VENICE — On my last afternoon in Venice, I decided to make a quick detour on my way back to the hotel to fetch bags. Without a little discipline at the biennale, the city can become an afterthought, a place to grab dinner and down a quick espresso while running between collateral exhibitions and the Giardini, the park where the main pavilions are located. So I wanted to pay one last visit to the Piazza San Marco, just to soak it in, tourists and all, because no matter how many times you see it, the square is still one of the most beautiful man-made places on the planet.

A Venice journal
Three days exploring the Biennale, the art world’s biggest gathering

And there it was, just before the Doge’s Palace, another sign with the distinctive red box that indicates a biennale venue, this time a collateral event from Taiwan, held upstairs in an old prison that once numbered Casanova among its inmates. The project, called “3X3X6” by artist Shu Lea Cheang, is among the edgier of the biennale offerings, a mash-up of video and narrative, parodies of pornography and a high-tech installation that uses the stories of famous sexual renegades to challenge contemporary uses of surveillance and imprisonment by state power. Casanova X, Foucault X and Sade X (played by a woman who uses a sex toy on camera) are among the figures in the racy and often funny videos (Robert Mapplethorpe’s classic photograph “Man in Polyester Suit” makes a comic appearance).

The goal, according to a brochure, is “to create a real-time dissident interface.” Once again, as with so many artist statements, it’s best to ignore the language and try to overlook the unedited feel of the installation, which like so many of the national pavilions, needs pruning, a stronger design hand and a little more clarity. The delight of this heavily promoted work (there are advertisements for it in the Venice Airport as you arrive) has a lot to do with its location, right in the center of tourist Venice, so close that a sign in the doorway tells people who are looking to visit the Doge’s Palace prison that they’ree in the wrong place.

Some of the best moments of the past few days in Venice have been away from the two main sites of the biennale, exploring exhibitions integrated into the old city, in historic palazzos and museums that still retain the character and much of the splendor of Venice’s past. If tourist mouths gape when they first see San Marco (it happens to everyone), mine did when I entered a room called the Tribuna in the Palazzo Grimani, a recently restored 16th-century palace. The museum has reassembled in the Tribuna the historic collection of antiquities originally acquired by Giovanni Grimani, the scion of an elite Venetian family who held important church positions. Statues fill every niche, pediments groan with busts and masks, and almost every horizontal ledge and protrusion of the ornate classical wall design is filled with some relic of the Roman era or Hellenistic era. Hadrian’s bust on one wall looks at his boyfriend, Antinous, on another, and a second-century Ganymede is suspended from the ceiling.

I have no idea if Giovanni Grimani was as loud, aggressive and vulgar as some of the ultrachic collectors with ridiculous eyewear who muscled their way through the crowds on my last day. But the Tribuna offered one of those rare moments when you sense a continuity in the social history of art, that Grimani, too, wanted a room overstuffed with everything he could acquire and that there has always been a tension in that primal acquisitiveness, between the desire to know and understand and the desire to hold and own.

Upstairs at the Palazzo Grimani is a rewarding exhibition of paintings by Helen Frankenthaler, horizontal canvases from throughout her career, and here, too, one sensed continuity. The colors of Frankenthaler’s stained paintings, the occasional thick daubs of paint, and the references to landscape and the work of other painters (not just other abstract expressionists but Cézanne and Turner) make her a smart and subtle artist, and the paintings seemed all the smarter in the context of the Palazzo Grimani.

I have made several quick forays to exhibitions like this one. A survey of AfriCOBRA (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists), African American artists originally from Chicago who formed a black power collective in the 1960s, was held in a Gothic palazzo near the Rialto Bridge and was billed as the first major exhibition of this work in Europe. In Venice, a city with a long history of vividly chromatic art and mosaics, the “cool-ade” colors and fractured, restless gestural surfaces of the AfriCOBRA painters felt distinctly different, still a powerful act of resistance within the context of American aesthetics but also connected to a longer history of human delight in vibrant, eye-catching surfaces. Even more, these artists’ use of text and the painful but powerful sense that our identities are woven of words — the ones we chose to use and the ones used by others to define us — makes these works feel extraordinarily prescient given what is happening right now at the Arsenale and Giardini.

At the biennale, history isn’t any single thing, or idea, but is felt in myriad ways. At the pavilion of the Netherlands, the history of modernism, of Mondrian and the De Stijl movement, is felt as a nostalgic residue that needs to be cleansed, compacted and neatly contextualized. In the Australian Pavilion, a complicated and fascinating film by Angelica Mesiti dramatizes the dissolution of old orders, power structures and aesthetic ideologies, dissolved into the liquid of rhythm and dance and a momentarily (and perhaps imaginary) utopia of communion. At the Swiss Pavilion, artists Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz use dance to dramatize the idea of going backward, both the backward slide into barbarism that defines our current politics, and the possibility of liberating backward motion, perhaps to some kind of revolutionary “reset” in our relation to each other and world.

The worst of the art at the biennale is made by artists who transparently want to belong to the here-and-now of the biennale, art that cloys for the immediate attention of the particular social stratum that gathers here. The best of the art always stands apart. The Ghana Pavilion is a surfeit of smart video, painting, art and design, the best of the best, all the more powerful for the sense of quiet that prevails in architect David Adjaye’s design, despite the crowds. At the Brazilian Pavilion, a dance film by Barbara Wagner and Benjamin de Burca shows us charismatic young people, gender fluid, queer and racially diverse, who stand apart from contemporary Brazil, which just elected a homophobic populist who delights in crude social division. The U.S. Pavilion, which I will review separately, displays the work of sculptor Martin Puryear, who has worked productively and with great integrity in his own space for decades.

What will I remember after days of looking at art? The thing that stays with me, that I can’t stop thinking about, is something that was probably never meant to be art. In a moving exhibition of the work of Arshile Gorky at the Ca’ Pesaro, a museum of modern art in a classic Venetian palace, there is a little wooden rocking horse he made for his daughter. Gorky, born Armenian, fled the Turkish genocide, lost his mother to starvation and emigrated to the United States in 1920. He changed his name, built an emotional wall around the trauma he had experienced, absorbed the history of modern painting like a sponge and became one this country’s greatest artists. He hanged himself in 1948. I don’t know why I love that rocking horse so much.

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Initially published May 9, 2019

A boat in which hundreds of migrants died is cast as 'art'

VENICE — The International Art Exhibition at the Venice Biennale may not have an overarching theme, or governing idea, but there is a surprising amount of coherence among many of the national pavilions, the collateral events and independent exhibitions. The status of refugees, the plight of the stateless and the condition of indigenous peoples are dominant subjects. Artists often champion the poor, the brutalized and the marginal, but here it takes on special relevance, because the structure of the biennale is still largely based around national pavilions, many of them built when Europe was the dominant colonial power in the world.

One of the largest, most striking and controversial exhibitions is the metal hulk of a fishing boat that left Tripoli, Libya, in April 2015. There were more than 800 people onboard, migrants hoping for a better life in Europe, when the ship was accidentally struck by a Portuguese vessel trying to offer aid. The migrants were effectively imprisoned in the boat’s hold, so when it sank it took with it all but 28 people in what was the worst maritime disaster in Europe in living memory. The boat is now on display at the Arsenale, dubbed “Barca Nostra,” or “our ship,” by Swiss Icelandic artist Christoph Büchel. Büchel managed to bring the salvaged wreck to Venice as an art project meant to memorialize the dead, goad the conscience of anti-immigrant political forces and provoke thought among the Biennale audience, which can enjoy refreshments at a cafe just in front of the rusted-out vessel.

I’m horrified when I finally make it to the waterfront where the boat is displayed. It sits in a heavy metal cradle on wheels, a short, stubby boat painted red and blue, and it’s hard to imagine how hundreds of people (some estimates say as many as 1,100) could have fit inside. The boat has been staved in on the sides, and it’s getting rusty. A few people are taking pictures, but mostly they are just passing by. Perhaps after a bit of notoriety in the press, this is already yesterday’s news, and that’s how the art world works.

Within the world defined by events like the Venice Biennale, it’s axiomatic that a gesture like this can be both a sincere act of memorialization and a profound work of art. But here, in the center of a complicated intellectual game that’s also a massive industry and a vast investment market, I keep wanting to make a distinction between the memorial function and the art function. A few days ago, the meaning of this boat was bound up with the lives lost inside it. Now the meaning of the boat is also bound up with Marcel Duchamp, who in 1917 took a urinal and said, this is art. I admire Duchamp’s intellectual insight and cheekiness, but I feel like the lives of those who died here need to be disentangled from this magnificent carnival of visual consumption.

I try to do it this way: As a light rain falls, I put down my umbrella and look up at the underside of the wooden deck and imagine that this is the last thing I will ever see.

Other critics see a powerful distillation of many of the Biennale’s recurring themes in “Barca Nostra,” not just refugees, but the fact that it is a boat, and Venice is built on islands, and the world is warming and growing more fraught as growing inequality and nationalism raise the social temperature around the globe. Water is definitely a fixation for many artists. In an old decommissioned church that may house the bones of Marco Polo, the artist Joan Jonas presents an old-school performance-art evening, with videos of her swimming in a thin red dress and mesmerizing underwater photography. She paints pictures of fish onstage, with a long paintbrush dipped in red paint, and she hugs a crustacean as it swims by on screen.

In the pavilion of the United Arab Emirates, artist and filmmaker Nujoom Al-Ghanem has created two films that share the same soundtrack. In one, a woman is carrying an old, shabby suitcase, in a boat, floating through a dreamlike space. In the Romanian Pavilion, artist Dan Mihaltianu has created a large pool of water on the floor, shallow and dark. A young woman asks a guard whether it’s okay to throw a coin in and he says yes. I watch her, waiting to see if she tosses a coin, but she leaves without making a deposit.

In the Luxembourg Pavilion, there’s a striking installation by Marco Godinho: On two video screens we see a beach, and hands flipping through the pages of notebooks, one of which is repeatedly washed by waves. Above the little theater where the videos are playing, a sloping platform is full of old notebooks, presumably wiped clean by the power of water. It is about memory, and about the call of the sea, the old adventure of exploration and crossing the waters. But the mood is ominous. From the catalogue: “Beneath the romantic veneer of an epic space that kindles the imagination lurks a darker geopolitical dimension punctuated by conflict, mass migration, and economic imbalance.”

The national pavilions span a wide range, tonally, and in terms of quality. Kosovo’s pavilion is a simple, direct and passionate space, with video screens showing interviews with young adults who share harrowing memories of being children during the 1998-1999 Kosovo War. Poland has opted for a single, powerful vision — Roman Stanczak’s “Flight” — a full-size luxury jet that has been turned inside out, its seats projecting outward and a jumble of wires emerging like hair from its fuselage. In 2010, a Polish military jet crashed, killing all onboard, including the country’s president. The loss was a national trauma and has cast a long shadow over the country, which has now descended into authoritarianism.

Then there are the happy places, such as Iceland. Located on the island of Giudecca, which requires a ride on the city’s vaporetto (a floating bus service), the Iceland Pavilion is a small, sumptuous and wildly colorful cave made of hair. I had it to myself for 10 minutes and admired the control over color in a space that is meant to be overwhelmingly chromatic. I didn’t, however, feel that I had entered “the piece as Homo Sapiens” and emerged “transformed into Chromo Sapiens,” which is the title of the piece. But I didn’t regret the short journey.

On the boat back from Giudecca, I am surrounded by water, and I try to make a mental list of all the artists for whom water is essential. There are too many to mention here. But one last one: In the International Exhibition, German artist Hito Steyerl has created a room of video monitors, accessed via raised platforms, exactly like the ones that are put out when the water rises in Venice and the streets flood, a periodic nuisance and slow-motion civic disaster known as “acqua alta.”

In Steyerl’s videos, urban spaces seem to become liquid, and liquidity is a popular idea here, an ideal state of mental flux that seems to allow the mind to comprehend the fusion of opposites or the dissonance of big contradictions or opposed ideas. It’s a hypnotic experience that perfectly captures something essential about the biennale, and Venice, that they somehow dissolve time, and us with it, into a kind of confusion that is neither happy nor sad, but wrought from equal parts pleasure and gloom.

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Initially published May 8, 2019

A vast, unwieldy, exhilarating spectacle

VENICE — In less than 24 hours, these things have all happened in Venice: The Costa Deliziosa, a cruise ship nearly three football fields long, passed by the entrance to the Grand Canal, dwarfing the Baroque church of Santa Maria della Salute. A woman in the Castello neighborhood pounded on the door of an unmarked building, shouting in Italian, almost certainly about love. And strange, wispy clouds floated down from the top of the Central Pavilion of the Venice Biennale, a white building with a bare-bones classical portico that is now the center of the global art world.

Only the clouds were art. Created by Lara Favaretto, they are made of water forced through fine-mist nozzles, and after swirling momentarily above the pavilion, they settle down to earth, leaving visitors passing underneath just a little wet. The lightness of this work contrasts with three black trash bags sitting in misshapen lumps nearby, as if forgotten by the cleanup crew or maintenance staff. And they, too, are art, carved from marble by Andreas Lolis, an Albanian artist working in Greece.

The Venice Biennale, first held in 1895, is called the “Super Bowl of the art world,” though only journalists trying to persuade their editors to send them here say that. Others compare it to the Olympics, an occasional event that also attracts an international audience, but that comparison isn’t apt, either. The Venice Biennale isn’t a pop-up event for the masses, but a recurring elite social overlay on a city that’s already denser with art than perhaps any other on the planet. It’s a festival of the cultural too-much and the consumerist never-enough, and even though the biennale doesn’t officially open until Saturday, there is already a line of giant yachts moored to the quay near the entrance to the biennale grounds.

“Those are the small ones,” says someone who knows the scene well.

On my first full day here, it was bright and chilly, and the crowds hadn’t yet arrived. The grounds of the Giardini, the park where the main pavilions are located, was still a work zone, with men carrying ladders, making deliveries and putting labels on the walls.

I tried to get a sense of the structure of this vast, unwieldy, exhilarating spectacle. At the center of the phenomenon, says Biennale President Paolo Baratta, is the International Art Exhibition, a free-ranging survey overseen by a single curator charged with saying something substantial about the state of the art every two years. This year’s curator is Ralph Rugoff, an American who is the director of the Hayward Gallery in London.

Around this globalized vision of the field are the individual national pavilions, in which each country puts forth its own artistic statement. America is represented this year by the revered sculptor Martin Puryear. In ever wider circles are more than 20 “collateral events” associated with the official biennale, and yet more unofficial exhibitions and events that crowd into the field because, of course, why not? The whole world is watching.

“Sixty percent is under our control,” Baratta says. Yet the whole thing feels a bit like a free-for-all, even the strictly curated international exhibition, which is where I spent my first full day looking at art.

Rugoff has called his big show “May You Live in Interesting Times,” a reference to a supposed ancient Chinese curse, but also a dog whistle to people who are feeling apocalyptic about the state of the world — environmentally, politically and spiritually. He has divided his massive installation into two “propositions,” one laid out in a long brick building in the Arsenale (the centuries-old shipbuilding plant from Venice’s glory days as a naval power in the Mediterranean) and the other in the Central Pavilion. The same artists have contributed works to both buildings.

From the beginning, Rugoff stresses that he didn’t want to make a statement, or prove a hypothesis or suggest a commonality to the work. Standing outside the Central Pavilion, looking exhausted and speaking softly, he says, “Rather than a theme, I wanted to highlight these things that art does.” Things like break down barriers, straddle disciplines, confuse categories, problematize identity, raise questions, suggest uncanny doublings or paradoxical contradictions — in short, the usual philosophical and aesthetic dance.

I have come here because everyone who loves art wants to be here. But I’ve also come here because I’m curious about the language Rugoff speaks, the way in which it floats around the brain a bit like Favaretto’s clouds of water vapor. Rugoff speaks this way, and has chosen his enigmatic but useless title, because today it’s difficult to talk about art in any other way. The art world is expanding so rapidly, evolving so quickly, continually incorporating the non-art world into itself to create new forms of art, and is in such endless argument with itself that only vague things are safe to say.

I’ve decided to give his language the benefit of the doubt for the next three days. And if one suspends skepticism about the intellectual architecture supporting it, his exhibition is strangely fun, polished, anodyne and engaging. The two-part structure is a smart way of giving some artists a mulligan. Teresa Margolles, an artist from Mexico, contributes one of the most powerful works of the show, a piece called “La Búsqueda,” which uses missing-person posters of women, pasted on glass walls that rattle ominously in response to low-frequency sound (approximating a passing train). Her other work, a cinder block wall topped by barbed wire, is a blunt use of an old cliche.

Two of the most arresting works in the exhibition are by Chinese artists Sun Yuan and Peng Yu. One piece, seen in 2016 at the Guggenheim in New York, is a frenetic robotic arm, mopping up and splattering blood on transparent acrylic walls. The other is a monumental chair that resembles Lincoln’s throne from the memorial in Washington, with an attached rubber tube that flails around violently every few minutes, creating a terrible noise and disrupting everything else in the show. Both seem to make big, clear and unambiguous statements about power, about how those who promise to clean up things often spill more blood, and how violence is a fundamental but unpredictable tool of power. But works that make a first big impression don’t always make a lasting one.

It takes nearly three hours to do a single pass through both “propositions” in the main exhibition, and that doesn’t even allow time for sitting through the longer videos or waiting in line for the virtual-reality stations. But here’s what lingers: the magical sense of shimmering depth in Julie Mehretu’s paintings, glistening with gold highlights, transfiguring the ugliness of the world into perfect serenity; Tarek Atoui’s roomful of strange musical instruments, creating a hybrid acoustic of Stone Age and electronic sounds; Soham Gupta’s photographs of the desperately poor people of Kolkata, India, which may or may not be exploitative; and Martine Gutierrez’s self-portraits with mannequins, in which the Latina trans artist plays games with identity and ideas of agency and empowerment.

And there, I’ve slipped into the language I don’t quite trust, because I can’t find a better way to describe Gutierrez’s magnificently transgressive and affirmative work. I’ll have to return for the videos, and for a longer sit with the work that operates more slowly and speaks more quietly. And I haven’t even touched the national pavilions. My cellphone tells me that I walked 7.6 miles on Day One.

The Venice Biennale opens Saturday and runs through Nov. 24.