A Dizzying Convergence

In Venice this year, art, fashion, and celebrity culture seem closer than ever. While photographers in the Giardini snapped shots of a TV crew interviewing Ellsworth Kelly in front of his paintings, a large kiosk in the train station displayed the two cover images of the current issue of Uomo Vogue, an issue entirely devoted to the Biennale.


The two cover boys—a raw-looking Matthew Barney, seen in profile with a small dog balanced on his head, and a dilettantish Jeff Koons, relaxing in his studio, bedecked in a slate-gray tailored suit, while, in the background, an army of assistants toils away—lend Uomo Vogue an inadvertent cleverness. For here are the two sides of the Venice Biennale: on the one hand, the studio-worn young artists, and the scruffy young art writers and curators and students and artist assistants, packed seven to a rented apartment far, far from the Grand Canal; and, on the other, the Pucci-, Gucci-, and Prada-draped collectors, whose yachts are parked in the Lagoon, ten leisurely steps from the Arsenale.


By the second day of the Biennale, one thing had begun to blur into another. The masses of art press lining up for entry to the American pavilion, then rushing in to grab one of the free posters that were a trademark of the late Felix Gonzalez-Torres, shade into the hordes of tourists shuffling like sheep down the narrow streets to Piazza San Marco, pausing en route to hoover up souvenirs. Swanky parties blend into impromptu performances. In a city that, as writer Mary McCarthy and others have observed, seems so intent on its own aesthetic effect, it is hardly surprising that the borders between art and life should become somewhat porous. And so: one minute someone is asking you to explains what it "means" that they got disinvited from a dinner, and the next minute you are in the French pavilion, looking at the results of artist Sophie Calle's having asked dozens of women—including an actress, a clown, and a dancer—to interpret a break-up e-mail a man had sent her. (The name of this ambitious project is Take Care of Yourself, which is the last line of Calle's ex's message.) As a Venice veteran pointed out to me, "Give this city a few days and it will give you sea legs." It’s true; even when you are on solid ground, the world seems to sway as though you are motoring along on a vaporetto. Add an unending flow of Bellinis and proseccos and you have the perfect recipe for constant disorientation.


The Biennale seems at times to be a dizzying convergence of worlds. A typical vignette: the other night the venerable Cipriani Hotel hosted the Stella Art Foundation's "Ruin Russia" party, where Italian singer Paolo Conti crooned away to a glitzy audience that included collector Adam Lindemann and dealer Amalia Dayan, as well as Naomi Campbell and assorted other notables, art world and otherwise. Sauntering down the Giudecca afterward, I glimpsed through a pair of open second-story windows the unmistakable glass tentacles of a Dale Chihuly sculpture hovering in front of what appears to be a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat. A passerby who caught me craning my neck muttered, "Oh, yeah, that's Elton John's place."

Of course, there’s also plenty of art at the Biennale. A few pavilions in the Giardini already have a lot of buzz—Sophie Calle's aforementioned project for France; David Altmejd's mirrors-crystals-mannequins-taxidermied-squirrels-and-much-more concoction Index for Canada; and the poignantly elegiac video Last Riot that the group AES + F made for Russia. And people have also been flocking to Calum Morton's Valhalla (2007), an off-site portion of the Australian pavilion. The work is a three-quarters-size recreation of the "dreamhouse" his father built in 1974, only this one is crumbling and creepy. Hidden speakers create the effect of a rowdy ghost clanking around. Step inside, and you’ll find a little air-conditioned room with two fake elevators and generic pop music being piped in at hushed volume.

But don't hold your breath waiting to find out who won the Golden Lion. Although in Biennales past the winner was announced during the preview week, this year the news won't break until October. The official reason for this is that it will give visitors time to visit all the pavilions, half of which are outside the Giardini. No less significant, it will allow plenty of time for the pavilion artists to accumulate new layers of buzz and, quite possibly, another few figures on their prices.