My Biennale Favorites

Anthony Haden-Guest surveys the best art from the world’s pavilions, the Pinault collection, and a naughty guerrilla art exhibit.

Cities are very differently affected by the major art events that take place within them. New Yorkers with no particular interest in the arts are likely to be as little aware of the Armory Show as are Londoners—except those who live near Regents Park—of Frieze. Art Basel Miami certainly makes its presence known in that town, but the events are mostly for rich folk, and largely held out of sight.

The Venice Biennale is different. Venice has been art-saturated for centuries and during the Biennale the whole place explodes with visual information. Gondolas and commercial craft tote artworks and banners—like the one reading "I WILL NOT MAKE ANYMORE BORING ART—JOHN BALDESSARI" alongside the Hotel Monaco—are strung on buildings and bridges.

Charlier had planned to exhibit 100 “portraits” of artists, made by re-imagining their sexual organs. I looked over the images. The Jeff Koons was a pink balloon phallus, the Damien Hirst was salami-sliced and in a vitrine.

The motoscafos are plastered with placards, postcards litter floors and sidewalks, café tables are creaky with art books, prim-faced people are wearing “art” T-shirts covered with f-words and there’s sheaves of art documentation in the most futbol-mad sports bars. The current L’Uomo Vogue comes with alternative covers, one featuring an unsmiling Cindy Sherman while on the other a positively glowering Richard Prince tugs at a paint-spattered T-shirt and the pilot of a water taxi complained he was up to there with installations and wished there was more plain, honest painting.

It is also impossible to be unaware that during the Biennale, Venice is a party town. People were leaning out of windows of the Grand Canal with flutes of Champagne as I arrived, but the designated kickoff was the party for Steve McQueen, who was carrying the flag for the U.K. This was held in the Palazzo Pisani Moretta, which was impossible to locate, in true Venetian style, being down an alleyway so narrow as to allow only one assassin at a time. Also in true Venetian style, the affair was held in the sort of rich, dimly lit rooms that make the Biennale the one such event where the most radical of post-modernist stuff becomes conjoined with the art of the everywhere overwhelming past.

The Arsenale, meanwhile, was largely underwhelming. There was languid work by formerly inventive artists—Michelangelo Pistoletto’s smashed mirrors—and the five stacks of cardboard crates of commercial Venetian postcards by Aleksandra Mir is the sort of piece that gets appreciative nods from gratification-starved hall-trudgers but struck me as conceptualism at its most academic.

I liked The Eternal Present, the piece in which the Norwegian artist, Jan Hastrom, investigated his own life using refrigerator-magnet-like cutouts in a style vaguely reminiscent of Tintin. And further along, Pascale Marthine Tayou had managed to suggest the multifarious life of a Cameroon village, using colored bags spilling cement, heaps of earth and woodshavings, planks, kitchen utensils, with fetish-like figures to suggest the inhabitants, and streaming video which documents village scenes but also scenes from an intrusive outside world, including Western soft porn, while the whole shebang is accompanied by a medley of competitive soundtracks. This is Maximalism at its maxiest, and tremendously effective.

The hot zone that evening was an afterparty for Distortion, a group show at the Gervasuti Foundation on the Fondamenta S. Anna. Gavin Turk, the London-based artist, was inviting anybody to improve a wet-clay head. Also in the show were two other Brits, John Isaacs and Jamie Shevlin, and there were performances. Now one of the great things about Venice is the ubiquity of the young but their presence at contemporary-art events can be, um, complicating. Last season, I saw a girl of, I don’t know 15, 16, thereabouts, at a day sale in Christie’s, New York, when the object on sale was a Mike Kelley which depicted … well, let’s just say two men being explicit with a donkey.

The girl affected indifference, none too well.

One performance in the Gervasuti garden featured a male playing a guitar while a woman with flaxen hair and heightened makeup picked up a Barbie doll, wrapped it in silver foil and squished it with a hot iron.

Sitting near the front were a boy of perhaps 8 and a girl a few years older.

The artist repeated the process with another Barbie, then another, another. Sometimes she squished two into a Barbieburger.The kids’ expressions were something to behold, but included utter bafflement and what struck me as a kind of anger. Oh, well. It’ll be water off a duck’s back, I dare say, but children and cutting-edge contemporary art? I would welcome some feedback on this.

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***

For cities, topography is destiny and most especially this is true of Venice. It is at once confining and infinitely sinuous, so at Biennale-time it abounds with situations I call Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet! (This being the title churlish critics gave to the canvas Courbet painted in 1864 to commemorate his first meeting with his stalwart patron Alfred Bruyas.)

Thus on my first morning, I bumped into two New York artists, Bill Anastasi and Dove Bradshaw, in the Peggy Guggenheim Museum. They were off to Modena where Anastasi has a show.

And the Biennale?

“We’re getting out before it starts,” Anastasi said, crisply.

Then I ran into Richard Phillips, another New York artist, having a coffee outside the Gritti. I walked to the Palazzo Grassi, which houses some of the collection of the French billionaire, and owner of Christie’s, Francois Pinault.

From the Grassi, I got a boat to the Dogana, the former customs house which Pinault turned into an art space by the Japanese starchitect, Tadao Ando, to house another tranche of his collection.

It was officially opening that day and it looks remarkable, with venerable wooden beams, distressed brick walls and cement panels polished to marmoreal perfection. And, like such other recent and extraordinary re-makes as Charles Saatchi’s space on the Kings Road and the Garage in Moscow, it looks ready for whatever it might contain, which in the case of the Dogana includes such of Pinault’s faves as Rachel Whiteread, Mike Kelley, Cy Twombly, Charles Ray, and numerous Bush-like figures riotously humping each other by Paul McCarthy.

Downstairs for a coffee. Pinault, gray-flannelled and black-shoed, was conferring at the next-door table with an adviser, Philippe Segalot. And in walked Tadao Ando with an entourage. It was Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet! time again.

* **

No Biennale is complete without one scandal at least, usually either national, political or sexual. One candidate was brought to my attention by a cluster of women standing quayside between the Arsenale and the Giardini, who were handing out leaflets which read: Jacques Charlier 100 Sexes D’Artistes. Censored.

Jacques Charlier, the artist, was alongside on a boat. His project had been accepted by the Ministry of Culture and Broadcasting of the French-speaking Community of Belgium, but chucked by the Venetians. He had planned to exhibit 100 “portraits” of artists, made by re-imagining their sexual organs.

Charlier said the Venetians had been nervous of affronting the artists. I looked over the images. The Jeff Koons was a pink balloon phallus, the Damien Hirst was salami-sliced and in a vitrine. The images were cute rather than radical and I couldn’t imagine any artist being bothered for one nanosecond. But such scandals of course usually benefit the outraged artist rather than the deeply offended community.

The political furores included a riot scene by workmen outside the Dogana—some were offended that Berlusconi had been invited to the pre-opening. Indeed Jean-Jacques Lebel, the French artist, and a leader in 1968, told me that he had torn up his invitation—but generally I found that neither politics nor the recession were much mentioned, either at the Biennale or the innumerable collateral events. After all, the Biennale is not a commercial show. But many faces—dealers and collectors—who had been present at other biennales were unseen, at least by me, although the indefatigable Florida collectors, Don and Mera Rubell, seemed to be everywhere at once.

Other forces in the new art world were highly visible though. They included the UAE and Dubai and exhibits included a model of the “Cultural Village” at Dubai and for such projects as the Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, and Tadao Ando museums intended for Abu Dhabi.

The Russians were also very much there. The on and off Moscow Biennial is on again and I went to a morale booster in the Marco Polo Room of the Daniele Hotel, which was addressed by, among others, Daria “Dasha” Zhukova, who was responsible for turning the Melnikoff Garage, so-named since it saw service in the Soviet era as a bus depot, into a superlative art space, still called the Garage.

How was it going, I asked afterward, given an economic collapse as savage in Russia as anywhere?

“It’s very popular. It’s broken all attendance records,” Zhukova said and rattled off some figures for a month.

“Thirty thousand. For Moscow that’s a lot. It’s very popular with young people.”

Does she collect?

“Yes.”

Will you tell me what?

“No.”

But spoken with an engaging smile.

The work in the Giardini, where many of the national pavilions are located, was scattershot. The most satisfactory to me were the works of Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset. Each got offered a pavilion—Elmgreen the Danish pavilion and Dragset the Nordic. Each accepted and working together they constructed two “collector’s houses.”

A "FOR SALE" sign hangs outside the Nordic pavilion and a real-estate agent takes visitors on house tours. But within dark deeds have occurred. "I’LL NEVER SEE YOU AGAIN" is scrawled on a mirror. The bottom the staircase is shattered. A dining table is bisected. Handlettered cardboard appeals for help—"PLEASE HAVE A HEART. THANK YOU"—are framed on one wall with the city or origin indicated. Opposite are two faux pinstripe Stellas.

But still the real-estate agent—who will, in fact, be either Helen Statman or Trevor Stuart of the London-based Performance group, Cocoloco—keeps up the patter. Artists are generally skittish about humour. Not Elmgreen and Dragset.

Prizes were handed out late Saturday afternoom in a white tent in the Giardini. Two plumed carabineri stood guard as Yoko Ono received a Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement and gave a speech ending “Peace.” John Baldesssari received a second trophy and made an even shorter one, thanking Giotto, Goya, Matisse, Duchamp, and Sol LeWitt.

The Bruce Nauman show won America the national prize, a victory which was greeted with whistles, whoops, and bravos “Would this have happened if Bush were president?” an Italian journalist asked. He didn’t seem to think his question needed an answer.

Elmgreen and Dragset got an honorable mention.

Afterward, Michael Elmgreen pulled his award, a tiny gold lion, out of its mini-box.

“We got the bambino award,” he said, cheerfully.

Traipsing the Biennale and the numerous collaterals has been at once ho-hum and encouraging. The ho-hum is that it confirmed that the last quarter century has produced a generation of curators who are pastmasters at discovering and showing the work of artists who seem driven by nothing much more than the notion that it’s pretty cool to be an artist so why not find something that hasn’t been done? Which thinking is the mainspring of Salon post-modernism.

The encouraging thing is the flipside of the ho-hum, which is that the art world has become so vast that it is unstoppable, recession or no recession. And here at Venice were such breathtaking, smile-inducing shows as Robert Rauschenberg’s Gluts at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum, which remind you what the whole thing is about.

By the way, I had been looking for John Cale. He is representing Wales and he is an old friend. Too much going on, never got a fix on him. On my last day but one I crossed to the Giudecca and ran into him on the quay. Just along from where his piece was too.

Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet.

Plus: Check out Art Beast, for galleries, interviews with artists, and photos from the hottest parties.

Anthony Haden-Guest writes a weekly column on art collecting for the Financial Times. He is the author of several books, including True Colors: The Real Life of the Art World. He lives in New York and London.