A Pound of Flesh for the Venice Biennale

I.

The writer arrives at the Venice Biennale at about 10:15am. This seems quite good by her recent personal standards—these are somewhat loose after three weeks of mojitos in Rome. But it is not good enough for a hard-hitting journalist. She imagines the Arsenale, one of two venues for the Biennale’s International Art Exhibition, swarming with reporters. Probably they have all been up since six. Probably they have fancy voice recorders and notebooks with expensive French paper. Probably they are being paid.

Everything about this undertaking seems very glamorous. But by the time an efficient Apparatchik at the press office has fixed the Advocate up with a press badge—she is now The Harvard Advocate’s official envoy to the Biennale, to Venice, to all of Europe!—a packet of promotional materials from the sponsors—Enel, Nivea, Illy—and the Advocate’s first tote bag of the day, it is 11am. This is horrifying. But even more horrifying is the crowd of journalists. There is none.

The Advocate begins to worry. Perhaps this is the wrong place. Perhaps they have squirreled the press office away next to some adjunct show or collateral event that nobody goes to. However, twenty minutes of aimless wandering through the galleries reveals that the giant warehouse is indeed the Arsenale. The Italian Pavilion, largest of the national shows, is here. So are the Chinese and Turkish and Chilean pavilions. So are individual installations by big-name artists like Pae White and William Forsythe. So is a good chunk of the main international show—Fare Mondi, “Making Worlds.”

Slowly, it dawns: nobody is here yet. Probably all the journalists are hobnobbing at elaborate breakfast meetings. Probably they are sleeping off hangovers so colossal and expensive that the Advocate’s morning troubles seem juvenile by comparison.

Finally, around 11:45am, the Beautiful People start to filter in. The Advocate recognizes art critics, academics, some curators. The center of press activity appears to be a temporary outdoor café wedged between the Arsenale and a canal. The Advocate stands in line for ten minutes to buy a four-euro can of Pepsi—official soda of the Biennale—finds a seat at one of the tasteful molded-polyurethane tables, and surveys the scene. As one might expect, she sees a lot of black. As one might not, she sees many tote bags of varying size, shape, color, strap length, and fabric quality. Glasses are common. So are blazers. So are the dropped-crotch 80s-style bottoms that the Spanish call pantalones cagados, or “shit-pants.”

The Apparatchiks, who at 11am were huddled in purposeless clumps around the building, have swung into action. They are answering questions, giving directions, requesting contact information. If the Beautiful People dress like upscale vacationers, the Apparatchiks make an effort to look like professionals. Many are wearing (black) suits. They are young. They are bright. They are well turned-out. They cannot afford to be otherwise. The Biennale pays them to be pleasant, and they need the work.

Months from now, in late September, the international art press will circulate a report that 110 Apparatchiks have gone on strike to protest poor working conditions at the Biennale. The strikers will claim that the Biennale manages them badly, offering them only three-day employment contracts and withholding overtime pay. Furthermore, they will allege, they have been laboring under these conditions since the show began.

But there is not a glimmer of conflict, present or future, on anyone’s bright face right now. These three preview days are more important than all the rest of the Biennale, because the visitors are the pillars of the art world. Curators, journalists, academics, dealers, and collectors have assembled, and the valiant Apparatchiks stand ready to shepherd them along. “Making Worlds” stretches before them all. It will dictate tastes and change reputations.

 

II.

 

This Biennale is the art world’s crown jewel, an event so spectacularly large, so tremendously expensive, so irrationally important that Venice employs a permanent squadron of bureaucrats whose sole job is to plan it; that participating nations bankrupt their arts endowments in order to stage their contributions; that a full-priced admission to the two main venues—forget the dozens of peripheral shows that dot the city—costs 18 euro per person; that the royalty of the art world brave the heights of the mosquito and tourist seasons just to pay it a visit.

What makes the show such a huge draw? Simply put, it’s very old and very well established. When the first Biennale opened in 1895, it was the only semiannual art show in Europe. Imagined as an event to honor the silver anniversary of Italy’s King Umberto and Queen Margherita of Savoy, it wound up attracting over 200,000 people to Venice’s public gardens for a mostly tame selection—barring one “scandalous” painting of female nudes—of mostly Italian art.

Other nations began building pavilions in the garden starting in 1907. In the 1930s came the first special exhibitions to promote Italian art abroad. And, of course, the Apparatus of the Biennale was differentiating, acquiring layers of bureaucracy—Boards, Secretaries, Presidents, Special Commissions and Groups—tasked with testing the waters and currents of the European art world, keeping the show inoffensive, middlebrow, and a good couple of decades behind the artistic vanguard. Most of the art came from the 19th century until well into the 20th.

Thus was the good name of the city was preserved until 1948, when a tiny revolution, a youthful rebellion, took place within the Apparatus. A new General Secretary, Roberto Pallucchini, was in charge. The dust from the Second World War was settling. Suddenly, the organization realized it had just about missed a crucial half-century of developments in Western art. Pallucchini spent the next five shows scrambling to compile the Greatest Hits of the modernist splinter groups whose influence the Apparatus had been battling. And, just like that, the work of Max Ernst, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Joan Miro, Salvador Dali, and Piet Mondrian went up.

By the start of the 60s, the Apparatus had caught its audience up to where the rest of the art world was. Somewhere around this time, things shifted. The Biennale didn’t just show art anymore, some prestigious, some not; it became itself a thing of prestige. It became a tastemaker. This development has made the show much sexier, and more social, and more fashionable. But it has also overshadowed the show’s original purpose, which was to give a platform to artists.

A number of unattractive intellectual tendencies have accompanied this shift in focus. The Biennale’s curators have gained power. Supplementary critical texts have become as important to the exhibition as the art. Show concepts are abstract but not illuminating, and depend more and more on art theory. A layperson may enjoy individual works of art at every Biennale, but he or she is unlikely to find the International Show as a whole an edifying experience.

1964: Robert Rauschenberg, a central figure in the development of Pop Art, wins the Foreign Artist prize, earning the Biennale a new reputation as a pioneering show. 1968: Demonstrators protest the commercialization of art; many Biennale artists join the protestors, upending or covering their works in solidarity. 1972: The era of overarching thematics begins with the “Work and Behavior” Biennale. 1980: An entire hall is dedicated to “Postmodernism: la via novissima.” 1982: The big theme is “Art as Art.” 1984: “Art and the Arts.” 1988: “The Place of the Artist.” 1990: The controversial “Aperto” section of the Biennale is closed temporarily after the formaldehyde suspension leaks from one of Damien Hirst’s Plexiglas-enclosed cow carcasses. 1995: “Identity and Alterity.” 1999: “dAPERTutto.” 2001: The critic Harald Szeemann builds an entire show around a single work by Joseph Beuys. 2003: The critic Francesco Bonami breaks up his exhibition into a bunch of little sub-exhibitions with titles like “Clandestine” and “The Zone.” Reviews are mostly negative. 2007: The critic and academic Robert Storr’s Biennale is overtly political, offering a critique of American foreign and domestic policy. Reviews are mostly negative. 2009: Critic and academic Daniel Birnbaum (more on him later) gives us “Making Worlds.” Reviews are mostly negative.

Theme. Thematics. Thematicization.

Art as Art. Art and the Artist. The Place of the Artist. Where is the Artist? Art without Artists.

Text, context, subtext, pretext.

The Zone. The Zone. The Zone.

 

III.

 

There is an apocryphal story that, when someone asked Rodin whether he worked from his heart or his head, the sculptor replied, “I work from my balls.” There is a type of curator who also works from his (her?) balls.

But this sort of curator seems to have fallen out of favor recently, at least at the Biennale. Here, the critic-academics have been in charge for quite a while. Biennale curators emeriti Szeeman and Bonami both neatly fit the mold. Daniel Birnbaum—who has a rectorship at the Staedelschule at Frankfurt-am-Main, plus a regular gig writing scholarly essays for Artforum—does, too.

Birnbaum is not the type of curator who works from his balls. Birnbaum is the exact opposite of this type. He and the other critic-academic-curators seem to care very little about instincts, or about pleasure, whether aesthetic or otherwise. (Though Birnbaum does have an awfully cute smile, a smile the publicity people have plastered all over the Biennale’s promotional materials.) The critic-academics do appear to care about theory—a lot—and about curating an argument. Like past Biennale curators, Birnbaum has built “Making Worlds” around a theme that is both complex and vague. He has slotted into this theme some art by midcareer artists, and has padded out the show with abstruse critical statements.

The critical texts that accompany an exhibition like the Biennale lay everything out for the viewer (more or less) explicitly. And so they become the show’s default reading, the one critics use to judge its success or failure. As a consequence, the artist says less—or is forced to say less, or gets away with saying less—than he did in the days when curators had a lighter touch.

In the catalog essay, Birnbaum gives his personal vision for the show at length:

The innumerable translations of the phrase ‘making worlds’ is [sic] simply a conceptual starting point […] the impulse to move away from the understanding of this show [the Biennale] as a museum-like presentation of ready-made objects. This is hardly a revolutionary conceit for a biennale today, but we can still place particular emphasis on its character as a site for production and experimentation, and it is my hope that this exhibition will create new spaces for art to unfold beyond the expectations of the dominant institutions and the mechanisms of the art market.

This is all highly ironic. The Biennale is one of “the dominant institutions.” It drives and is driven by values and fluctuations in the art market. Nobody whose work is commercially undesirable shows at the Biennale, and nobody who shows at the Biennale is commercially undesirable.

To read the forgoing statement charitably, Birnbaum wants to show artwork that is in process, or self-constructing, or aware of its own construction. If this is the standard, then many of the works in the show meet it. If the viewer applies other, timeless standards, then only some works make the cut. In the long, thin Corderie that connects the two parts of the Arsenale, the first pieces are strong—and strongly beautiful. First, a Lygia Pape sculpture, a web of golden filaments, lit to a soft radiance; then a roomful of massive, baroque, gilt-frame mirrors, each smashed with a mallet by Michelangelo Pistoletto. Both works are striking; each echoes  Birnbaum’s theme. Pape’s work is constantly being realized by the shining light; Pistoletto’s very visibly bears the marks of its own creation.

But then comes a pile-up. There’s a trite, visually unimpressive lightbox show by Paul Chan; Aleksandra Mir’s “viewer-activated” postcards of Venice; free candy and amateurish anti-imperialist protest from Anawana Haloba; a silly, tree-sized projection of a Bonsai by Ceal Floyer.

“Such rich work! It just keeps on giving!” says a woman with an Adam’s apple.

Among other things, Birnbaum’s promises Biennale-goers “points of visual intensity” and “beautiful objects” in his catalog essay. But these are lacking in the show itself. Few of the works “pop.” And rarely does the viewer experience that vertigo one feels in the presence of truly gorgeous, or joyful, or thought-provoking art. The latter are Romantic standards, perhaps, and hopelessly time-bound; but does this make them any less desirable?

Pleasure-seekers must find what they’re looking for elsewhere at the Biennale.

 

IV.

 

If you’d like to understand the Biennale, you’d do well to read the social pages. A lot of major art glossies have them now.

The Biennale’s authority is at least as much social as it is cultural. If you are a prominent (or resourceful) critic or dealer or curator or hanger-on, you attend the Biennale’s preview. It’s like a high-end trade convention. You catch up with friends, spy on competitors, party, chat, fuck, drink.

Of course, if you really have pull, you show up before the preview, while the art is still going up. The editors of Artforum, the really wealthy collectors, and the major museum heads all pull this trick. Once you’ve reached the highest class-echelons of the art world, the real sign of status is the ability to skip the preview entirely while the lumpen-elite scrap for tote bags at the United Arab Emirates Pavilion.

You can’t take two steps in the Giardini without running into a bespectacled, be-shit-panted Beautiful Person holding a tote bag. After a couple of hours of careful observation, the Advocate develops a Theory of Swag to explain the bags’ appearance. Let’s say that, around 3:00, the Dutch pavilion has a lull. Not too many visitors are coming in. So some enterprising staffer decides to crack into the tote bags. He hauls a couple of cardboard boxes’ worth out of storage and begins to distribute them—maybe to press, along with copies of the promotional materials; maybe to all comers. Within half an hour, the bags—emblazoned with the name of the pavilion—start appearing on the shoulders of the first Beautifuls.

Suddenly, there is a rush on the pavilion. By 4:30, half the guests and a handful of Apparatchiks are clutching at Dutch swag, and the staff is getting ready to pack it in for the day, having drawn most of the preview attendees to their show.

As art has commoditized, anything associated with art has done the same. The reception at the Nordic pavilion is, unusually, selling the swag they have on offer. The most popular item—and the most intriguing, and repulsive—is a canvas bag emblazoned with quotes from Sarah Thornton’s recent, totally uncritical pop-sociological study Seven Days in the Art World. The bag’s designer has apparently culled from the book all references to sex acts—plus quotes that have the word “fuck” in them—and screen-printed them on the canvas.

The Nordic and Danish joint exhibition is a crowd favorite, at times so packed that it’s difficult to get into one or the other building. The artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset have transformed the pavilions into the homes of two fictional collectors. The Nordic Pavilion “belongs” to the mysterious Mr. B, an ethusiast of (often homoerotic) contemporary art. Handsome young actors playing hustlers lounge around on couches and sip cocktails while the Beautifuls view Mr. B’s collection. The show is quite witty, if gimmicky. It pokes fun at collector culture: at mixed motives for buying art, at the eccentricities of personal taste, at the signification of social status in the art world. Elmgreen and Dragset clearly have mixed feelings towards their buyers, with whom they are locked in a symbiotic relationship.

You could look at how popular these two pavilions are and say that the Beautifuls, as a group, have a good sense of humor. And maybe this is true. But isn’t it funny, after all, that their favorite show at the Biennale is all about them?

 

V.

 

The Advocate is squeezed into line at the Biennale store with a shrink-wrapped copy of the show’s two-volume catalogue when she feels something brush the back of her neck. She ignores it. The something brushes her again. She turns around. Behind her is a toddler with corkscrew curls. The Advocate smiles at him as he thwacks her repeatedly and vigorously on the shoulder with his little fist.

“I’m sorry,” says the man holding the toddler. He is a portly Italian with a long, dark ponytail and crinkly eyes. He is not wearing a blazer, round glasses, or shit-pants. In the crook of his other arm, he too is holding a shrink-wrapped catalog.

The Advocate likes toddlers. “Don’t worry about it.” The toddler delivers a left hook to the side of her neck.

“Sorry, sorry.” The man smiles apologetically at the Advocate and then coos something at the toddler in Italian.

“Sorry!” says his wife, who is big and soft just like he is. All three of them are wearing bright clothes, felts and velvets, newsboy caps and colorful, rubberized tennis shoes. They look like characters from a children’s book.

“It’s okay!” chirps the Advocate. The toddler swings wildly at the air.

The sorries and the cooing and the apologetic smiles continue until the Advocate and her new friends make it to the front of the line. The Italian-speaking clerk finishes with her last customer and waves the family over.

They begin an involved conversation. The Advocate, who knows only rudimentary Italian, makes out the following:

    Is there any way to get one without paying? asks the man.

      I’m sorry, says the clerk. We can only offer a discount.

      But I have work in the show.

We’re selling the catalogs here, not giving them away.

The Advocate loses the train of the conversation for several seconds. Then the Apparatchik trots off. The artist stands at the counter, waiting. He waits for two, three, four minutes. All around him, the dealers and journalists and curators and academics are shopping. They contemplate books, and pencils, and CDs, and t-shirts that say “Art Loves You,” and posters, and magnets, and tote bags—really nice ones—and toys for their kids, and pins, and housewares, and limited edition collectible trinkets—and they do it with the same look of half-glazed sobriety that they use when looking at the art in the 53rd International Exhibition of the Venice Biennale. It’s all the same.

The first Apparatchik returns with a second Apparatchik.

     You might be able to get one through the national pavilion, but here we’re selling them.

You can contact the office directly and see if there’s any way to get one. Sorry.

That’s all right, says the artist, and pulls out his wallet. All parties smile apologetically. The artist pays for his catalog and then signals his wife that they ought to go.

 

VI.

 

There is something in the world that allows the Beautiful People to press out weaker but more honest voices. Often these voices are the voices of the artists.

She leaves the Biennale, has dinner, and goes to bed.

But, later that night, something causes her to put her day clothes back on, to slip back out of her hotel and into the quiet dark. She is tired, and her calves ache, but she takes a vaporetto to the main island of Venice. She has not done enough, or seen enough, to justify going to bed.

She gets off at the Arsenale—it’s the force of the day’s habits—and starts walking, after a moment’s hesitation, toward St. Mark’s Square. Bands of tourists pass her in both directions. They seem unusually light and graceful, as people on vacation sometimes do: all talking and laughing gracefully, all clutching each other’s arms lightly, all escorts and charges, all dignified.

Seawater washes onto the promenade at points, and the Advocate has to pick her way to St. Mark’s more and more carefully. Little puddles become great sloshing mouths of canal water. They get wider and wider until the Advocate can barely jump them.

And she comes to St. Mark’s—where the Beautiful People stay; where they drink their Bellinis, at Harry’s Bar and at the bar in the Cipriani Hotel; where, after-hours, they promenade their expensive linen suits and asymmetrical gowns and round horn-rimmed professor glasses and their shit-pants, and their attitude; where they sip espresso and settle deals and laugh clubbily at each other’s jokes—and the entire place is flooded knee-deep.

The water doesn’t seem to be flowing in or flowing out, but standing, standing deep enough to ruin silk Louboutin pumps and Lanvin suits and Wolford tights. Deep enough to strand all the Beautifuls in their expensive St. Mark’s hotel rooms, while the tourists—and the Advocate, and the artist from the shop, and his wife and kid, and all the less fortunate—wheel free in the night air.

The stars in the sky shine down on the water to create a second, inverted sky. The Advocate catches the next vaporetto back to her hotel and goes to sleep.