YouTube video

S. S. Hangover, Ragnar Kjartansson (via YouTube; all other photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

VENICE — Nothing quite captured the absurdity that is the vernissage of La Biennale better than Ragnar Kjartansson’s fishing boat, the S. S. Hangover, floating through a barrel-vaulted and colonnaded boat parking structure carrying six horn players performing British composer Gavin Bryars’s “White’s SS” (1977) as Tilda Swinton looked on elegantly from a grassy beach at the end of the massive Arsenale. Yes, I actually saw Tilda Swinton. I died.

I have seen very dead canals of pale green traversed by happy gondoliers. I have seen every possible variety of window planter and species of flower. I have seen a cruise ship tugged through the city by a small boat while thousands of cruisers waved ecstatically from the upper deck. I have used every luxury boutique as landmarks. Cartier, Louis Vuitton, Prada, and Max Mara were especially useful. I now know how it feels, physically, to eat pizza on a daily basis. I can now identify the difference between a spritz of Aperol, Select, Cynar, or Campari, by sight.

View of the Grand Canal, with cruise ship and tug boat

View of the Grand Canal, with cruise ship and tug boat

I have purchased beers on the street under signs written in English and Japanese and drank them in Piazza San Marco under the stars in the heavenly company of the Basilica, which looks, for all intents and purposes, fake, like a set backdrop for the 1984 film The Neverending Story.

I have been woken up by banging on the door at 10 am — the variety usually saved for emergencies, like a fire, perhaps — at a friend’s prepaid AirBnB apartment where I crashed after a night of heavy drinking, and been told that I owe them €100 ($131) for my stay in my friend’s bed.

I now know the rat maze that connects Rialto Bridge to the bus terminal Piazzale Roma like the back of my hand, and precisely how to sneak through the crush of literally thousands of tourists (estimated average 50,000 per day) from all over the world. The entirety of Venice is the pedestrian equivalent of Times Square.

View of Piazza San Marco from Basilica San Marco

View of Piazza San Marco from Basilica San Marco

To the few locals that remain on the island, is there really that big of a difference between your standard-issue fanny-pack-carrying, camera-toting, T-shirt-and-sweatpants-clad tourist and someone wearing nothing but Maria Cornejo or Martin Margiela for La Biennale? In fact, yes, as I overheard in a local family-owned pizzeria, there is: the regular tourists are far less annoying.

Thanks to La Biennale, I have now seen picturesque Italian alleys interrupted by sophisticated posters advertising contemporary art. I have attended parties amongst attendees representing approximately the same amount of countries at a regular meeting of the United Nations. I have looked onto the Grand Canal from (several) private balconies.

View of the Grand Canal

View of the Grand Canal

I have eaten a sumptuous dinner consisting entirely of local delicacies in a palazzo (palace) decorated with original 16th-century plasterwork, ancient paintings, wall-sized mercury mirrors, gold wallpaper, and hand-laid mosaic floors. I have been serenaded by an acapella group imported from Padua that specialized in Baroque Italian classics. The English-speaking spokesperson, without the slightest irony, explained to the group present that these particular songs were often sung at events just like this one, on a special occasion hosted at the palace of a nobleman for his esteemed courtier guests.

I watched a woman with all sincerity recount, to a full dinner party, a story a Venetian friend told her late one drunken evening, that the pigeons in Venice are all robots, and that they shit edible sugar-based syrup. The amount of disinformation, the impossibility of executing even the best laid plans, and the incredible complexity of social relations in a city that is transformed into one massive opening was truly awesome.

The vernissage (preview) on the Wednesday through Friday leading up to the public opening on Saturday of La Biennale infested the city with thousands of pretentious art connoisseurs from around the world whose only thing in common was the uncompromising opinion that they deserved, more than anyone else, to be treated like nobility. This of course had no effect on the regular herds of tourists lurching past countless shops filled with Carnivale masks and Murano glass.

Spritz life (author, left; Janis Ferberg; Jai McKenzie, right; photo by Jane Reznick)

The amount of money that was spent on these events is, quite literally, unbelievable. So rarely did a drink touch my lips that was not champagne, even I became blasé as I was passed glass after glass of Ruinart.

It was an orgy of the super-affluent. The most powerful galleries, dealers, collectors, organizations, museums, foundations, artists, and estates in the world convene seemingly solely in order to display their extraordinary wealth, power, and influence. After the Armory, Frieze, and even Art Basel Miami Beach, nothing prepared me for the insanity and impenetrable strata of exclusivity and luxury that is La Biennale.

I have seen affluent couples hail a water taxi and be told that it would cost €80 ($104) to take them two vaporetto stops (€7/$9, or a 10-minute walk) and watch them, without hesitation, board the boat.

I have seen a woman lured onto a friend’s private boat for a quick trip “just across the canal,” and once she was aboard, abducted to a distant island in the middle of the lagoon, and be left there, waiting in the boat, for over an hour while he had drinks inside at a long-since-closed party.

I have seen cosmopolitan patrons stand in line for nearly 30 minutes in order to pay €25 to get a ticket that allows them to stand in yet another line to be served a drink. A woman standing next to me requested a glass of champagne and a rum and soda, and I was told that’ll be €50. I turned to her and asked whether the cashier had said fifteen or fifty; I wasn’t quite sure I heard right. When she was handed the credit card machine, she confirmed that, yes, he indeed said fifty.

Piazza San Marco

Piazza San Marco

I have seen countless art professionals wait outside lavish parties for unbelievable amounts of time in hopes someone would take pity on them; later, I saw their friends emerge from within to happily report that “Leo” (Leonardo DiCaprio) had just arrived.

How did I even get to Venice on its most singular most popular week, you may ask? I’ll tell you! I took a plane from New York to Dusseldorf, connected to Milan, slept for an hour on a bus from the airport to the train station, boarded the 2-hour-and-30-minute train to Venice, and walked, through swarms of human beings and bags and umbrellas, to my apartment, making my travel time a total of 24 hours. Yes, approximately the same as a flight to Hong Kong or New Zealand. When I booked this trip, I was, at the time, actually proud of myself for my administrative ingenuity.

I have seen well-heeled professionals stand in line in order to stand in another line. I have seen journalists and critics stand and argue at the press office, waving print magazines in which their writing is published, demanding to be let in. I have seen people wait in 50+ person-long lines to enter individual pavilions inside the Giardini at the press preview.

Venice sailing into the twilight

Venice sailing into the twilight

To be blatantly honest with you, readers, it was literally impossible to see everything. Please take note of this; this essay is not comprehensive by any means. The Giardini and the Arsenale were flooded with people queueing up at every pavilion; keep in mind, this was the preview. I didn’t even step into Korea, Israel, China, Taiwan, the list goes on. (And no offense intended!)

How anyone managed to wait in the roller-coaster-sized lines to see Germany or France is beyond me. These two cleverly switched pavilions this year, a decision that would “subvert” the imperialist circle of Great Britain/France/Germany; this decision was of course much to France’s disappointment, as Germany (apparently) lacked temperature controls and other amenities France had become accustomed to.

La Biennale purports to be the center of the global art world; after seven days in it, one cannot help but concur. Founded as an image of global peace, prosperity, and cultural excellence for every one of the 88 participating countries, it is a kind of art Olympics. (Note, however, a large amount of artists selected are not based in the countries whose pavilions they occupy.) That being said, it unabashedly occupies a privileged/exclusive position of power.

Unlike similar exhibitions in terms of scale and scope (i.e., Manifesta, Documenta, the Whitney Biennial, etc.) the issues of authority/access/power/capital were not really addressed by the exhibition, and were perhaps underscored by the demonstration in solidarity with Istanbul on Thursday morning at San Marco and in the afternoon outside of the Arsenale. The bigger problem in my eyes is that “the best each country has to offer” wasn’t all that good.

While there were a handful of pavilions and exhibitions, including artistic director Massimiliano Gioni’s The Encyclopedic Palace and Richard Mosse’s (Ireland, b. 1980) multichannel immersive infrared video installation documenting the ongoing conflict in the Congo at the Irish pavilion, “The Enclave,” which were both unbelievably powerful, it was surprising how obtuse, and at times even boring, some of the pavilions (which shall remain unnamed) were. To quote Gioni’s statement, the very nature of La Biennale, in its “impossible desire to concentrate the infinite worlds of contemporary art in a single place” seems to set it up for a kind of automatic or intrinsic failure.

Hyperallergic’s Venice Biennale coverage continues in the days and weeks ahead.

Stephen Truax ( is an artist, writer, and curator who lives in New York.

8 replies on “Shock of the View: Seeing and Scene at the Venice Biennale”

  1. This was written like a personal diary entry – a scrapbook of sorts… The last paragraph ‘obtusely’ addressed the most important issue of Venice at the moment — the BIENNALE. Using extremes such as ‘boring’ and ‘unbelievably powerful’ without proper reasoning and visual documentation is precisely why most ‘art’ writing is vapid and nondescript. GET TO THE POINT, STEPHEN! The cost of a vaporetto ride (which can easily be Googled) matters so much less than a probing, thoughtful account of the art in the Biennale and the energy in Venice. Also, asking exhibition goers their thoughts (from a global perspective) should be encouraged versus snapping pics of friends drinking wine spritzers… One word, Flickr.

    1. This isn’t a review; it is, as you say yourself, a diary entry/scrapbook of sorts. That’s the point. Not everything needs to be a review.

  2. Thank you for one of the most refreshingly honest accounts of the atmosphere inside the Biennale Bubble that I’ve had the pleasure to read. Rarely does one encounter this sort of candor in the art press about the pretentiousness of the whole thing!

  3. You didn’t mention the smells of Venice… Wondering if that contributed to the experience. Enjoying the story. Thanks Stephen.

  4. The music in Ragnar Kjartansson´s piece is new and created for the artwork by composer Kjartan Sveinsson, -not by Gavin Bryars as stated above.

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