THE VENICE ART BIENNALE is never just an assembly of national exhibitions competing for prominence and prizes. It’s a summit meeting marshaling the collective conscience of the art world.
One could sense it build during the preopening events of the Biennale’s fifty-seventh edition, basically an invitation to mainline art while capitalizing on the social element and pretending business is not involved. Fat chance of that when the planet’s most carnivorous collectors are bending elbows with teams of dealers and advisers, top museum personnel, and deep benches of artists. Many, many artists.
Indeed, this biennial’s artistic director, Centre Pompidou chief curator Christine Macel, titled her exhibition “Viva Arte Viva” and declared it to be “designed with artists, by artists, for artists”—as if everyone else attending didn’t count!
Members of each group arriving on Monday had only to enter the newly renovated ground-floor galleries of the Gallerie dell’Accademia to feast on “Philip Guston and the Poets,” a delectable surprise of a show negotiated by Hauser & Wirth and curated by one Dr. Kosme de Barañano.
It was a first for Guston in Venice and a first for the Accademia. Never before has art produced after the eighteenth century hung on its walls. American Academy in Rome artistic director Peter Miller, the first to bring a Guston exhibition to Italy, was quick to pronounce the show excellent. Certainly, this was more than a Biennale teaser. It showed signs of becoming the go-to exhibition of the week.
It would have stiff competition—from the Prada Foundation and, majorly, from exhibitions on San Giorgio Maggiore Island by Alighiero Boetti, Robert Rauschenberg, Michelangelo Pistoletto, and Paul McCarthy (in VR!) at Fondazione Cini, and both Ettore Sottsass and Pae White (she built a blown-glass wall!) at Le Stanze del Vetro. But who among us can ever get enough art?
A few days earlier, Randy Kennedy had been a stalwart New York Times reporter. Now he stood with Hauser & Wirth captains Marc Payot, Cristopher Canizares, Timo Kapeller, and Barbara Corti, welcoming collectors such as Stuart and Gina Peterson, lenders to the Guston show, top curatorial powers, and many of the gallery’s thirteen biennial artists to dinner in the extravagantly appointed rooms of the Palazzo Barbaro, which once housed the studio of John Singer Sargent.
Now it had Mark Bradford, the artist representing the United States with an exhibition as well as a community project for people recently released from prison. One thing we can say: This artist is not working just for money. “I’m happy with it,” he said of the drab American pavilion. “I’m just going to relax and be myself.”
It only just seemed as if every art-educated person—or everyone from New York, Zurich, London, and Los Angeles—was at his side. Not true! Viennese art adviser Gisela Winkelhofer was holding the first of two black-tie dinners for a European contingent of artists and collectors at nearby Palazzetto Pisani. (Do women actually pack their gowns, shop here, or ship them ahead?)
Back over the Accademia Bridge, at La Cucina on the Zattere, Pilar Corrias had a sweep of international personalities for dinner on a rain-soaked pier. The company was juicy too. At its center were artists Rachel Rose, Ian Cheng, Philippe Parreno, Anri Sala, and Tala Madani, bounded by collectors Eleanor Cayre, Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Maja Hoffmann, dealers Gavin Brown and Peder Lund, and curators from Tate Modern (Gregor Muir) and the Hirshhorn Museum (Jarrett Gregory). “This is my seventh Biennale,” Parreno said. Was that a record? “Could be,” he replied. “I think it is.”
Seated beside me was Elena Geuna, curator of the biggest curiosity in Venice—Damien Hirst’s “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable,” at François Pinault’s Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana. “The narrative really starts at the Dogana,” she said. “Go there first.”
First? Before the Biennale? Then when? For such a relatively small city, particularly one designed to frustrate invaders by making sure they never know exactly where they are, Venice during a Biennale opening is a dizzying challenge.
But Venice has an unending appetite for art and it would be a shame not to hunt for the Carlo Scarpa studio, a private apartment open only for a special sound project by Melissa McGill during Biennale preview week. Or to dash out of the rain into the Basilica dei Frari to gape at Canova’s marble pyramid of a tomb. Or to study the political graffiti pulled off the walls of former prison cells in the Palazzo Ducale, next to a new video by Douglas Gordon. Or seek out off-site shows such as curator Caroline Corbetta’s presentation of works by the promising Thomas Braida at the untouched Palazzo Nani Bernardo, a Venetian home opposite the sanitized Palazzo Grassi.
The other great pleasure of Venice during a Biennale involves the random crossing of paths with familiar faces while lost in the alleys and sotoportegos between the bridges over winding canals.
Walk through a tiny campo and see artist Thomas Demand emerge from an espresso bar. Stroll down the Riva degli Schiavoni and pass the sister dealers Francesca Kaufmann and Chiara Repetto, or the artist Olafur Eliasson. Trot across the Campo San Stefano and find the artist Francis Alÿs, a Belgian showing in the very interesting pavilion of Iraq. Walk out of the Arsenale and see auctioneer Simon de Pury and his wife, Michaela, hot-footing it ahead of Beyeler Foundation director Sam Keller and Parkett cofounders Bice Curiger and Jacqueline Burckhardt. Is this not fun? Then turn a corner and spy Piero Golia, the one person I have met who understands the Venetian system of numbering houses, which doesn’t involve street names. Indeed, the most common sight of the week was of art pedestrians staring at map apps on their phones.
Tuesday morning I dutifully hauled myself to the Dogana, only to be dwarfed by an astonishing, huge bronze medallion magnificently encrusted with studio-made coral and giant barnacles as ugly as they were beautiful. The show, rumored to have cost some sixty million dollars to produce, was a fantasy of artifacts from ancient and modern cultures supposedly dredged from watery graves, some more believably than others. (A room of extraordinarily crafted gold objects would make a worthy companion to the King Tut room in the Cairo Museum.) Altogether, “Treasures” felt like the abandoned props of Disney movies, suggesting Hirst as our greatest living surrealist. Oddly, this was the one stop I made all week where I didn’t see anyone I knew.
After taking a vaporetto that stopped several stations short of the Giardini, I hoofed it to the Arsenale, only to run into dealer Lauren Wittels and artist Charles Atlas. His large-screen video of Lady Bunny, high hair and all, giving a disquisition on the environment before breaking into the joyous song The End of the World, deserved the special mention it later got from the Biennale jury.
This section, one of nine so-called pavilions illustrating socially conscious, spiritual, or aesthetic conventions, took on a bit of grandeur with Leonor Antunes’s sequence of handwoven brass, leather, and rubber screens lit by blown-glass hanging lamps. They divided attention between the floor sculptures of found lumber and objects by Gabriel Orozco and a tinkling work by Anri Sala that turned drums for printing wallpaper into a player-piano-like roll. “All three artists are from my gallery,” noted dealer José Kuri, with no small satisfaction.
Then there was the Italian pavilion. For years it has cultivated a reputation for embarrassing shows. Not this time. With High Line art curator Cecilia Alemani in charge, and a healthy budget from Fendi, its main sponsor, it offered just three artists—Roberto Cuoghi, Adelita Husni-Bey, and Giorgio Andreotta Calò—in an exhibition titled “Il Mondo Magico.”
And magic it was for dealer Pepi Marchetti Franchi and art adviser Damiana Léoni, both Italians who approached each presentation with trepidation, only to exit feeling proud. Cuoghi took on the mummification of Christ—almost literally—with a workshop that was part biosphere and part morgue. Husni-Bey provided a change of pace with a video documenting another kind of workshop, one dramatizing group power dynamics. Neither of these projects prepared us for Andreotta Calò’s site-specific architectural invention, a truly transformative experience that was, in its quiet way, more spectacular than Hirst’s.
My feet were starting to hurt but my ears picked up at the alluring sounds in the gardens, a project by Hassan Khan, who deserved the Silver Lion he later won. But right now it was past time to hit the Giardini. (Tuesday’s press day is the only time—before the public opening—to see shows unmolested by rude hordes determined to be first at everything.)
We were hardly past the gate before people started saying that Faust, the fascist-flavored performance by Anne Imhof in the German pavilion, was the absolute must-see of the whole circus. By the end of the afternoon, the consensus on who would win the top prizes was divided among Bradford, Imhof, and ninety-one-year-old Geta Brătescu of Romania. I thought the films and photographs by Tracey Moffatt in the Australian pavilion added up to one of the most beautifully realized of all pavilions. Yet in hundreds of conversations, the name Franz Erhard Walther, who ultimately won the best artist prize, never came up.
So much for speculation.
Evening was drawing nigh and the scene shifted to San Marco, where collector Bob Rennie was on the Hotel Danieli rooftop hosting a cocktail party for fellow Canadian Geoffrey Farmer. Some people, Farmer said, expressed sympathy even while congratulating him, assuming he’d been forced to work with the ruin of a building destroyed in a storm, rather than deliberately taking it apart and leaving just the roof to shelter a geyser.
Near the Teatro Fenice, London’s Victoria Miro was inaugurating legendary Venetian dealer Bruna Aickelin’s Il Capricorno as a new Miro outpost showing sultry, slightly heretical watercolors by the dapper Chris Ofili. He was surrounded by Frieze cofounder Matthew Slotover and Tate Britain curator Ann Gallagher. Funny how powerfully loyalty to country courses through a Venice Biennale.
It was only going to get more intense.
At the Museo Correr, friends and fans of Shirin Neshat gathered for the opening of “Home of My Eyes,” a show of more than fifty black-and-white portraits of people from Azerbaijan and an arresting new video, located just down the hall from “Poussin to Cézanne”—of course! This is Venice, a place more famous for looking back than ahead.
There were speeches—by curator Thomas Kellein, collector Christian Boehringer (his Written Art Foundation was the show’s main backer), and the voluble Gabriella Belli, director of the foundation that oversees all the museums owned by the city. She confessed her fear in advance of the show, where a large wooden figure from the Renaissance remained high on one wall, between Neshat’s photographs. Crosspollination, apparently, isn’t Belli’s thing. “Shirin said keep it there,” Belli confessed. “I was so nervous. But we did it and now I see she was right.”
Darkness fell. What was it going to be? The Hauser & Wirth party for Phyllida Barlow? The Marian Goodman cocktail in the Fortuny gardens on the Giudecca? The Miro dinner for Ofili at the Monaco? Or Nicoletta Fiorucci’s dinner at the Palazzo Loredan dell’Ambasciatore to celebrate the splendid show by Lucy McKenzie and curator Milovan Farronato at Palazzetto Tito?
No time for any of that. This night belonged to Fendi CEO Pietro Beccari’s Italian pavilion dinner under the Tintorettos at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, possibly the most glorious public room in all of Venice.
The event leaned more fashion than art, but even the art people dressed up. Maurizio Cattelan wore a blinding white dinner jacket. Massimo De Carlo and Jeffrey Deitch, each in a bespoke suit, were outclassed for cool by architect David Adjaye and for sexiness by Andreotta Calò, one of the few artists invited. Studio Museum director Thelma Golden relied on her engaging husband, the designer Duro Olowu, and Italian pavilion curator Cecilia Alemani was, naturally, swathed head to toe in Fendi.
Getting a crack at his country’s pavilion represented something of a homecoming for the Venetian-born Andreotta Calò, who was an assistant to Ilya Kabakov when the Russian artist shared the building with Richard Serra at the 2002 Biennale, before Italy claimed it. “Now I’m in Serra’s space,” Andreotta Calò said, with a touch of awe. “It’s fantastic.”
On Wednesday morning, the Prada Foundation welcomed the press to “The Boat Is Leaking. The Captain Lied,” a surpassing exhibition curated by Udo Kittelmann and kitted out, as it were, by collaborating artist Thomas Demand, filmmaker/philosopher/talk-show host Alexander Kluge, and set designer Anna Viebrock.
Visitors move through a series of connected rooms—a courtroom, a theater, a doctor’s examining room, a parlor—never quite knowing if they are actor or audience. “This show could never happen anywhere else,” said Demand, giving the nod to Miuccia Prada, a go-for-broke collector if there ever was one. The rooms, Demand said, originally were Viebrock’s sets and props for a drama staged by a German theater company and later abandoned in Mexico—until the Prada Foundation shipped it all to Venice.
“They know how to do crazy here!” exclaimed Documenta 14 curator Dieter Roelstraete, with admiration. “This show is audience-averse. It’s arcane and elaborate in its refusal of spectacle. I love it.”
Wednesday was also the so-called professional preview of the Biennale, but it looked as if thousands of tourists were pouring into the Giardini. Long lines formed for nearly every pavilion, especially Germany’s, where some viewers stayed for hours. The one for Finland was shorter, so after impromptu chats with passersby such as the artist duo Elmgreen & Dragset, Nasher Sculpture Center director Jeremy Strick, and Stedelijk Museum curator Bart van der Heide, I entered and enjoyed an animated video by Nathaniel Mellors and Erkka Nissinen that employed the tropes of commercial advertising as self-analysis.
Swiss pavilion curator Philipp Kaiser was drawing a smarty-pants crowd to the official opening of his show, “Women of Venice,” with sculpture by Carol Bove and a compelling double-sided semi-doc by Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler starring the son of Flora Mayo, who was Alberto Giacometti’s lover. “Switzerland’s most famous artist refused to show in this pavilion, even though it was designed by his brother,” Kaiser said. “So we’re doing it.”
If you were American, it was time for fancy dress. The equivalent of a state dinner was about to begin for Bradford at the Hotel Cirpriani, hosted by collector and activist Pamela Joyner and her husband, Fred Giuffrida, with Lizbeth and George Krupp. The Cipriani is on the Giudecca. People came in black tie via boats. Some were artists, including Charles Gaines, Kevin Beasley, and Mary Weatherford. But others represented an impressive array of institutions, from the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum to the Hammer, the Metropolitan, the Guggenheim, SF MoMA, the Hirshhorn, the Studio Museum, the MIT List Visual Arts Center, the Broad, and, of course, the American pavilion’s two commissioners, the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Rose Museum at Brandeis, where BMA director Christopher Bedford was working when he nominated Bradford.
These occasions, attended by State Department administrators, can be stiff. Happily, when Bradford is around, things tend to loosen up. Met curator Sheena Wagstaff even set her table on fire—accidentally, but it gave dealer Iwan Wirth a chance to play hero and put it out.
Speeches were blessedly short and to the point, directing us to take pride in a country that infuriates many of those present. “I heard from five different people with very good taste that this is the best American pavilion in twenty years,” Bedford began, before complimenting Hauser & Wirth for being “a gallery unlike any other” and calling out collector Eileen Norton as Bradford’s longest continuing supporter.
A former BMA board chair told Bradford that he’d created a public project even more “impactful” than his exhibition, ‘Tomorrow Is Another Day.’” “It’s a call to action,” she said, that “teaches us the importance of not being silent.” At that, Kelly Degnan, chargé d’affaires of the US mission to Italy, got up and thanked Bradford “for being Mark Bradford,” and noted how he shook the hand of every person entering the pavilion.
A standing ovation greeted the artist. “I’m not a person who tells you what to think about art,” he said, explaining that he wanted his process and struggle to be visible in the work. “I’m an artist as a citizen,” he declared. “It was important to greet people. The closer I can get to people the less I feel alone.” Again, his listeners stood to applaud. As he turned to Allan DiCastro, his partner in life and in his public project, Art and Practice, in Los Angeles, I almost cried when he added, “I had a bus pass and dream, and then I met Allan.”
After dinner came Bradford’s choice of a “surprise” entertainment, a set by New Orleans performer Big Freedia so rousing that Ford Foundation director Darren Walker wasted no time hitting the dance floor while Thelma Golden showed her moves on the stage.
At a Venice Biennale, in any political moment, a degree of nationalism inevitably creeps into one’s thinking, even when attitudes toward home are conflicted. Our country has a great deal to answer for, but when Big Freedia and the dancers hit their marks, I suddenly felt sorry for people attending dinners for other countries’ artists. I wanted to shout, Here’s the America we know and love!
At week’s end, Imhof won the Golden Lion for best national participation. Maybe too many Americans have been taking home trophies in recent years. Carolee Schneemann was already slated for the Lifetime Achievement award, but Bradford didn’t get a nod, nor did Brătescu or Andreotta Calò.
Oh, well. As Bradford said, “Tomorrow is another day.”