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Truth be told, in the glamorous world of contemporary art biennials, triennials, and fairs, it can be hard to tell if the emperor is wearing any goddamn clothes. We’re supposed to see substance but we’re left with a threadbare illusion of heft; an explanation, perhaps, for the bounty of thick-rimmed glasses in primary colors worn by attendees who are all trying to discern something that may or may not be there.
Instead of laughing at this preposterous predicament, the art world marches on in standoffish seriousness, likely in stilettos. We artsy types aren’t known for our sense of humor, especially about ourselves.
Veteran culture journalist Nadja Sayej is ready for some chuckles, though, and just laid out the hilarious, bare naked truth in Biennale Bitch — a recently self-published book about her adventures as an arts reporter. In 30 vignettes based on her personal reporting experiences at big-name events such as New York’s Armory Show and Documenta, she serves up honest opinions peppered with a healthy smattering of f-bombs. You know, the type of Richard Pryor-esque truth-telling that would never appear under her decade’s worth of regular bylines (which have graced the New York Times, The Guardian, The Economist, and VICE, among other places).
“This is a fucking comedy book,” Sayej writes at the beginning of her author’s notes, warning readers not to take her words too seriously. “Why? Because the art world needs a dose of fun.”
The book begins with her first visit to the Venice Biennale, where Sayej claims that cartoonist Robert Crumb “popped [her] maraschino cherry in San Marco Square. It’s true! No, it isn’t. Well, kind of.” He was her first biennale-related writing assignment, and introduction to the utter impracticality of staging a major international art exhibition in the canal-ridden Italian city.
Sure, Venice has been hosting the biennale since 1895 and now sees upwards of half a million visitors, but Sayej tells it to us straight: “Venice is the most impractical place to see art. Why set up the Olympics of the art world on an archipelago?” (Incidentally, with the city experiencing its worst flooding in a decade, two Joan Mirós were temporarily damaged due to ‘acqua alta.’)
Venice is impractical — not to mention pricey — but Sayej has pro tips to share on that front, responding to questions we didn’t even know we wanted answered: Who serves the best free buffet at the Venice Biennale? What do performance artists smell like? How do you explain the job of a freelance arts journalist to prying and painfully conventional aunts and uncles-in-law? Sayej tells all.
(The answers, spoiler alert, are: the Venezuela Pavilion with its “badass pineapples on sticks,” straight-up body odor, and just do your best before inevitably hiding out in your childhood bedroom while drinking contraband Prosecco and watching old movies.)
If you follow Sayej’s work, you might recognize some recycled stories. Chapter five, about her experience covering the opening of the Australian pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale, has much of the same content as the article she produced at the time for The Guardian; the long feature she wrote for ArtNews about the ARoS Triennial in Denmark bears striking similarity to chapter six. But look closer — the magic is in the subtle difference between what she was allowed to write as a reporter and what she actually wanted to say. (Divulging, to be honest, the kind of details we all actually want to hear.)
For example, in her article for The Guardian, Sayej characterized the crowd at the Venice Biennale’s Australian pavilion simply as a “sea of people.” In Biennale Bitch she portrays the audience as “art dealers in suits [brushing] shoulders with deodorant-less performance artists, old ladies dripping in perfume, cheeky curators whispering secrets and blinged-out art tsars, who waved from water boats.”
And in her coverage of the ARoS Triennial, she’d never be able to describe (as she does in Biennale Bitch) the curator as a “Viking who has a big fleur-de-lys tattoo on his forearm [and] looks like someone you would not want to run into at a heavy metal music festival.” Her filter-free commentary extends to the artworks, too, noting that artist Doug Aitken’s installation there was “by far the most fucked up artwork in this triennial.”
But despite some snark, Sayej’s ultimate goal isn’t to laugh at the art world’s expense. After all, being an art journalist is still her chosen profession after over ten years of reporting. “This book is more about the fun side of the art world, the social side and basically, everything to love about the art world, even in its most cringe-worthy and eye-roll moments,” Sayej told Hyperallergic.
She wants more people to feel that they have a place in the art world, too, and sees comedy as a way to extend the invitation. “The art world could tap into a bigger conversation if it was more accessible and comedy is one way of doing that — letting more people into this small, often elitist, industry,” Sayej said.
If contemporary art has ever made you feel like you aren’t smart enough to ‘get’ what that rectangle of natural shrubbery spray-painted hot pink is about, or if you’ve ever suspected the art world is an exclusive club you’ll never gain access to, Biennale Bitch might put your fears to rest. “God bless those who are not afraid to speak up against the white box,” Sayej writes. “Right?”
Biennale Bitch by Nadja Sayej is available via ArtStars* Books.
“Black infants in America are now more than twice as likely to die as white infants—11.3 per 1,000 black babies, compared with 4.9 per 1,000 white babies, according to the most recent government data—a racial disparity that is actually wider than in 1850, 15 years before the end of slavery, when most black women were…
In 1850, when Dr. Robert W. Gibbes commissioned J. T. Zealy to make daguerreotypes of persons held in slavery in and around Columbia, South Carolina, for Harvard Professor Louis Agassiz to use in support of his theory that African people were a separate species, daguerreotypes were at the height of fashion.
The show, which honors the 50th anniversary of an exhibition history once ignored, continues a series of projects documenting Wilmington’s contemporary art scene.
he ownership of images has a long and nuanced legal history, which has evolved dramatically in recent years as cultural standards and photographic technologies have rapidly advanced
Renty and his daughter Delia. Renty was an enslaved African, kidnapped from the Congo, sold and forced into slave labor on the South Carolina plantation of B.F. Taylor
Two K-12 art teachers will each receive a $1,000 cash gift and an additional $500 to put toward classroom art supplies. Nominations are due October 31.
As a scholar of African American history and photography whose work has focused on the status of violent images in museums and archives, I fully support the validity of Ms. Tamara Lanier’s claim and the amicus brief.
The daguerreotypes of Renty Taylor, Delia, Drana, Alfred, Jack, George Fassena, and Jem remained in an unused storage cabinet until 1975, when it was discovered by an employee of the Peabody Museum.
I am writing in support of the amicus curiae brief submitted by Professor Ariella Aïsha Azoulay of Brown University for the full restitution of the daguerreotypes of Renty Taylor and his daughter Delia, currently held by Harvard University, to their familial descendant, Tamara Lanier.