Lagoon Squad

Pia Capelli at the 17th Venice Architecture Biennale

Curators Joseph Grima and Sofia Pia Belenky at VAC Foundation.

STEPPING OUT OF A GLOBAL RAINY LOCKDOWN and straight into a sunny Architecture Biennale in Venice is no small feat: not for the locals, who are by now used to having the city to themselves; and not for the pro travelers who discover a land of 11 p.m. curfews, zero buffet lunches, and carefully slotted museum previews, where spritz is flowing but Italians have stopped hugging and kissing. The first few minutes inside any exhibition (or aperitivo) today feel like a miracle and a relief: The Biennale is actually happening! We are here again! Three air hugs (or drinks) later, a sense of bewilderment sneaks in: Is this. . . okay?

One now approaches any art event of this scale with a number of conflicting reactions: overenthusiasm shot through with anxiety, empathy and disconnection, fearlessness, and concern. Hashim Sarkis, this biennial’s curator, puts it best with his title: “How will we live together?” In answer to this question, the show—which opened to the public on May 22 and is the first major European post-Covid art event—has brought 63 nations to the historic pavilions across the Giardini, the Arsenale, and the city center, plus 17 official collateral events.

The exclusive Wednesday preview day of the Architecture Biennale is an emotional affair in and of itself, with the very lucky few promenading and looking out for familiar faces in the near-deserted Giardini. Some pavilions are still installing, and visitors mistake the builders at the Russian Pavilion for performers. Some others are poetic and empty, so I linger in Denmark and sip vervain calming tea, then later get a little lump in my throat navigating Brazil’s rivers and urban history. I don’t have to queue for what is now called “the restrooms pavilion.” There is a moment of high-pitched cheering when Presidente Roberto Cicutto declares the Biennale open, followed by remarks by Sarkis: “We are all crazy for being here. If I have one emotion to share with you, one that comes out of this biennale, it is love.” Fine art is grafted into the very body of Sarkis’s show, with projects by Olafur Eliasson, Michael Rovner, and Arcangelo Sassolino—plus an installation by Giuseppe Penone in the Arsenale waters commissioned by Vuslat Foundation in collaboration with Chus Martinez—but it also unravels like a fil rouge of stubbornness and resilience around town: Many projects that were scheduled to coincide with Biennale Arte decided to stick to their original dates.

Two shows tower above all: Peter Fischli’s über brainy “Stop Painting” at Fondazione Prada, where the relevance of painting is argued through ruptures, repudiations, and paradigm shifts; and Bruce Nauman’s striking “Contrapposto Studies” at Punta della Dogana, curated by Carlos Basualdo and Caroline Bourgeois. On Thursday morning, Basualdo welcomes visitors at the entrance of Punta della Dogana: “The idea was to be here with Nauman, but flying out of the US has been tricky. Everything has been difficult. In a way, I think the show conveys this very sense of disorientation, making you question your own presence,” he says from beneath a Borsalino hat, his face hidden behind a very elegant navy-blue mask.

Art galleries are open and reflect the Biennale mood. Alma Zevi has a show focusing on Luisa Lambri (who won the Golden Lion in 1999); Michela Rizzo hosts Andrea Mastrovito’s works about loss and detachment during the peak corona days; Victoria Miro is presenting Conrad Shawcross’s “Fractures” and “Perimeter Studies” sculptures, and is also inviting visitors into an art-filled apartment right across the calle where the gallery expects to entertain collectors soon “and sell, naturalmente.” Thaddaeus Ropac is in town, supporting Georg Baselitz’s show at Fondazione Vedova as well as Not Vital’s Scarch (Sculpture + Architecture) sky-reaching installation inside Abbazia di San Giorgio. Post-vernissage cocktails prove discreet receptions in small gardens and backyards, and if there’s some “secret” party happening after-hours in hotel rooms or private apartments, it’s not publicly discussed. At Il Palazzo Experimental, groups of canottieri, Venetian rowers in white-and-blue striped T-shirts (on break from the Vogalonga regatta), share the garden with Rick Owens, Michele Lamy, and a reborn crowd of Instagrammers and TikTokkers.

Artist Georg Baselitz at Palazzo Grimani.

The most convivial moments happen at Ocean Space, inside the church of San Lorenzo dei Greci, the breathtaking Venetian venue of hyper-multidisciplinary TBA21 Academy, which now hosts Taloi Havini’s “The Soul-Expanding Ocean” (curated by Chus Martinez) and “Oceans in Transformation – Territorial Agency” (curated by Daniela Zyman). On Friday afternoons, I always try to attend their itinerant conversations, curated by Barbara Casavecchia and Pietro Consolandi. The 2021 series is about “Lagoon Micro-Ecologies” and takes explorers to remote, bird-inhabited islands of the Venetian ecosystem. But after a week of biennale fatigue, this Friday’s event takes the shape of a short, joyful pilgrimage to a small food collective (Tocia!) in Castello, where chef Marco Bravetti distributes bowls of raw seafood, algae, herbs, and flowers that will become our dinner. “Preserve and evolve,” his keywords, seem to sum up the city’s philosophy for the near future.

Another atypical show stands out: “Non-Extractive Architecture - On Designing without Depletion,” curated by Joseph Grima and Space Caviar at the VAC Foundation. The posh building on Zattere is transformed into a workshop, with teams of young architects clicking away and walls covered in handwritten notes that chronicle the progress of their research. “We opened with an empty building, says Grima. “The idea is that throughout the course of the year, like a laboratory, we’ll produce things in here.” This concept—Venice as laboratory—keeps popping up in conversation. Architect Luca Molinari, in his multiple roles as curator (of the exhibition “EST” at Fondazione Cini), member of the Biennale Jury, and newly appointed director of M9 Museum in Mestre, expresses it well while we sit in the sun: “The future of Venice is supremely challenging. The goal is to avoid going back to the usual tide of indifferent visitors and present future Venice not just as a stage or a postcard, but as a laboratorio. With the rumored 2022 arrival of the Kapoor Foundation, the recent acquisition of the iconic Giudecca building Casa dei Tre Oci by the Berggruen Institute, and many new institutions and two universities, this city is getting more and more relevant.” The future of life in Venice is a political matter, Molinari continues. “Architecture today is a synonym of responsibility. It is a form of care.”

Care is the mission for a number of institutions that have been very busy during the pandemic. “We have never stopped working,” says Toto Bergamo Rossi, the advisor and soul of Venetian Heritage, as he guides me through the magnificent restoration of Museo di Palazzo Grimani that has been brought back to its splendor during the lockdown, and which now also hosts a long-term installation by Baselitz (this one supported by Gagosian and curated by Mario Codognato). Venice International Foundation has appointed a new architect president, Luca Bombassei, as well as the first of a new series of Venice Ambassadors, Angela Missoni. In partnership with Venetian museums, VIF will finance the education of younger “potential Venetians” to bring fresh talent to the city.</p>On the way home one afternoon in the heart of Dorsoduro (a sestiere that is now home to the very successfully rebranded “Museum Mile”), I bump into Teresa Mavica, director of VAC. “This is the strangest Biennale,” she notes. “Such few people, and this palpable mix of desire and fear. But have you seen? Everyone here is a professional. In the end, the core of the Biennale community has come to Venice.”

Streetnewspaper &#8220;Arts of the Working Class&#8221; publishers Mari&#769;a Ine&#769;s Plaza Lazo and Alina Kolar with collector Andrea Succo.

Studio Bound architect Hussam Dakkak at the Saudi Arabia pavilion.

Designer Maarten Baas and Anna Adriani, Fondaco dei Tedeschi's marketing and comms Director.

Dealer Thaddaeus Ropac, Artist Not Vital, organizer and producer Olivier Renaud-Cle&#769;ment at Abbazia di San Giorgio.

Fondazione dell'Albero d'Oro Daniela Ferretti al Palazzo Vendramin Grimani.

Fondazione Prada curator Eva Fabbris and dealer Federico Vavassori.

Fondazione Querini Stampalia director Chiara Bertola with artists Jimmie Durham, Maria Thereza Alves, and Kai-Morten Vollmer.

Markus Reymann, director of TBA21-Academy; Graziano Meneghin, Ocean Space fellowship coordinator; Shoghig Halajian &amp; Johanna Breiding, Ocean Fellows 2021; Barbara Casavecchia, The Current III, curator; Rosalyn D'Mello, Ocean fellow 2021, Mentor; Beatrice Forchini, TBA21 Academy; Daniela Zyman, artistic director of TBA21 and curator of the exhibition &#8220;Oceans in Transformation&#8221; by Territorial Agency.

Philadelphia Museum of Art's director of contemporary art Carlos Basualdo (center) with Palazzo Grassi's exhibition officer Marco Ferraris and head of comms Clementina Rizzi.

President of the Venice Biennale Roberto Cicutto. Photo: Andrea Avezzu.

TBA21 - Academy's Pietro Consolandi.

VAC Foundation director Teresa Mavica.

Victoria Miro&#8217;s director Pia Ottes in the gallery&#8217;s new viewing room.

Writer Gianluigi Ricuperati, artist Elisa Sighicelli, and Fondazione Ligabues chairman Inti Ligabue.

Artist Giuseppe Penone, Vuslat Dog&#774;an Sabanci, and Biennale President Roberto Cicutto. All photos by author unless noted.

Venice International Foundation Ambassador Angela Missoni and President Luca Bombassei.

Architect Rafael Moneo, Biennale Golden Lion 2021. Photo: Germa&#769;n Saiz.

Art historian and and curator Cristina Beltrami.

Artist Giuseppe Caccavale at work in Fondazione Querini Stampalia&#8217;s library.

Artist Giuseppe Penone, Vuslat Dog&#774;an Sabanci, and Biennale President Roberto Cicutto.

Artist Peter Fischli with Fondazione Prada&#8217;s Head of Programs, Chiara Costa; and General Director Cristian  Valsecchi.

Architect and M9 Museum director Luca Molinari.

Biennale Director Hashim Sarkis. Photo: Jacopo Salvi.

Chef Marco Bravetti, founder of Tocia! Cuisine and Community.

Curator Ludovico Pratesi, art historian Ester Coen with Biennale's Head of Editorial Projects Flavia Fossa Margutti

Curator Mario Codognato, Gagosian director Pepi Marchetti, Venetian Heritage Advisor Toto Bergamo Rossi, Veneto Regional Museums Director Daniele Ferrara at Museo di Palazzo Grimani.

Curator Mario Codognato, Venetian Heritage Advisor Toto Bergamo Rossi, Gagosian director Pepi Marchetti,  Regional Museums of Veneto Director Daniele Ferrara at Museo di Palazzo Grimani.