At the Biennale, Women Who Rock the Gondola

Sunday, June 19, 2005

The Venice Biennale, the great festival of contemporary art that opened last weekend and runs until Nov. 6, is like nothing else on Earth. Seventy-one countries sent artists as their official representatives, filling national pavilions on the Biennale grounds or rented spaces scattered across town. As if that weren't more than enough, the Biennale's organizers put on several large group shows to showcase their own favorites from the international art world.

The biggest of this year's exhibitions, titled "Always a Little Further," fills the sprawling warehouses and factories of the imperial Venetian shipyards, now known as the Arsenale and nearly abandoned much of the time. To give a sense of how a visit there might feel, and a taste of what the work is like, The Post asked critic Blake Gopnik to provide a blow-by-blow account of one long day's journey into Biennale art.

8:45 a.m. -- On the water bus from the hotel to the Arsenale: Sun plays across the palazzi of the Grand Canal; clouds scud across the Venetian sky. This could be the most beautiful spot on the planet. Can any art compete with it?

9:02 -- Walking toward the entrance, I encounter a collector whom I just about remember meeting several years ago. She compliments me on my latest article in the New Yorker. Nice -- except that it's my brother who writes for that august publication. Whatever the exhibition may be like, the social side of these artfests sure can be a pain.

9:11 -- I'm in.

Architecture of the first room is gorgeous, monumental: massive brick columns and stone-paved floor. Medieval industrial chic. The work in it also sends a powerful message: The art world had better make more room for women. Wall-filling vinyl posters, by the American collective known as the Guerrilla Girls, give stats on how few women have been allowed to play a role in art, and how they've been neglected when they've tried. But at this Biennale two women are the bosses, for the first time.

A massive chandelier fills the middle of the space. It's by Lisbon-based artist Joana Vasconcelos. It's made from 14,000 tampons. Unused ones.

9:19 -- I realize that this new "woman's" biennale's lineup is still only 38 percent female. Funny how no one thought to call the previous shows, where 90 percent or more of works were made by males, "men's" biennales.

9:22 -- Huge video screen shows a seven-minute work by young Bangladeshi artist Runa Islam, who's based in London. I've had my eye on her work for a while. New piece very cryptic, also gorgeous: A stylish woman all in white, projected many times life-size, fiddles with fancy china. Eats a chocolate wafer. Drops some cups and saucers.

Hmmm. I'll still keep an eye on Islam, but it may begin to stray.

9:29 -- Realize that if I'm asked to spend seven minutes with each of more than 200 works, I'm here for almost 24 hours. Panic starts to set in.

9:30 -- Run into art historian and curator Robert Storr, once at the Museum of Modern Art and now at New York University (and already named curator of the 2007 Biennale), who comments on how nice it is to have only 49 artists in the Arsenale -- at least 100 fewer than in 2003. True. But doesn't make me feel much better, after my recent calculation.

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