Baghramian, Eungie Joo, Marina Fokidis, Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn—so many people, really, that it was almost hard to comprehend that all over Venice similar lunches were taking place, just with other faces from other lands. Clearly, moving the biennial up a month from its usual place on the art calendar did nothing to discourage anyone from coming. The weather was better than it usually is in June, anyway.

Left: Kirsha Kachele. Right: Lily Atherton and Shane Ackroyd.

All this time, I had been hearing the same tepid comments about Enwezor’s exhibition. “It has interesting…things,” was the most common refrain. “Too much video,” was another. “I hate it,” came into the mix at the many cocktail parties taking place that evening, along with “unforgiving” and “daring.” At Palazzo Loredàn Dell’Ambasciatore, where Nicoletta Fiorucci was hosting a bubblicious party for Chisenhale Gallery director Polly Staple, it didn’t even come up. Across the canal, I could see another party for Isaac Julien in progress in the garden of Palazzo Malipiero-Barnabo—so near and yet so far.

Or not. A short time later, at a serene Metro Pictures cocktail on the quay in front of Harry’s Dolci, the first person I saw was Julien. Wasn’t he supposed to be at the other party? “I’m going there now!” he said, leaving the festivities to fellow gallery artists Gary Simmons and David Maljkovic, and dealers Janelle Reiring and Tom Heman.

A little farther down, Maria Baibakova was walking back from Marian Goodman’s party in a magnificent garden hidden behind the Fortuny fabric showroom, where Steve McQueen, Danh Vo, and William Kentridge were enjoying the night air and fine hors-d’oeuvres in the company of collectors from London, Los Angeles, and New York. Water taxis took us back to San Marco, too late for the Simon Denny cocktail at the Danieli. So I did what one does best in Venice. I got lost trying to find a dinner for Pattie Cronin, whose “Shrine for Girls” is one of the fifty-five collateral events attached to the biennial. By the time I found it, the Blain Southern party at the Bauer was underway and the usual chaos at the door made bed seem like the smarter choice. After all, this was only Tuesday.

Left:Ivan Costa. Right: Juliao Sarmento.

Wednesday brought the first official VIP preview of the biennial, though on my way out I found Victoria Miro heading to Julien’s Rolls Royce–commissioned, multiscreened film about the unsung Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi, though it appeared to have been shot in an Icelandic cave. Still, it was beautiful.

Once again, I headed to the Giardini, only to be stopped by Sylvia Kouvali, who led me to Christodoulos Panayiotou’s many-layered exhibition in the off-site Cypress pavilion—definitely worth the stop. Heading out, I was waylaid by the sight of Rob Pruitt’s Flea Market, curated by A Plus A gallery’s Tommaso Speretta. Pruitt was in New York preparing for the opening of his show at the Brant Foundation, but a biennial opening week has long legs. Inside the gallery was a beehive of young artists making and selling whimsical works of every description.

I had hoped to check out Denny’s listening-post of a spy operation at the glorious library on San Marco, but it was already time for Barbara Gladstone’s lunch at the Danieli. There, everyone I’d seen in the previous two days landed once again, along with Kunsthalle Basel director Elena Filipovic, Fondation Beyeler director Samuel Keller, dealer Shaun Caley Regen, and artist Thomas Hirschhorn. Was he happy with his placement in Enwezor’s show? “Happy?” he said. “I’m satisfied. Which isn’t the same as happy. But it’s very satisfying.”

Left: Dealer Giulia Ruberti. Right: Dealer Esther Schipper.

Finally, determined to see what brought me to Venice , I steamed back to the Giardini on foot and dove through the maudlin, torn black canvas bunting that Oscar Murillo draped on the portal of the Central Pavilion. Enwezor’s show began for me with the reinstallation of the evocative corpse of a dead tree, laid to rest by a (now) deceased artist, Robert Smithson. In the red Arena theater, designed (like the rest of the exhibition) by architect David Adjaye, there was a wonderfully lulling Charles Gaines musical performance drawn from his “Notes on Social Justice,” followed by the continuing marathon reading of Das Kapital, the undercurrent of this topical show.

As evidence of human suffering, geopolitics, inequality, and violence to body and soul passed by, I happened on the living—Glenn Ligon and a modest Adrian Piper, soon to be named the winner of the Golden Lion for best artist in the international exhibition. Kerry James Marshall strode through his room of bright new paintings, only a little rattled by the attention he was receiving from people pointing camera phones his way. Suddenly, there was a striding Enwezor. It had all turned out exactly the way he wanted, he said, rushing on. If he was aware of the widespread discontent he was causing, he must have been enjoying it. I imagine that was the goal.

People were talking up Mika Rottenberg’s video installation in the Arsenale. “I might be the only artist who used humor,” she offered from a table at a café as I raced along the canal to dress for evening. It brought yet another Fiorucci party, for Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and the Istanbul Biennial, and official dinners for Jonas and Lucas at almost neighboring (thank God) venues. Palazzo Pisani Moretta was jammed with many of those Americans who funded Jonas’s exhibition, curated by MIT List Art Center director Paul Ha. “I’m not me,” Jonas said. “This isn’t real.”

Left: Erin Manns and Alejandra Navia. Right: Daniel Oh and Tommaso Speretta.

Overwhelmed or not, she bravely worked the room, greeting everyone personally, including the man with the bravest face, that of Farver’s widowed husband, John Moore. He was tucked away in a side room with the other bohemians from New York—Performa founder RoseLee Goldberg, dealer Gavin Brown, curator Mark Rosenthal, and Joan Simon, author of a forthcoming Jonas catalogue raisonné to be published by Gregory Miller, who was also present. So was Jason Moran, Jonas’s frequent musical collaborator, who has an installation of his own in Enwezor’s show and will be back in Venice to perform with Jonas in July.

This was almost a state dinner compared with what was going on at Sadie Coles’s vastly looser-limbed party for Lucas at the fashionably decrepit Palazzo Zeno, definitely the go-to celebration of the week. People, including Sheena Wagstaff, Mark Francis, Nicholas Serota, Helen Marten, Katie Holten, Gavin Turk, Dillon Cohen, Bice Curiger, Negar Azimi, Amanda Sharp, and former Frieze Projects curator Nicola Lees (now curator of the Thirty-First Biennial of Graphic Arts in Ljubljana, of all places) were everywhere—in the courtyard, on the stone staircase leading to the dining rooms and many salons, all of them crowded with the flush and the flushed. They picked at food, hugged the bars and each other, wandered up and down, and when the clock struck eleven they took to the dance floor where DJ Pam Hogg kept them on their feet till the wee hours, or longer.

Thursday dawned with a private view of the must-be-seen “New Objectivity,” a continually surprising show of Weimar-era German art at Museo Corer, curated by Stephanie Barron of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. (It goes there next.)

I was about to depart for the Arsenale when I realized that “Slip of the Tongue,” the group show that Danh Vo and Caroline Bourgeois had curated for Francois Pinault’s Punta della Dogana, was just across the lagoon. I arrived to find MoMA’s Kathy Halbreich and Stuart Comer already there. The hush was broken by Stefan Simchowitz, who was giving a fast-talking, gobbledygook interview about the art market to a European journalist with a film crew in tow, barely stopping to take in what might be the most substantial and compassionate show in town. “This is everything Okwui’s show should have been,” I heard one person say. “Moral superiority doesn’t leave a lot of room for empathy,” a curator from an American museum replied. Oops.

Left: Chiharu Shiota. Right: Damiana Leoni and Peter Miller.

Night was approaching and my hopes for the Arsenale were quickly fading. Boats were leaving for the Bruno Bischofberger dinner at Le Stanze del Vetro on San Giorgio island. I could see the crowd from another boat motoring to the private island of the St. Regis San Clemente Palace. That’s where Samdani Art Foundation founders Nadia and Rajeeb Samdami of Bangladesh were honoring biennial artists Naeem Mohaiemen and Raqs Media Collective.

On board were Documenta 14 director Adam Szymczyk, Stedelijk Museum director Beatrix Ruf, Tate Modern director Chris Dercon, Fiorucci Art Trust curator Milovan Farronato, Protocinema founder Mari Spirito, and Delfina Foundation director Aaron Cezar, with a couple of hundred others. The foundation, which supports and promotes South Asian artists, also hosts the Dhaka Art Summit, the 2016 edition of which artistic director Diana Campbell Betancourt announced in an impressive speech given in the almost total dark of the hotel’s elaborate gardens.

After an enormous buffet, and feeling a little woozy from the events of the day, I hopped a boat back to San Marco, hoping to catch Haroon Mirza’s performance during a Sleepless Night at the Bauer, where independent filmmaker Jonas Mekas, ninety-three, was speaking for “The Internet Saga,” a show at Palazzo Foscari Contarini where he is the subject. I missed it all, though I bumped into artist Luigi Ontani as he exited the bar where Mekas gave his talk. “Amazing,” he said.

It wasn’t until I got to dealer Lorcan O’Neill’s ultraglam opening for Tracey Emin in Rome on Saturday that I finally got, to borrow Hirschhorn’s word, a satisfying take on the Arsenale. Before dinner at the Palazzo Taverna—an immense, ornate spread that makes every palazzo in Venice look like a small country cottage—Australian collector Amanda Love weighed in. “It’s great to see the biennial looking like a third-world country again,” she said, “albeit an impeccably curated one. It’s the best in twenty years.”

Left: Carey Fouks and Stecey Horton. Right: Bob Rennie.

Left: Asad Raza and collector Maja Hoffman. Right: Amalia Pica and Sarah McCrory.

Left: Artists Marina Abramović and Marco Brambilla. Right: Novelist Orhan Pamuk and Istanbul Biennial artistic director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev.

Left: Dealer Daniel Buchholz and curator Abaseh Mirvali. Right: Kunsthalle Zurich director Daniel Baumann and Hepworth-Wakefield chief curator Andrew Bonacina.

Left: Artists Adrian Piper and Glenn Ligon. Right: Venice Biennale artistic director Okwui Enwezor. (All photos: Linda Yablonsky)

Left: Delfina Foundation director Aaron Cezar. Right: Dealers Jose Kuri and Ales Ortuzar.

Left: Artist Walead Beshty and LACMA curator Jarrett Gregory. Right: Dealers Ivan Wirth and Manuela Hauser.

Left: M+ director Lars Nittve (left) with K11 Art Foundation founder Adrian Cheng (right). Right: Park Avenue Armory and Manchester Festival director Alex Poots.

Left: Curator Eungie Joo. Right: Stedelijk Museum Beatrix Ruf and Stedelijk Museum conservator and curator Bart van der Heide.

Left: Artist Thomas Hirschhorn. Right: Artist Tracey Emin with dealer Lorcan O'Neill.

Left: Curator Emma Lavigne and artist Céleste Boursier Mougenot. Right: Curator Joan Simon and pianist Jason Moran.

Left: Artist Nairy Baghramian. Right: LACMA curator Franklin Sirmans and artist Gary Simmons.

Left: Dealer Monica Manzutto. Right: Collector Nadia Samdani with Samdani Art Foundation artistic director Diana Campbell Bettancourt and collector Rajeeb Samdani.

Left: Artist Kerry James Marshall. Right: “Edge of Chaos” curators Nicola Vassel (left) and Vita Zaman (right) with artist Audra Vao.

Left: Chisenhale director Polly Staple and dealer Sylvia Kouvali. Right: Artist Christodoulos Panayiotou.

Left: Dealers Sadie Coles, Max Falkenstein, Simone Battisti, Allyson Spellacy, and Barbara Gladstone. Right: Kunsthalle Basel director Elena Filipovic.
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Left: Dealer Gavin Brown and artist Joan Jonas. Right: Artist Jimmie Durham.