As the 58th Venice Biennale opens, keep up with some notebook jottings from our reporters on the ground. This post will be continuously updated, with new items at the top.
FRIDAY, MAY 10
– At the Indian Pavilion, Jitish Kallat has a 2012 video installation in which a 1939 letter from Mahatma Gandhi—the presentation’s subject—to Adolf Hitler is projected on a cloud of fog. The work is unsettling, not because of the content of the missive, but because Gandhi extends the doctrine of universal friendship to one of history’s nastiest villains. The letter is addressed, “Dear friend.”
– Over at collector François Pinault’s Punta della Dogana museum, visitors are greeted by a floor-to-ceiling curtain of red plastic beads by Felix Gonzales Torres. The piece had been on view when the museum first opened in 2009, and now it’s back on view, in a gallery curated by Roni Horn. Almost everything here belongs to Pinault, but if you look closely at the fine print, you learn that several exquisite pieces in that first gallery—a small, framed puzzle by Gonzales Torres, a Louise Bourgeois drawing, and a Vija Celmins wood engraving on paper—are from Horn’s own holdings. It’s a reminder that artists sometimes have the best collections out there.
– Does former First Lady Michelle Obama have La Biennale on her mind? She just posted a Mother’s Day photograph of her with her daughters Sasha and Malia in a water taxi, cruising down the Grand Canal.
– A curiously timed attack on Aperol Spritz published today in the New York Times seems to have had absolutely no effect on sales of the drink here—they’re still pouring them with vigor at every bacaro in town.
THURSDAY, MAY 9
– Do not miss the Lithuania Pavilion, where artists Lina Lapelytė, Vaiva Grainytė, and Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė have created a convincing fake beach where vacationers are singing about climate change—very obliquely and very affectingly. It will definitely be a contender for the Biennale’s top prize, the Golden Lion, for best national pavilion.
– Some maps have the Haiti Pavilion at the Navy Officers’ Club next to the Arsenale—but Haiti does not have a pavilion this year. The Club is now the “My Art Guides Meeting Point.”
– Not even the Venice Biennale is immune to the star power of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Part of the Republic of North Macedonia Pavilion draws from a series of talks that took place there and now play on video monitors. Here is curator Laura Raicovich talking about AOC: “Even within this fucked-up political system that doesn’t work, with these two parties that are completely ridiculous, you have the election of the first person I have ever in my life agreed with.”
– The number of pavilions giving out tote bags seems to be down this year, just slightly. But there are still many to be had. The best one spotted around a shoulder reads: “LET’S BRING LESBIAN GENIUS TO THE WORLD!” Alas, it is not from the Biennale but the European Lesbian* Conference, held last month in Kiev.
– Confirmed: the sauerkraut-juice-vending machine by Slavs and Tatars in the Arsenale is now working. Bottles are €3 and the machine takes cash and coins. “Brine and Punishment” is the brand name.
– Advisers and collectors Thea Westreich and Ethan Wagner are in the house
– The lines are long in the main Biennale venues today, as people stream into town, but a tip for the Arsenale: there are two lines at the entrance, one quite long and the other (on the opposite side) short. Choose wisely.
– For his incredible film 2nd Eulogy (Mind the Gap)—you must watch all 40 minutes!—in the Grenada Pavilion, the New York-based artist Billy Gerard Frank had difficulty finding gay actors in his Grenada homeland, so he turned to the app Grindr. The lead actor in the film is terrific. P.S.: If the film producer’s name is familiar, it’s because she’s the same Lauren Beck who was nominated for an Academy Award for 2016’s Manchester by the Sea.
– For countries without a permanent pavilion in the Giardini, artists must work with (or around) the stipulations of various buildings that countries rent. Artist Leonor Antunes, who is representing Portugal, was not permitted to remove the large 17th-century paintings in the Palazzo Giustinian Lolin (home to the Fondazione Ugo e Olga Levi Onlus), so she came up with a clever solution: she turned them around to face the wall.
– The location of the Lithuanian Pavilion is listed incorrectly in at least one guide, leading many to a working naval base of some kind. The officials there are gracious, though, pointing everyone to the true location, an eight-minute walk away.
WEDNESDAY, MAY 8
– There are two curated shows and something like 90 national pavilions (many scattered around the city) in the Venice Biennale, which makes these words from the introductory wall text for the Italian Pavilion ones to live by: “Enjoy the sense of dilated time and don’t worry about seeing everything. Every road joins up with another, every choice is right, there are no wrong ones.”
– Impressed to see that the Finns have already placed wayfinding stickers along the narrow, hidden pathways to their party on Giudecca tonight. An auspicious sign.
– Yes you can climb on the big Eva Rothschild sculpture in the Ireland Pavilion. That “climb at your own risk” sign is an actual warning, not part of the art.
– The loans in the Arshile Gorky show are unreal, with works from the Israel Museum, the National Gallery of Art, Centre Pompidou, and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. The last institution sent The Liver Is the Cock’s Comb (1944)—one of the most famous artworks of the 20th century now a long way from Buffalo.
– At the risk of causing a mad rush of hungry journalists: the Saudi Arabia Pavilion has delicious dates.
– Ed Atkins’ new multimedia piece Old Food in the Arsenale includes a video in which the artist appears to have recreated the blind man’s cabin from Bride of Frankenstein. The vision is old—candles instead of electric light, etc.—save for a TV monitor on which the movie plays. It truly is one of the best scenes in any movie ever. “Bread good!”
– One stairwell of the Prada Foundation’s Jannis Kounellis show is lined with little trays holding ground coffee. It’s a 2013 work by the artist, and it smells heavenly.
– Arsenale pro tip: Though Darren Bader’s comic books—Scott Mendes’s Venice—are available only through a vending machine, it turns out that no money is required. Simply press the button and enjoy.
– As of Wednesday morning, Darren Bader’s app—also titled Scott Mendes’s Venice—is not yet available for download. “Any day now,” according to its official website, www.scottmendesglobal.com.
TUESDAY, MAY 7
– Here’s an intriguing fact: more than half of the visitors to the Biennale in the past have been under 26 years old. (This per the catalogue’s introductory essay from Biennale president Paolo Baratta.)
– In his essay for the main exhibition, Ralph Rugoff says he didn’t want the Arsenale to have long aisles because he didn’t want it to look like an art fair. Mission accomplished! Maybe art fairs should look more like this…
– Massimiliano Gioni’s Biennale in 2013 also divided up the huge Arsenale, but with a white-walled set-up by Annabelle Selldorf. Rugoff went with plywood and—it works!
– Spent 10 minutes in the Arsenale trying to find a European to ask, apropos Alex da Corte’s video in which he imitates Mr. Rogers: Did Europeans watch Mr. Rogers, or is the reference lost on them? A British person —Frieze’s Matthew Slotover —confirmed that Brits, at least, do not recognize Mr. Rogers. (A fellow Brit chimed in, “Mr. Rogers? I had a Mr. Rogers in school.”) Then ran into some Europeans and explained Mr. Rogers to them—this is how the Biennale brings us together.
– In the Arsenale, Jimmie Durham outdoes Picasso’s-Bull’s-Head-made-from-bicycle-parts with ferocious beasts composed of metal pipes, skulls, and rags.
– The sharp odor in the Ghana Pavilion comes from bits of smoked fish, and the boxes used to smoke them, in Ibrahim Mahama’s sculpture.
– Reminiscing with Chicago gallerist Kavi Gupta about much-hotter Biennales past: one year when temperatures topped 100 degrees he stayed in a room on the top floor of the no-air-conditioning Metropole hotel and spent much time sweating.
– Yes, that is Gavin Brown in Arthur Jafa’s White Album.
– Videos by Hito Steyerl (in the Arsenale) and Laure Prouvost (in the French pavilion) take viewers underwater—but in very different ways. Also, how many will recognize the snippet of the Everly Brothers song “Dream” in Steyerl’s work?
– A radical idea for the Arsenale: benches?
– If you like sci-fi horror flicks of the Alien variety, definitely wait for the black tentacle-like hose to whip around in Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s installation in the Arsenale. You will not be disappointed.
– Folks we’ve seen at the Biennale so far, in no particular order: Iwan Wirth, Kiki Smith, Barbara Gladstone, Gregor Muir, Frank Cohen, Tim Blum, Per Skarstedt, Massimiliano Gioni, RoseLee Goldberg, Bob Rennie, Johann Konig, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, the Zabludowiczes, Tanya Bonakdar, Sheikha Hoor al Qasimi, Patrick Seguin, Stellan Holm, Jeffrey Deitch, Craig Robbins, Jerome Sans, Olivier Babin.
– A perennial question during the opening days of the Biennale: are certain wall labels meant to be on the floor, or have they just not been put on the wall yet?
– Someone knocked his head on the Neïl Beloufa workout machine-cum-video installation and got a pretty decent gash. Artwork: undamaged. But be careful out there!
– Laure Prouvost producing a cloud of mist outside the facade of French Pavilion. Lara Favaretto pumping a cloud of mist outside the curated show in the Central Pavilion. Clouds of mist—a trend?
– Arsenale tip Pt. 2: Best wifi is in the semi-unknown coffee shop upstairs. Nice seating, too—very relaxing.
– Arsenale tip: Go straight to Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s VR piece. It’s going to have big lines. (One man’s review: “This reminds me of the time I drank almost two bottles of vodka in a night.”)
– The award for best materials list should go to Korakrit Arunanondchai: “Indigo powder, dirt collected from areas where King Rama IX of Thailand has walked on, casts of artist head, cast of artist’s grandfather’s hands, performance costumes, Tree of Heaven, model of UN headquarters made of clay, silicone, seafood waste, blown glass, clay, programmed LED lights, roots of dead trees, bamboo, banana leaves, coconuts, resin, prayer objects for the Naga.”
– Overheard someone say to Cyprien Gaillard: “Congratulations—showstopper.”
– Henry Taylor is present in different forms: via his paintings and then in an interview with AC Hudgins in Kahlil Joseph’s constantly evolving BLK NWS video.
– Do not walk through Ryoji Ikeda’s piece in the main exhibition without sunglasses!
– In Laure Prouvost’s French pavilion: two live albino pigeons and a terrific rendition of the song “Lilac Wine.”
– First artwork you see in the Arsenale is George Condo’s brand new painting Double Elvis. Andy Warhol’s 1963 Double Elvis [Ferus Type] is coming up for sale soon at Christie’s in New York. Coincidence?
– The free wifi in the Giardini is capital-U unreliable—whereas the free coffee at the Illy stand is capital-R reliable.
MONDAY, MAY 6
– Spotted in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection gift shop: a bright yellow child-size Guerilla Girls T-shirt bearing the words “Feminist Masked Avenger.” It’s not bad being a kid who’s into contemporary art these days!
– Rumor: Venice Biennale artistic director Ralph Ruggoff is giving a tour of the show to VIPs, early, in an unprecedented move.
– Artist Jenny Saville checked out the exhibition “Pittura/Panorama: Paintings by Helen Frankenthaler 1952–1992” at the Museo di Palazzo Grimani.
– After a heavy dose of rain on Sunday, the morning began with an overcast mood before conditions turned to clear skies and cool temperatures: perfect weather for traipsing through the city.