A Memento Mori for the Venice Art Biennale

“Life is Beautiful” by Farhad Moshiri.
A Memento Mori for the Venice Art Biennale
By Barbara Goldsmith

For the first time in all the years I’ve been attending this event, the irritants outweighed the delights. There were many of the former and few of the latter. (Let’s face it, I’m not a student backpacker anymore whose happy with a bed and a lukewarm shower.)

After a wonderful stint at the American Academy in Rome, I arrived in Venice from Padua with Adele Chatfield-Taylor and John Guare where we saw the transcendent Giotto murals in the Cappella degli Scrovegni from the 14th Century and then made a private visit to Frassanelle in Veneto with its boxwood gardens and park with man-made caves and grottos (you’d never know it) hosted by the Countess Francesca Papafava dei Carraresi whose family has lived there ever since.
American Academy in Rome Cortile Dinner (clockwise from top left): Alice Waters revamped the food, we love it; Playwright John Guare; Paul LeClerc—it’s his birthday. Judith Ginsburg back to us.
William Kentridge. Did you see his excellent show at MOMA?
Clockwise from top left: Richard and Mary Ellen Oldenberg; Louise Hirschfeld Cullman and Lewis Cullman; Carol Rapp and Barbara Pine.
The Giotto’s at the Palazzo della Ragione.
Countess Francesca Papafava dei Carraresi in her gardens and grottos in Padua.
Later that day a forty minute ride took us to Venice for VIP days with art connoisseurs, art dealers, artists, press and dignitaries (Shimon Peres had commandeered many water taxis for his retinue) and hoards of people, people, people—pushing, pulling suitcases, trying to deal with the water taxi drivers. The vaporettos were on strike, which by Italian whim meant they came when they wanted, which wasn’t frequently, and water taxis were charging about $800 to take you to your hotel.

Finally John and Adele, who were staying with Count Giovanni Volpe who had his own boat, settled me in to my room at the Monaco before they left for the Guidecca. Incidentally, my single room faced a wall so close you could almost touch it and cost nearly $1,000 a night. When the first so-called exclusive days (June 1, 2, 3) were over the price dropped drastically. I rarely think about price when I’m traveling but with a Euro at $1.44 for a U.S. dollar, I kept hitting the ATMs which were few and far between.
The American Pavilion.
Performance in the American Pavilion.
It used to be that the Giardini with many of the permanent pavilions opened one day and the overwhelming display at the Arsenale the next day, but this time both areas opened on June 1st and both were flooded with people. There was a two hour and fifteen minute wait to see Mike Nelson’s installation of connecting underground rooms (reminding one of Godot) at the British Pavilion. As a member of MOMA’s International Council we had a fine lecture and tour of the artists Allora & Calzadilla’s installation for the American Pavilion with its upside-down tank whose tires revolved when someone ran on a treadmill on the top (well, the bottom really). Inside the pavilion, a gymnast performed on mock airline seats.

For me the best was an installation by Tabaimo at the Japan Pavilion influenced by Hokusai and Hiroshige drawings. There was a video of a row of houses which were then consumed in a flood after which strange persimmon-colored roses appeared and ascended.
Curator of the Venice Biennale, Bice Curiger, speaking to the MOMA International Council.
Sarina Tang, the artist Joana Vasconcelos, and Barbara Goldsmith at the Palazzo Grassi. Sarina Tang and Song Dong.
Alexandra Munroe and Robert Rosenkranz. Sydney Ruiz Picasso.
The Israeli Pavilion too was interesting with artist Sigalit Landau, who featured a pair of salt encased shoes that slowly sunk into the Dead Sea. Brazil made a political statement with bright colors masking a stench that pervaded the pavilion through a tub of rotting fish. There was more and more. Everywhere you were bombarded with disparate views, the excellent and the forgettable, and the art often asked the question; What is art, but did not answer it. I read in Art Beat in the New York Times that their reporter saw all the pavilions in the Giardini in one afternoon. Are you kidding? I counted 29 pavilions—13 new ones had been added to the display this year and at the Arsenale 50 countries were participants. I never felt “less is more” more strongly. I want to see that reporter’s walking shoes.

Some other highlights: The International Pavilion with three iconic Tintorettos as you entered—Tintoretto? Yup. (Well, two from the Accademia which was being renovated.) In the Palazzo Grassi brightly-colored cloth fantasy figures by Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos dominated. The Larry Bell boxes at the “Venice in Venice” show at the Palazzo Contarini Dagli Scrigni, an expansive Julian Schnabel exhibition at the Museo Correr in St. Marks Square.
St. Marks Square (couldn’t resist)
Julian Schnabel show at the Museo Correr.
Julian Schnabel show at the Museo Correr.
Barbara Goldsmith at the Julian Schnabel show at the Museo Correr. Barbara Hoffman on left. Barbara Goldsmith on right.
Through all these installations for me a theme of sorts emerged. A work by artist Farhad Moshiri encapsulated it: “Life is Beautiful” it proclaimed in candy colors of lime, pink, purple, red, crystalline white but as you moved closer you saw that the work was composed of 1,000 knives.

We live in image, we ignore perils, we are resigned to the cover up—a theme for our day.

Some of the real joys—despite the inconvenience, worn shoe leather, pushing and waiting—were the private parties. I think of Venice as the Guggenheim’s city with the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. There is nothing more magical than to see that wide-flat terrace roof from the water with guests drinking bellinis and enjoying the view.
“Life is Beautiful” by Farhad Moshiri. Detail, “Life is Beautiful."
The International Council of MOMA kept it low-key but lush with lunch in the garden of the Gabrielli Sandwirth and great conversations by art connoisseurs, collectors, and curators from over seventeen countries. And their dinner at the famous Harry’s Bar was informal yet coddling (the pasta was a wow, I dream of it). Another dinner at Al Gondolieri with friends and collectors Melva Bucksbaum, Raymond Learsy, and Sarina Tang was scrumptious and stimulating.

Then there was a party given by the architect and art connoisseur Enrico Ambrose in the Ca’ Rezzonico with hors d'œuvres in the garden, a tour of the palazzo (and what a palazzo it is) and a chamber music concert in the grand ballroom featuring Haendel, Platti and Marcello with strings and flute that soothed tired nerves.
The Ca’ Rezzonico, famously rented by Linda and Cole Porter in the 1920s.
The ballroom of the Ca’ Rezzonico.
Arne, Milly, and Marc Glimcher hosted a glamorous lunch on the top terrace of the Bauer-Grunwald. What is it about these terrace lunches that is so magical?

Gosh, you know—it’s the view you don’t want to hear about and the dynamicism of dialogue between Pace Gallery artists and guests—and the sunshine reflecting off the water.
Suzanne Booth and Arne Glimcher at the Pace Gallery luncheon.
Milly Glimcher on the roof terrace of the Bauer Grunwald.
Perhaps best of all, a very private dinner on the island of San Clemente given by the international art lawyer Barbara Hoffman that included several of the artists in the Biennale. We sat out by the lagoon and looked across to Venice—the sky was pink, the voices soft, and the dinner sumptuous. Then we moved into a small San Clemente church where a trio of string artists played. I left the next day with that marvelous memory.

Adele Chatfield-Taylor’s sister came to the Biennale six days later. There was no wait. She was the only person in the British Pavilion. The Art Biennale runs through November. As for me, I don’t think I’ll go to the next opening in two years, I’ll go though—without the hassle but with all the joys.
 

Click here
for NYSD Contents