It's midnight, and I just said goodbye to the newlyweds with whom I shared a water taxi from the airport to the Piazza San Marco. The square is still crowded with hundreds of people sitting in outdoor cafés, enjoying a balmy night, listening to live bands playing hilariously sugary renditions of the most sentimental tunes from the 50s and 60s. The apartment I'm renting is only two blocks away, which is great, but it sits above a noisy trattoria that keeps the neighborhood awake well past 1am. Well, I didn't come to Venice to sleep, did I? It's Biennale time.
Since the late 19th century, every two years dozens of countries showcase the best of their contemporary art in national pavilions scattered throughout the public gardens, 'giardini.' On any given day, Venice makes you feel as if you're on the stage of an elaborate opera production, but during the opening days of the Biennale, with thousands of journalists, collectors, curators and artists arriving for the festivities, the city comes dangerously close to becoming a sort of chocolate factory overrun by hoards of people overdosed on art. It's a joyous madhouse.
To see all pavilions and then to walk through the nearby Arsenale, former warehouses transformed into exhibition spaces spanning more than half a mile, takes at least two full days. While each national pavilion has its own curator, the exhibition at the Italian pavilion and the cavernous Arsenale is shaped by a specially appointed art commissioner. This time it's Robert Storr, former curator of MOMA and a widely recognized authority on contemporary art. Everyone agrees that he managed the nearly impossible task of imposing a semblance of order in the presentation of the works of close to a hundred artists from all over the world.
One can argue over some of the choices he made, but it's obvious that the selection was based on the quality rather than the ideological underpinning of the artworks. I've never seen a more eloquent presentation of works by Ellsworth Kelly, Gerhard Richter, or Sigmar Polke. The multiple-screen animation video of Kara Walker and the paintings of Susan Rothenberg are other highlights of Storr's selections for the Italian pavilion. At the Arsenale, my favorites were the sprawling and gloriously messy installation by the late Los Angeles artist Jason Rhoades and the huge tapestry by Nigerian artist El Anatsui, bearing a striking resemblance to traditional African textiles. He ingeniously weaves together tens of thousands of colorful metal fragments, cut from liquor bottle tops.
Most of the people I had a chance to talk with agreed that among the national pavilions, the best were the French, Polish, American and Russian. French artist Sophie Calle made an eloquent and hilarious multimedia installation based on a letter from her lover announcing the end of their relationship. Sculptor Monica Sosnowska created the gigantic twisted metal armature of an alien building exploding inside the Polish pavilion. The conceptual and poetic work by the late artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres gives the American pavilion a distinct, melancholic air. And in the much talked-about video dominating the Russian pavilion, a group of androgynous youngsters performs a slow dance alluding to both lovemaking and ritual sacrificial killing, with the majestic music of Wagner in the background.
But at the end of the day, it is Venice that steals the show. Overcrowded, hot, and humid, the Serenissima, with its crumbling palaces and slightly unsavory canals, reigns as the most splendid artwork ever created.