Last Call

View of the US pavilion at Venice, featuring Sarah Sze's installation Triple Point. (All photos: Suzanne Hudson)

I AM NOT SURE what I expected to find in Venice the weekend the Biennale closed. The prospect of the city subsiding into its lagoon, and tilting ever eastward into the Adriatic Sea, is real, if occurring on a scale asynchronous to that of a six-month exhibition. Still, other postdiluvian scenarios were in ready supply: abandoned gardens and art left for mulch. In moments of undue hilarity, I imagined said gardens beset by feral dogs. Such was my conditioning by an economy of instant obsolescence in which shows open only to be met with a headlong rush to consensus and forgetting, often before they are even accessible to the public. To be sure, months of installation in damp palazzos and exposed pedestrian plazas inevitably (and maybe in some instances intentionally) resulted in less than pristine material conditions, as in the case of the conspicuously weathered cork furniture lining Joana Vasconcelos’s floating Portuguese pavilion docked alongside the Giardini. That the penultimate day saw torrential rains probably didn’t help to refocus my orientation from sites of decay. Tattered and long-since functional umbrellas lay in cliques, metal rods askew in the unforgiving mud. The hottest-ticket item in the bookstore was a unisex plastic poncho. The tea served up for free in “English Magic,” Jeremy Deller’s submission for the British pavilion, became the object of fierce determination.

Less specifically, lapses of maintenance—gossamer spiderwebs crossing Roberto Cuoghi’s hulking sculpture, Belinda, 2013, in the Arsenale; dead insects littering the vitrines containing Shinichi Sawada’s clay menagerie nearby—were admissions of another kind, as were bathrooms depleted of toilet paper and far from fully stocked cafés. This is to say nothing of the absence of satellite events, the truncated runs of which meant that they were long gone by November. Most regrettably, the Palazzo Ducale’s already legendary “Manet: Return to Venice,” a collection of dozens of Manet’s works (assembled jointly by the Musée d’Orsay, the Uffizi Gallery, and the Venice Civic Museums), and the Prada Foundation’s “When Attitudes Become Form: Bern 1969/Venice 2013,” Germano Celant’s restaging of Harald Szeemann’s watershed exhibition of Minimal and process art for the Bern Kunsthalle, had shuttered by the time of my arrival. I knew this schedule in advance, of course, and decided to go anyway, to see the art despite this, but more to understand what and who was still there. I have dropped in on plenty of exhibitions the last week, weekend, or even day of their hang; but while these eleventh-hour outings might have been intentional acts, they were never performed. Neither reactionary stance, nor self-conscious position, these attempts to catch things before it became too late to do so in person were more commonly the result of happenstance, oversubscription, and poor planning.

This trip to Venice was something else. My curiosity about what happened after the official story ended got the best of me. (Plus, Gioni’s theme of “The Encyclopedic Palace,” appropriated from the self-taught Italian-American artist Marino Auriti, who conceived a building that would house all the knowledge in the world, suggested the impossibility of the comprehensiveness from the outset, unwittingly mitigating the gravity of omissions of sight and knowledge.) For the narrative of “Venice”—both exemplary and unexceptional—comprises two distinct if inextricable parts in most framings: The opening anticipates nothing and achieves its own satiety; it is but a memory to be activated in the context of conversation. The second act involves the publication of related press. Some coverage is indistinguishable from social media promotions (endless tweets, selfies, and Facebook status updates) that constitute a mode of default journalism, while the more scholarly, formalized criticism appears in paper monthlies in September, the return of the repressed. By then, everyone has moved on to the fall schedule, or the next like project helmed by someone else. Indeed, coincident with my writing of this piece came the announcement that Okwui Enwezor will succeed Massimiliano Gioni as Visual Arts Director of the next Biennale iteration, in 2015.

Left: Massimiliano Gioni, Visual Arts Director of the 55th Venice Biennale, and Venice Biennale president Paolo Baratta at a press conference. Right: A panel on “Museums and Biennials” at the Venice Biennale.

Still, Gioni’s curatorial premise of a temporary museum has implications for the writing that attends it, rendering this delay more apposite than I would have expected, perhaps even structurally commensurate with the show’s project. If one takes seriously Gioni’s claims for the international pavilions as representing coexisting temporalities within the contemporary—and here he seems to borrow liberally from Terry Smith, among others—the fact that the heaviest traffic occurred sometime else might not be as surprising. Materials I received at a press conference held the final morning enumerate the following statistics: 28,386 people visited the last week of October versus 20,424 during the preview. The issue is one of demographics. Appended to this quantitative data was the following quote from the Biennale’s president, Paolo Baratta: “After the opening five days of the exhibition, the yachts all departed and the following six months were characterized by the presence of the backpack crowd. Many of those who came for the pre-opening returned to visit a second and third time; this is another important element, which makes our glorious Vernissage no longer the paradise but the purgatory of super experts in the field.”

I never found out how many people moved through the turnstiles on November 24. The sun had come out, and while I would not describe the audience as populous, the place was far from deserted. Partly contributory was the draw for the concluding panel in a series, “Meetings on Art,” which spanned the duration of the biennial. Here, an impassioned Baratta introduced the topic of “Museums and Biennials,” arguing, among other things, for the agency of a single curator within a structure that not only values risk but effectively grants the privilege of autonomy in the first place. While he saw committees as deeply compromised, the speakers that followed—Gioni moderated Cristiana Collu, Alfredo Cramerotti, Bice Curiger, Abdellah Karroum, Achille Bonito Oliva, and Vicente Todolí—confirmed differences of opinion to a person. Gioni reiterated his notion of the biennial as a temporary museum; Curiger pleaded to subvert installations of historical exemplars with contemporary items (and vice versa); Oliva begged for a “mongrel, mixed-race” approach to the adoption of artists beyond the bounds of a nation-state; and so on. Despite the inclusion of so many “outsider” artists in “The Encyclopedic Palace,” the conversation here remained safely art-world, leaving the challenge of moving outside or beyond language, sociality, and aesthetics peripheral to the conversations making—or reinscribing—meaning.

The panel concluded, I gave the Arsenale one last look. Rounding the corner at gallery thirteen, where Christian Marclay’s The Clock (the winner of the Golden Lion award at the 2011 Biennale) had been installed, I became aware of my pace quickening in real time. At about 5 PM, gazing into the distance beyond Walter De Maria’s Apollo’s Ecstasy, 1990, I saw a photo shoot featuring Baratta mugging for a camera crew before the vast expanse of parallel bronze rods. He and Gioni slipped outside for a smoke. With blue light falling over the grounds, I set out for Ragnar Kjartansson’s Icelandic fishing boat, which ferried a crew of uniformed musicians back and forth between two shipyard docks. The dinghy’s name, S.S. Hangover, comes from a boat-shaped bar that appears in a 1935 film, Remember Last Night?, directed by James Whale, which was itself based on a novel, The Hangover Murders—the plot of which turns on the investigation of the killing of one of a group of friends who were too drunk to recall what had happened. An emblem of forgetting, the piece was evocative, even poignant to behold as the clock struck 5:45 PM and the loudspeaker announced, as though in a store, that we only had fifteen more minutes before the doors closed. A short while before, Gioni, who was perched beside the water nearby, took out his phone and documented the vessel’s procession. This all will be—has been, was made to be—archived, but will it be remembered? And how?

Massimiliano Gioni photographs Ragnar Kjartansson’s S.S. Hangover.