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.
9:47 -- After several more rooms with video, here's some sculpture, sort of. Subodh Gupta, from India, presents "Curry," consisting of walls of stainless-steel racks. They hold endless ranks of brand-new pots and pans. The work is a kind of monochrome in glinting steel. It also evokes the prospect of cooking vast quantities of food, and calls up images of crowds of hungry mouths.
9:50 -- Daina Augaitis, chief curator of the Vancouver Art Gallery, strolls by. Throws out "minimalism reinvented" as her quick take on Gupta's work. She points to "Plumb-Line Pearl," a similarly shiny-slick work by Italy's Bruna Esposito in a nearby corner. Another example of the same trend, she says. Esposito has hung a shiny metal plumb bob from a string, with a pearl threaded right above it. Attractive. But what could it mean?
Query: Can the Biennale's first female-curated show risk having so much "pretty" art in it?
10:15 -- Weird guy with long black hair walks by in cowboy boots and jeans and jean jacket, with toy (I hope) six-shooter on his belt. Snarls as he passes, showing fake (I hope) vampire teeth. Is he your standard freaky Biennale visitor? One of the artists? Maybe a walking work of art? He doesn't seem to have a curator's label stuck to him.
10:20 -- Reclining on the floor, a massive realistic hippo, maybe 15 feet long and sculpted entirely of mud by Puerto Rico's Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla. A performer sits on its back, reads the paper, blows a police whistle now and then. Two wealthy-looking bottle-blondes meet and greet nearby, oblivious: They gossip about the "faaaabulous" gala they went to last night. Their ability to ignore the art is more interesting than the art itself.
10:25 -- One room on, meet Kristen Hileman and Milena Kalinovska, of the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington. Kalinovska, an art-world veteran, proclaims it "the best installation of the Arsenale that I've ever seen."
David Ross, who has headed up several major American museums, comes by. Then Russell Ferguson, curator at the UCLA Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. We gossip, ignoring surrounding art.
10:45 -- Twenty minutes wasted. Full panic sets in. Decide to jog through entire show to see what's still in store. Works rush by to either side. Effect is strangely kaleidoscopic -- like being an art-critical dust mite, tossed around inside a coffee-table book as someone flips the pages.
10:50 -- At speed, mistake new sculptures by art-world grande dame Louise Bourgeois -- highly polished aluminum blobs, man-size, shaped like melted pine cones and hanging from the ceiling -- for similarly shiny, blobby recent works I've seen by German artist Thomas Schutte, who is also supposed to be somewhere in the mix in Venice. Never thought of linking them until now. I should gallop through more shows.
10:59 -- Absolutely immense biomorphic silver pod, like a spaceship in an anime, sits surrounded by techies trying to restore power to its innards. Japanese artist Mariko Mori, all in designer white, seems strangely unperturbed. Prospective "participants" in the piece sign up for a session inside, where strange lights will respond to visitors' brain waves. Decide I'm not so sorry that the power glitch will keep me from going in.
11:09 -- Duck outside for dose of light and air. Note clear signage to important things like toilets. Neither signs nor what they point to were much in evidence at previous Biennales. The women's influence again?
11:55 -- Head back to where I left off when I started running an hour ago. Takes quite a while to walk the distance. Sigh.
12:28 -- Whole gallery taken up with wild, garish costumes made by transvestite performance artist Leigh Bowery, who lived in London before his death in 1994; also videos of his performances and posh fashion photos of him in costume. Bowery takes fashion ideas further than the most radical Parisian runway: Uses clothing to reshape his body; binds his excess flesh into strange bumps, breasts, almost new body parts. Splashy, energetic stuff -- with guts, too.
12:36 -- "Cube" is a video about an outdoor work by German artist Gregor Schneider that the Venetian government refused to have installed. It was going to be a plain black cube, a couple of stories tall, mounted in the middle of St. Mark's Square. It could be the Kabaa, the sacred cube that sits in Mecca, transported to one of the landmark sites of Western culture. (And to a city that had centuries of trade, and conflict, with the Islamic world.) Would have been interesting project -- but can't quite blame authorities for not wanting to risk attack by Muslim fundamentalists. St. Mark's Square is too beautiful to put in jeopardy.
1:02 -- Cheering to see how willing people are to cooperate with artists. Rivane Neuenschwander, from Brazil, provides seven typewriters on seven desks; invites visitors to type messages and pin them on the wall. Lots of people take her up on it. One wrinkle: All the machines' letters have been replaced with periods and commas. People typing away anyway.
1:05 -- This year's Arsenale show seems almost uniformly pleasant, often elegant. Then I come across "Himenoplastia," a video by Regina Jose Galindo, who's based in the Dominican Republic. Close-up footage of an operation to reconstruct a woman's hymen, such as goes on in countries that demand virginity from girls. I have a very strong stomach, normally. It's almost too weak for this piece.
1:10 -- This Biennale's reduced tally of artists starts to prove its worth. Galindo's video is screened along with other artists' works, but they're far enough apart that you can look at one without seeing the others and then, as in the past, you can turn around to make comparisons. "Himenoplastia" takes on new meaning, becomes easier to watch, after seeing the work facing it across the room. Parisian artist Stephen Dean shows three huge videos that turn the chaos of group behavior into aesthetic moments. A Hindu festival in India, involving clouds of thrown pigment and buckets of brightly colored dye, becomes, as filmed by Dean, a kind of living action painting. A roiling crowd at a Carnival event in Brazil, shot from above at night, becomes a pointillist composition. Footage of tightly packed bleachers at a Brazilian soccer game, with flags waving and some fans holding flares, looks like one of Kandinsky's flamboyant, music-inspired abstractions.
Turning back to the operation, I can almost see it for a second as a deep-red monochrome.
1:25 -- In a nicely decked-out terrace cafe midway through the Arsenale grounds -- lunch! Just sitting in sun, in cool Venetian breeze, starts recuperation process.
A thought: General good humor of Arsenale guests is being attributed by them to virtues of the show. But could be the weather talking, too. I pity 2003 curators; their visitors were made instantly cranky by temperatures in high 90s.
Then a more contrarian thought: Maybe the ultra-messy, super-annoying 2003 Biennale actually had stronger, more radical creative energies on view that this year's pared-down, elegant show. But some viewers were too overheated to absorb them.
1:35 -- The Hirshhorn's Kalinovska and Hileman come up, join table. Share their overall impressions of the Arsenale; pick favorite and most despised works.
Kalinovska: Likes the typewriter piece: spent time typing out intimate thoughts, knowing no one else would ever read them. Also liked giant Guerrilla Girl posters. Despised a cheerfully filmed Russian work showing dozens of men climbing onto a single naked woman, pretending to have sex with her.
Hileman: Likes scale of show; doable in one day. Notes its elegance, but also its "unraveling" when art gets visceral. "Captivated" by breaking-china video. ("The woman was like the china.") Likes Schneider's forbidden cube; wishes it had been realized. Especially hated slobby gallery entirely devoted to German artist John Bock: Weird papier-mache props everywhere; piles of found objects with pasta glued onto them; filthy odds and ends; videos of weird people doing meaningless weird stuff. Empty, gross-out art.
2:40 -- Sudden realization for all of us: Barely a single painter in the show, or in any of the Biennale's national pavilions.
Second realization: We barely even noticed. Even five years ago, people would have been calling this the "Video Biennale." Now it seems business as usual.
Query (unanswered): What happens when video seems as exhausted as painting does now? That could come soon.
3:07 -- Back in the saddle, and the show.
Run into, am warmly greeted by a pleasant young woman whose face I recognize -- but absolutely no idea who she is. We chat at some length. (I compensate for my forgetfulness by being extra-friendly.) Walk away kicking myself, trying to place her, replaying the conversation in my head. Then it dawns on me: She had no idea who I was, either. I feel better.
3:45 -- Hall stuffed full of printed banners by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. They present piles of information about where the Hermitage museum fits into global museology. Very interesting stuff, insofar as it can be absorbed as you walk past toward other art. Would be much better, more usefully presented, in a book. But presentation as a Biennale artwork gives it special cultural cachet.
3:50 -- In the Arsenale for almost seven hours now. Starting to fade, fast. Feel like Superman after a dose of kryptonite: "Not . . . much . . . strength . . . left. Gotta . . . keep . . . going. Readers . . . depending . . . on . . . me."
Previously reconnoitered works just barely revisited.
4:02 -- Video shows guys in scuba outfits frantically painting at underwater easels. A Navy SEAL art class?
4:10 -- Nadir of the exhibition: Dark hall with star-shaped mound of earth, candles burning everywhere, recordings of New Age music accompanied by live guitar, a gal in saffron robes (the artist?) hugging the brick wall, walking at a snail's pace back and forth.
In Nietzsche's famous phrase: "Gag me with a spoon."
4:19 -- I'm outta here.