Monday, June 25, 2007

Serenissima Repubblica di Venezia

Disembarking at dock of the Giardini for the Venice Biennale. 6.7.07. Photo: JH.
We were in Venice a couple of weeks ago, as regular NYSD readers know; ostensibly to cover the Venetian Heritage’s biennale. In its eight years of activity, Venetian Heritage has funded a number of restoration projects both in Venice and in Croatia -- which was once part of the Serenissima as Venice was known when it was The Most Serene Republic of Venice (Serenissima Repubblica di Venezia).

The biennale is an opportunity for VH supporters to see, to consider and to appreciate the organization’s work. It is also another opportunity to experience the pleasure of being present in Venice. It is an extraordinary trip and we were very fortunate to be invited along to see and to learn and to enjoy (a tiny word for such an enormous experience).

Hotel Europa
That week was also the time of the 52nd Venice Biennale, considered by some to be the most venerable of all the international art shows. This event drew thousands of people from from all over the globe – dealers, collectors, art historians, artists, fans, art lovers, people in the art business and art groupies. And so there was an ongoing excitement in the air. For a moment there it seemed as if all of Venice was enveloped in the Biennale We were staying in the Europa, just across the Grand Canal from the Peggy Guggenheim Museum where there were mobs of visitors attending dinners and cocktail receptions every night.

Farther down the Canal, at the Palazzo Grassi, the last great palace built at the end of the 18th century before Napoleon invaded, there was featuring an exhibition of works from the collection of French business tycoon Francois Pinault and it was a hub of social activity every night also. 

The Grassi family sold the palazzo in 1840 after financial reversals. Today it is a cultural center, art gallery and museum. The interior courtyard has a 600 seat theater. Two years ago M. Pinault acquired controlling interest in the palazzo from FIAT, and now displays numerous works from his extensive art collection. On the landing on the canal was Subodh Gupta’s gigantic sulpture Very Hungry God (2006), reminding this traveler of the now famous Damien Hirst $100 million head.

The art world is not dissimilar to the world of Hollywood (in the universal sense), from my vantage point; or the business world, in that it traffics in Ego which often substitutes for a lot of other attributes that may not be readily available. It is a world about money, maybe now more than ever, and all kinds of notions of stardom -- from the collector, to the curator, to the museum head, to the critic and to, last, but not least of course, the artist. It is a world of swiftly changing tastes coming together with venality and occasionally genius. You can sometimes get the impression that the artist is only there to provide fodder (and methods of exchange) for the aforementioned players whose own self-importance is never far from view.
Thomas Krens arrives at the Guggenheim.
Anyway, all of that energy was present in Venice on this particular week and it made for a lot of excitement, not unlike, ironically, the kind of excitement people get from the energy of New York. One night we were at the Peggy Guggenheim when Thomas Krens, the director of the Guggenheim in New York arrived, solo, by boat. The deck was briefly cleared for His Directorship and just off the dock, on the steps, the crowd was watching. Mr. Krens is one of a cadre of Ivy League educated art historians who have risen to top directorships of museums in America.  Importance disembarking. These boys (mainly boys, not girls) have had a very influential hand in making museums (and contemporary art) the hot ticket that it is today.

One late morning we went over to the Giardini, a part of the island where the Biennale was set up. The director of the Biennale is Robert Storr, an American curator, critic, teacher and current dean of the Yale School of Art. The Giardini is a neighborhood in Venice that has some parkland to it. The exhibitions were divided between the Giardini (park/garden) and the Arsenale which once upon a time was the facility of the Venetian navy.

We went first to the Arsenale which is a quarter mile long brick warehouse-like structure with ceilings more than 20 feet high. The exhibitions included sculpture, videos, paintings, drawings and scenes. There was a video of a little boy in a desolate bombed-out looking neighborhood playing kickball with a human skull. The exhibition space of the Arsenale allowed a great many pieces to be displayed with very little limitation. The boy kicking the skull around stayed with me for the entire visit (and thereafter). It seemed to articulate much of what I saw and felt.

I am not an art historian or curator. My knowledge of art and art history is: lacking. So my approach is entirely based on my reaction, often emotional, to what I am seeing. Being there at this most beautifully strange planet called Venice, on the dancing greenish-turquoise Adriatic waters, amidst the trove ancient riches and luxuries, art and architecture, amidst its 21st century inhabitants and armies of tourists, and seeing a grainy video (in color) of a little boy kicking a dirtied skull around as if it were a soccer ball, was very provocative. As well as portentous. I liked being at the Biennale and in Venice. Now, and Then; it was all there for the seeing.

Afterwards in the Giardini, in the British pavilion there was an exhibition of works by a highly popular artist named Tracey Emin.  Ms. Emin’s pictures are almost entirely of bodies, limbs, positioned in such a way as to focus on genitalia. “It’s all about private parts,” I said to JH. “Yes,” he replied, “and they’re not private anymore.”

Yes. They are not.

At the waterfront entrance to the Biennale, there was a sign: 'the biennale has no position on conflict and no part in it'
The walk through town to the Arsenale.
Approaching the Arsenale ...
... and entering.
Departing the Arsenale to make our way to the Giardini.
Above: Mother Nature's creations.

Right: Performance art, outdoors.
Opening day Preview in the Giardini.
Tracey Emin at the British pavilion.
Felicia Taylor
DPC interacts with Felix Gonzalez-Torres at the U.S. pavilion
Passing by the U.S. pavilion.
Mary Hilliard
Leaving the exhibition we caught a waterbus back to St. Mark’s Square where the day had begun. Footsteps, laughter, voices, cathedral bells clanging out at every half hour. The musicians on the piazza beginning to warm up. And the pigeons, very aggressive, unconcerned about our presence which is often in their way.
St. Mark's Square.
A true Venetian.
A water taxi driver in the rear view mirror.
An evening ride.
The new Church of San Zaccaria (far left), facade restored by Venetian Heritage and Stichting Nederlands Venetië Comite; the square across from the church.
Later we took a ride on the gondola. I had no real desire except someone said “you must!” And so we did. Down along the narrow canals. We learned from our cell-toting gondolier that the real estate prices had been driven up so high that most Venice natives can afford to live there anymore. A floor of a house can cost a million euros and of course are occupied for only a small part of the year by their owners.

The gondolier also told us that the speedboats own the canals now and are shown special privilege by the carbinieri who tend to be overly strict with the gondoliers.
Street performers and our gondolier at work.
Water bus passengers taking us in.
A rare look up.

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