The Venice Biennale: New, But Not Necessarily Improved

The Venice Biennale, which opened last week and runs through November, is titled “Illuminations,” but its Swiss curator, Parkett magazine founder Bice Curiger, might as well have called it “The Phoenix.” The event has risen from the ashes of the global financial crisis and soared to new heights—such extreme heights that it is now an entirely different animal from the last five Biennales I’ve attended.


Summing up the tenor of this year’s Biennale was a text I discovered printed on a pink dress fitted snugly to the shapely body of a Russian girl standing at its entrance. “Why have you come to the 54th Venice Biennale?” her dress asked me while providing multiple-choice answers:


-To give an interview

-To marry rich collector

-To sleep with Bice Curiger

-To find Illumination


-What biennale?

-To get drunk

-To fuck a pretty girl

-OR … ?


The Biennale is bigger than ever. But in the art world, bigger isn’t always better. In the Giardini, the national pavilions weren’t top quality. There were hour-long lines for the British pavilion, occupied by a Mike Nelson installation that recreated the interiors of  buildings in old Istanbul, replete with broken furniture, tools and rubble. It was creepy, but cold. I’ve seen Midnight Express several times, so it wasn’t worth the wait.


Switzerland gave us yet another sprawling Thomas Hirschhorn installation featuring his trademark images of violence spread through a cavelike environment constructed from low-grade materials like scotch tape and tin foil. It’s good, if you haven’t seen a Hirschhorn before; if you have, you could skip it.


The American pavilion had Puerto Rican husband-and-wife team Allora and Calzadilla. Outside, a jogger ran on a treadmill mounted atop an upended, functioning military tank. It was a ballsy move, and an impressive one. But, like their works inside the pavilion, it was a spectacular one-liner that became dull by the Biennale’s second day, and annoying thereafter.


Winning the Biennale’s Golden Lion Award this year was Germany, with the late Christoph Schlingensief, who worked in film, theater and visual art and died of cancer last summer while preparing ideas for the pavilion. So the commissioning curators filled it with a sort of homage to him—an elaborate stage set Schlingensief created in 2008 comes complete with films and a soundtrack of writings made while he was in the hospital. Side spaces feature a cinema showing his feature-length films and an installation devoted to his proposal for an opera house in Africa. The pavilion was a hit with many Biennale-goers, but I found it muddled: rather than a show conceived by the artist, it comes off as a bouillabaisse cooked up by curators who over-theatrically installed it. It didn’t make sense to me until I carefully read its website and confirmed my intuition that, rather than a single work of art, it was a cobbled-together pastiche. As such, I found it lacking in rigor and authenticity.


The only pavilion that exercised my brain was Poland’s, which is given over to work by Israeli artist Yael Bartana. It’s the first time a non-Polish national has represented Poland. Ms. Bartana’s three short films tell a fictional story of a newly elected Polish politician who invites back the three million Jews expelled after World War II, all of whom ended up in Israel when no other country would have them. The films give us the offbeat humor of speeches based on the manifesto of a new group called the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland. There is a bizarre rally in which its members are invited to “see the squares in Warsaw, Lodz and Krakow filled with new settlements” and to join the Poles in “healing our mutual trauma.” In one scene, Jewish settlers in Poland build a kibbutz the size of a postage stamp replete with wooden guard tower, then surround it with barbed wire. Ironically, the result of their efforts ends up resembling a concentration camp or self-imposed ghetto.


There seemed to me no doubt that Ms. Bartana was, at least in part, referencing the current Israeli-Palestinian crisis and, in particular, the Palestinians’ claim to a “right of return.” Polish Jews were persecuted in Polish pogroms, then killed in Nazi camps. They were persecuted after the war by anti-Semitic Poles who were loathe to return stolen property. In suggesting that Jewish Poles could now return to their homeland and reclaim their nationality and property, Ms. Bartana points out the impossibility of winding back the clock—for Jewish Poles, for Palestinians or for anyone else. The pavilion succeeds because it looks back at a painful past with perspective and irony. It doesn’t provide solutions, but instead uses the absurd as a mechanism to make a point: moving forward is progress; returning to a lost past is ludicrous.


The portions of the Biennale curated by Ms. Curiger—the Arsenale and the “Italian pavilion”—were both disappointing, but in different ways. The Arsenale was interminable and totally lacking in quality; the pavilion was merely unimaginative. European curators tend to be darker and graver than their American counterparts; they also wield more power. In the United States, curators generally have limited knowledge of the market and usually shy away from any artist or show that could be construed as having market-related implications. These curators will claim that an artist is a market phenomenon only, and not worthy of museum treatment. Unfortunately, this has been the case in the United States with Andy Warhol, Jean Michel Basquiat, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and many other artists the American public would like to see but doesn’t get to, as our curators are too insecure to mount an exhibition that is in any way risky. Most European museums are state owned, or publicly funded, meaning their curators don’t have to answer to boards of trustees. Free of bureaucracy, they can take more chances.


Europe’s curators wield tremendous influence over its collectors, and regularly flex their muscles; their inclusion—or exclusion—of artists has meaningful implications. In Venice, Ms. Curiger chose a long list of young artists, and the world’s wealthy collectors flew in to see their work. The artists’ dealers were waiting, ready to sell—and did. The exclusive opening days of the Biennale now double as a curated art fair, with the only difference being that dealers don’t have to pay for a booth.


Sadly for collectors who made the trip, many of Ms. Curiger’s choices were unremarkable. Best-in-Arsenale goes to a 30-foot-tall sculpture by Urs Fischer. A functioning candle with a lit wick, it takes the form of a classical Italian sculpture by Giambologna. Mr. Fischer has used the candle format before, but this time he created a perfect marriage of new and old while capturing the beauty of a melting candle as metaphor for the passing of time, and the erosion even of art. (Vita breva still holds, but ars longa? Perhaps not so much, in Mr. Fischer’s extraordinary vision of aesthetic ephemerality.) This excellent piece, in an edition of two, had sold for over $3 million before my feet touched the tarmac at Marco Polo Airport.


There were a few other highlights in Ms. Curiger’s show, but on the whole it was so drawn-out that extreme fatigue set in before I was even three quarters through—weariness of feet and eyes alike. The apex of my Arsenale marathon wasn’t in the building, but rather in the garden behind it, where the Austrian collective known as Gelitin was engaged in an ongoing performance. The group’s members had built a hut inside a large pile of firewood, next to which they’d installed a hearth. One of the Gelitin guys beat out a wild rhythm on a full drum set; another played strange melodies on a Moog synthesizer. Another chopped wood in the nude; two more wore fireproof suits while feeding broken glass into the hearth, so that red-hot liquid poured out, resembling semen as it cooled into a growing, bloblike monolith. On top of the log pile, a pole-dancing stand had been installed, and Gelitin’s leader danced there half naked, his genitalia swinging to the music. Bottles of wine were stored in makeshift coolers dug into the grass. The performance felt like a weird pagan ritual and had crowds mesmerized by its wild spontaneity. Finally, something in the Arsenale—or, in any event, just outside it—was fresh and unpredictable! I vote for Gelitin!


Since Christie’s owner François Pinault opened a private museum in Venice’s Palazzo Grassi in 2007, and a second one two years later in the Punto della Dogana, a former post office he hired starchitect Tadao Ando to renovate, the Biennale has been a time to check out his latest exhibitions. Mr. Pinault’s museums represent an unparalleled commitment to contemporary art, but recently his shows have been criticized for being too market-oriented—meaning that their goal appears to be showing the market darlings of tomorrow, those we’ll soon see on the block at Christie’s. This time around, the whole concept ran out of gas and Mr. Pinault’s two shows demonstrated the danger of allowing his new curator, Caroline Bourgeois, to keep chasing the new. Here was a mish-mash: Jeff Koons’s Balloon Dog thrown together with some large figurative sculptures by Thomas Schütte, mixed in with a handful of videos by Francesco Vezzoli and a few paintings by recent Iraqi phenom Ahmed Alsoudani. There were rooms of work by Charles Ray and Paul McCarthy; some David Hammons bongo drums backed into a corner and a disjointed roomful of Tatiana Trouve. Throw all of this together and you get little more than last year’s shopping cart, and that can look pretty stale. The shows might have been more interesting if Mr. Pinault had concentrated more on displaying overlooked artists, or older artists ripe for rediscovery with lesser-known works by established figures. It’s high time his museums made a shift.


The Prada Foundation did just that, with an exhibition that was at once historical and personal. Everyone raved about it, and while it was a bit overrated, it did look great by comparison with what others had put on view. The first floor of the palazzo the Milan-based foundation occupies had some big and boring stone sculptures by Anish Kapoor, paired with an unremarkable piece by Bruce Nauman. But upstairs things got going: there were top-quality works by Blinky Palermo and Dominico Gnoli, and no fewer than four “Fine de Dio” masterpieces by Lucio Fontana. Add the best plastico works and a terrific white creto by Alberto Burri and you got the best of Arte Povera, which is frankly what you want to see on an art trip to Italy.


Down the canal a ways, a display of Anselm Kiefer in a palazzo had some good moments until it ended with a too-large and predictable painting of a broken lead submarine—the piece was rumored to have sold to Los Angeles megacollector and real estate magnate Eli Broad—but most of the other non-Biennale shows were of mixed quality. There was an exhibition of work by young Arab artists that sold out. Then there were the parties—about six of them worth going to, plus 12 cocktail soirees and concerts by Marianne Faithfull (for Larry Gagosian’s party) and Courtney Love (for the exhibition “Venice in Venice”—California art comes to Italy—that collector Tim Nye had set up in his own palazzo rental).


If by now you’re getting the impression that the Venice Biennale has become one big, floating, art-selling, partying marathon, you’re not far off. Contrary to popular opinion, I found the Palazzo Fortuny show—dealer Axel Vervoordt’s third time filling the palazzo with a mix of historical and contemporary art—to be not Venice’s best, but rather a straight-up selling show with dimmed lights, installed by a skillful decorator; shame on anyone who doesn’t see right through it. Instead, the very best show in town was a retrospective of Julian Schnabel, who is often in the spotlight these days, but not always for his art. Great large canvasses from the 80’s and 90’s, as well as newer works, were impeccably installed in the Museo Correr by curator Norman Rosenthal. There are classic plate paintings like The Sea as well as newer works depicting Krishnas and portraits of Mr. Schnabel’s ex-wives as well as his present fiancée, the stunning writer Rula Jebrael. This rediscovery of an artist’s great works is much more compelling to me than the tiresome search for the new, whether it’s Ms. Curiger’s need to spotlight fresh talent or Mr. Pinault’s Palazzo Grassi’s need to show a new market darling.


The Biennale is now a huge art extravaganza, complete with backing from dealers, and the number of palazzos rented out for selling shows posing as noncommercial exhibitions has grown exponentially. This is what happens when art and commerce become inexorably intertwined—there is about as much chance of going back to the days when they were separate as there is of returning to Palestine or prewar Poland. The Biennale may not be an art fair—the pieces are still selected by a curator—but it’s all for sale. Much as I detest nostalgia for the “good old days,” this time I found Venice overrun by dealers, collectors and the overwhelming smell of commerce.


You might say the only thing missing was some big-name celebrities; there was one in attendance, but he was in hiding. Leonardo di Caprio had been ensconced since the opening on a friend’s yacht with his new squeeze, Gossip Girl actress Blake Lively (he had just dumped Israeli bombshell Bar Rafaeli). Via text message, di Caprio told friends that, desperate to avoid paparazzi, he was sticking to the boat. My advice to you, Leo: Don’t come to Venice during the Biennale. It’s a place to be seen, rather than to see.


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