Last week I found myself sitting at a bar in JFK airport with standby tickets to Venice for the opening of the 57th Biennale with what felt like the first signs of a flu. Indeed, nine hours later I was standing on the wrong bridge with no wifi and a fever waiting for my friend Victor to embark on the first round of openings at various Palazzo’s around Rialto. This was the first clue that planning anything during this trip would be self-defeating because now we were on Italian time. From then on most meetings with artist friends happened with serendipitous ecstasy in alley ways, cafes and openings. I ran into people I had not seen in years and the surprises kept on coming as we meshed into this curated informal alter-reality—a symbiosis of art, style, conversation and unexpected friendships made easy by the never ending flow of Prosecco at opening after opening. It is unlike anything I have ever experienced, despite being delirious with a fever or maybe because of it.
There was something special about the care with which people interact with one another during this art feast, possibly because no one knows if the person they are talking to is the new Peggy Guggenheim. And of course who could not take notice of the style and decadent minimalism of attire coming from around the world. If ever there was an occasion to bring your red shoes, this would be it.
I learned this dance lasts exactly three days after which everyone is exhausted and ready to go home, hopefully having seen at least one tenth of what was on show.
I assume there were a number of art critics attending who took on the Herculean task of viewing every pavilion in Venice but I am fairly certain that I experienced as much as was physically and emotionally possible for a dedicated art lover in four days. I have a compiled list of works which had a memorable impact on me and which I believe can be interpreted and appreciated by any viewer and not only by the scholars of the art world—works which elevate and reshape consciousness and more importantly ask, as good art should ask, the sophisticated question of ‘what is art and why?’
The Giardini is the central venue of the Venice Biennale where an artist or a group of artists are chosen to represent their country of origin. There are thirty permanent pavilions within the Giardini representing various nations and it is the original site of the Biennale since it’s first opening in 1895.
The undeniable masterpiece of this Biennale is brought to us by Anne Imhof in the German Pavilion with her performance piece, “Faust“, deserved winner of the Golden Lion for Best National Pavilion award. The suspended clear plexiglass floor makes you feel mental as the performance occurs beneath as well as in between the crowd. Viewers must shift and shuffle to accommodate the performers as they salaciously climb, crawl and writhe against each other or head bang on pedestals, topless or not. Their pissed-off expressions evoke a disturbing self conscious state. Towels, bottles and various kinky paraphernalia are scattered in their wake. Performers photograph each other with iPhones and cameras along with the rest of the viewers. I saw a woman led out of the Pavilion with the words “you’re so rude” uttered by one of the artists and I still have yet to figure out if this was part of the act. This performance is meant to last five hours and the story line is said to unfold through the entire seven months of the Biennale.
In the Swiss Pavilion one can find an exhibition called “Woman of Venice” in honor of Alberto Giacometti. On view is a film called “FLORA” created by Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler. This double-sided screen documentary tells the despairing story of an American sculptor named Flora Mayo, who was once Alberto’s lover in Paris. One can experience this half hour long documentary from either side of the screen to a single narration told by her surviving son on one side, and a black and white portrayal of her years in Paris on the other. Several women including myself couldn’t help but weep for Flora.
The wildest creation in the Biennale is “The Aalto Natives” coming from Finland in the form of an installation by Nathaniel Mellors and Erkka Nissinen, curated by Xander Karskens. It is a conversation between two deities in the form a gigantic talking egg and a cardboard box, accompanied by grotesquely hilarious videos involving murdered muppets and farting gurus. This fifty-minute work of madness is a true tour de force.
The American Pavilion houses the paintings of Mark Bradford who has been coined the next Jackson Pollock. The paintings are massive, powerful and abstract. Long live Mark Bradford for bringing painting back to life.
At the Arsenale, in order of appearance, I was charmed to discover the works of 86 year old Huguette Caland, a Lebanese-born painter who lives and works in Los Angeles. On exhibit are her beautiful paintings and wood cut mannequins from the 1970’s and 80’s in hand sewn attire. The highlight is that she is still working. One of the most luscious works in the Arsenal is “A Body for a Film” by Pauline Curnier Jardin, French born. As I walked into her installation through a crevice in a giant sculpted hand and sat down in dark cavern on a large plastic hill, my consciousness was completely hijacked by a full screen 70’s funk style projection of a lustful nun entering the underworld in search of enlightenment. Not only is it funny and sexy but it speaks volumes.
“Living Dog Among Dead Lions” is a house that rains on the inside by Georgian artist Vajiko Chachkhiani which is impossible to walk away from. I relived my Soviet childhood one hundred times while staring through the windows of this impossible scene, a torrential downpour washing over the decrepit abandoned contents of this Tarkovskian dwelling which will decay throughout the duration of the Biennale.
On Giudecca Island
On Guidecca island one can find the Icelandic Pavilion. I watched this video installation through a hole in the wall while sipping a complimentary espresso. The exhibition, set up as a pseudo cafe with the name “Out of Control Venice” is in heavy competition with the Finland Pavilion for the insanity prize, as a massive projection of two mouths blabber, yawn and fart while discussing life and art. Just when I thought I was safe…
Exhibitions in Coincidence
Another must see exhibit is “INTUITION” at the unforgettable Palazzo Fortuny where you will find stories of old and contemporary artist works impeccably curated by Axel & May Vervoordt. In the 1800s, this Palazzo belonged to the eccentric artist and designer Mariano Fortuny who had a extensive collection of art, oddities and textiles which are still present and inseparable from this sixth and last exhibit of the series curated by the Vervoordts at the Palazzo since the 2007.
The most expensive and self gratifying exhibition is by no surprise Damien Hirst’s “Treasures From the Wreck of the Unbelievable”. No other exhibit caused me such torment, as I walked back and forth trying to imagine how many millions it cost to produce this massive collection of supposed artifacts rescued from the bottom of the sea during a vast wreck of an ancient Geek cargo ship. It took Hirst ten years to complete this grandiosity, complete with underwater video footage of the discovery and rescue of the objects which include a sixty-one foot statue of a demon.
Upon leaving the Damien Hirst show, I felt like I had overeaten. I wanted to understand what he meant to say with all this. The situation reminded me of a gift I once received from an ex-boyfriend, a giant Chinese wall fan that seemed to have nothing to do with anything. I was plagued with his reasoning in selecting it as a gift, and I finally decided that he chose it simply because it was big, BIG… like his feelings.
As I mentioned, one of the many rewarding features of the Biennale is the occurrence of spontaneous friendships. It was at the grand opening reception of a very rich and confused Ukrainian “artist” that I happened to meet the beautiful Jennifer Cabrera Fernandez, a dancer and performance artist from Mexico who has been living in Venice for the past twenty years. There was an instant spark of simpatico. The next day I went to see her at the Goethe Institute, Venezia. It was dramatic, violent, sensual and authentically avant-garde experience, a true work of art set to live music by Georgio Schiavon with costumes by the legendary 82- year-old designer, Sonia Biacchi.
The Venice Biennale is a pilgrimage of sorts for artists and art lovers. When I made the decision to go, it was because I was feeling deflated and stumped in my own creative practice. I am sharing this experience not as an art critic or a writer but as an artist who, like all artists, thrives on inspiration. This trip was not spontaneous as I had first wanted to portray—it was an emergency response to revive the thing I was letting wither; my creativity. Viva Venezia!