The Ghost of Biennales Past
Acclaimed British author Geoff Dyer’s witty new novel Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi is set at the Biennale. The Daily Beast’s Taylor Antrim talked to Dyer about his favorite Biennale memories, how to best view the art show, and where to stay, eat, and drink in Venice.
How many Venice Biennales have you been to, and which inspired the events in the first half of Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi?
My wife and I went to the 2003 Biennale, which was characterized by this incredible heat wave. The Biennale is always quite intense and feverish, but that heat leant an extra intensity, leant a few extra degrees to the fever. We then went back in 2005 and 2007, and most of the art in the book comes from those later years. So the novel combines the heat of 2003 and the art from 2005 and 2007.
What’s special, as an art fair, about the Biennale?
The city and the Biennale are absolutely inseparable I think. They have these shows all over the world—you can go to Art Basel or wherever—but the thing about Venice is after being immersed in all this incredible art in the Arsenale or the Giardini, you step out of it and you’re seeing the greatest artwork ever attempted: the city of Venice.
Have there been any particular pieces that have stuck with you from your visits?
In 2007 I was there with a very specific agenda: I was looking for art that would work in the context of the book. My concern wasn’t that of the art critic or the art purchaser, but I was looking for stuff that the characters could interact with. As it happened some of the works that were useful to me as a novelist was very appealing to me personally. For instance, at one of the fringe exhibitions, they were showing James Turrell’s Red Shift, which I found to be a really profound experience. It was also handy for me in terms of the book as a way of suggesting something about the extinction of the ego that goes on in the second half.
Is it essential to attend the opening weekend to get the real Bienniale experience?
The three times I have been, it’s been to the opening. Some people would say, I prefer to go to Venice when the Biennale is not on, or after the vernissage when it’s not full of art-world people. For me, I liked the great sense of convergence—the whole of the art world coming to this place. And socially it was great fun, really. I prefer the intensity, the mayhem, and the fever of the opening but that might be partly because I’m not really in the art world. I’ve got no stake in it. If I was invited to the Frankfurt Book Fair, it would be galling to go around and hear about all these big book deals that didn’t involve me. So I could see how the opening could be quite galling for an artist.
So what’s the best plan to tackle the opening?
Typically you arrive on Wednesday afternoon to go to a few parties that evening. Spend Thursday in the Giardini, Friday in the Arsenale, Saturday seeing the other fringe and satellite exhibitions, and home on Sunday. It’s very, very intense. The great thing about the Biennale is you see an awful lot of art for every step you take. You’re doing a load of walking, but the ratio of art seen to steps taken is very high. You do become sated quite quickly, and, of course, the potential for overload is there.
But this year, of all years, you are not attending…
I know, and nearly all the papers in England were asking me to go. I can see that it is going to be great fun this year, but going would be like chewing a biscuit that I’d already sucked. Another reason for not going this year is that if I got a plane from Gatwick or whatever, all I would be doing would be wanting to see evidence of people reading my book. I was relieved to get an invitation to go to the Dublin Writers Festival instead—so that’s where I’m headed.
In the past, where have you liked to stay while you’re in Venice?
The problem with Biennale is that Venice is incredibly booked up. We’ve always left it too late and had to make do with any overpriced chintzy place we can get. But honestly, it doesn’t matter too much. All you really want to do at your hotel is to sleep at night. One time, not during the Biennale, we had a lovely stay at Charming House DD724. The nice thing about that hotel is that it’s all quite modern and contemporary, as opposed to all that chintz you often get in Venice.
And how about eating? Any restaurant recommendations you could offer?
This comes up in the book: Many parts of Italy are famous for their cooking, but generally, unless you really know your way around, the average in Venice is quite low. You’re not getting much bang for your buck, and you can probably get better Italian food in New York—and definitely better pizza. There is one good place I know: il Refolo. At the Biennale, I was quite happy to have a bowl of simple pasta at lunch and then in the evening to have big slices of pizza from anywhere just to line my stomach so I could swill Bellinis at the parties.
Are there any places you like to go drinking during the Biennale?
I love the way, at the end of the evening, when you haven’t got any more party invites, you can go to Haig’s Bar (5277 Sestiere San Marco). Effectively the entire street that Haig’s is on becomes a whole heaving outside party. You can round the night off with a few cold Peronis or order a bottle of Prosecco. The great thing about Prosecco is it’s not as strong alcoholically as Champagne, so you feel you’re having an experience that is refreshing rather than completely intoxicating.
How about sightseeing? Any recommendations?
It’s so great just riding on the vaporetto. And it’s lovely to take a vaporetto trip to the San Michele Cemetery, where Joseph Brodsky and Ezra Pound are buried. It’s always fantastic to go to Giudecca, which is a lot quieter than the main part of Venice. Then there are the paintings in the Accademia, then the resident artworks in churches. These are all things my characters do in the book.
Speaking of which, your protagonist, Jeff, winds up transfixed by the Tintorettos in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. Is that a favorite spot of yours?
Oh my god, yes, that’s an amazing place.
Any interest in the Lido?
No. I’m not a fan at all of Italian beaches, with everyone crammed on them like sardines and all the men in their tourniquet swimming-type things. Also, the Lido is a bit of a schlep.
Taylor Antrim is a critic for The Daily Beast and the author of the novel, The Headmaster Ritual.