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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.