Watch This Space

British Raves, Finnish Trees, & Other Notes From My Venice Biennale Sweep

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British Raves, Finnish Trees, & Other Notes From My Venice Biennale Sweep
Antti Laitinen's trees outside the Finnish pavilion

During the first week of the Biennale, the whole art world migrates to the canals, palazzi, and labyrinthine streets of Venice, to rush around in rain and sun, determined to take in as many art experiences as possible. From the moment I arrived I was whisked away by the nonstop energy of the Biennale. 

Making haste from the airport, I jumped onto a Vaporetto and emerged in the Giardini for the preview day. Strolling peacefully through the mishmash of architectural styles that characterize the national pavilions, it was easy to forget the insane hubbub that would invade the open space in the coming days. My first stop was a cup of real English tea at Jeremy Deller’s British pavilion, which takes on the country’s social and political issues, popular culture, history, and legends in a playful way. I made a stamp with an image of a giant bird of prey clutching a Range Rover in its claws and touched a 4,000-year-old spearhead.

An image from Jeremy Deller's exhibit at the British Pavilion

In the American pavilion, Sarah Sze worked within the awkward architecture of the space, creating an intricate journey for the viewer. The paper boulders that dotted the pavilion could be spotted all around Venice in the most unlikely of places, for example in a windowsill above and a local restaurant and on top of an Il Gazettino stand. In the Finnish pavilion, meanwhile, Antti Laitinen gently adapted the Finnish landscape, literally bringing it to Venice. With Tree Reconstruction, he bought cut-apart chunks of silver birch trees from Finland and rebuilt them on the lawn by lovingly nailing them together.

That central pavilion, curated by Massimiliano Gioni, was of perfectly consistent quality, with paintings by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, gold anthropomorphic sculptures by Sarah Lucas, and a performance by Tino Sehgal. An installation by Peter Fischli and David Weiss from 1981, Suddenly This Overview, filled a room with small clay sculptures that represented all manner of moments in history and culture—it was clever, totally engaging, and hilarious. I particularly liked a figure of Brunelleschi discovering perspective, with wine bottles laid out in front of him, getting further and further away.  

The next day, the Arsenale section of Gioni’s "The Encyclopedic Palace" show was less relaxing as the Biennale had hit its peek and the visitors had arrived. Avoiding familiar faces, I slipped through the crowds and tried fiercely to absorb what I could of the 158 artists whose work was included. Videos by Helen Martin, Ryan Trecartin, and Stan VanDerBeek stole the show. Earthy sculptures that looked like rocks by Phyllida Barlow couldn’t help but be noticed and immediately loved. Paintings by Jakub Julian Ziolkowski were equally frightening as they were entertaining.

Following my nose, I then found myself in the Bolivian Pavilion, where I saw Sonia Falcone’s color field of spices. Afterward, I stopped in at the Lithuanian Pavilion, which definitely won my prize for the best space in Venice, with sculptures filling an old Brutalist gym. Then, at the end of a long day, the only thing for it was a trip to Palazzo Peckham, where I finally relaxed in Hannah Barry’s little respite hidden in an old gondola workshop. I lounged on a sofa in the middle of a psychedelic installation by Jon Rafman and took a deep breath.

A view of Jon Rafman's installation at Palazzo Peckham

Wednesday night a dozen parties filled the calendar, and everybody was rushing about the city. I decided to go to the Jeremy Deller party on an island, where I found a bunch of British artists raving like it was still the ‘80s. I ended my night at the Palazzo Grassi, where a very luxurious nightclub had been set up just for the Biennale.

Ai Weiwei pulled at my heartstrings on Thursday. In the Sant’antonin church, the artist’s Disposition was made up of six dark minimalist boxes containing different scenes from his 81 days of detention in 2011. I had bumped into his mother at the Giardini, and it was her gentle smiling face that stuck in the forefront of my mind as I looked at the works. Then, in Straight at Zuecca Project Space, Ai straightened out 150 metal rods from the schools damaged in the Sichuan earthquake. Divided into three parts—reminiscent of land divided by an earthquake—these filled the room. 

I also went to see 700 Snowballs by Not Vital, curated by Alma Zevi at the island of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, where 700 blown-glass balls were suspended. No two balls were the same. That night I headed to the Bahamas Party at the famous Bauer Hotel and then to the incredible Trussardi and Massimiliano Gioni party in a warehouse at the Arsenale, where Too Many DJs and Jarvis Cocker entertained the thousands of chic guests and equally chic party crashers.

By Friday, everybody seemed to have seen everything. I was behind and determined to catch up. The reports came back. The Prada Foundation was amazing, while the Pinault Foundation at the Punta Della Dogana was not as good this year. Forced to manage my time, I took their word for it and headed to the Prada. The wait to get into the show was over an hour, but luckily I bumped into friends in the line, and the time went by relatively quickly. As I neared the entrance, the assistant curator emerged to assuage the seething crowd.

He explained that the wait had to be long since the show was a nearly exact recreation of curator Harold Szeeman’s 1969 show “When Attitudes Become Form” in Bern, where works by Richard Artschwager, Eva Hesse, Walter De Maria, Robert Ryman, and greats were displayed almost touching each other—a far cry from contemporary shows, where safety and insurance liabilities carry more weight than curatorial freedom. As a result, only a few people could be let in at any given time, allowing viewers room to climb through the show, careful not to disturb the art. The whitewashed gallery space of Bern filled Ca’ Corner Della Regina up to the ceiling.

By Saturday, as I boarded my plane home, I was counting all the things I didn’t make it to: Palazzo Fortuny, Palazzo Grassi, the Manet show, and much more. I’m going to try to go back to Venice this summer when the crowds and the friends have left, and I can be left to my own devices in this magical city overflowing with art.

Watch This Space is a new column by writer and art collector Tiffany Zabludowicz

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