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  • The Venice Biennale
  • Alain Arias-Misson

The Venice Biennale n°55 2013 engulfs much of this stubbornly anachronistic, floating town, and the first signs of the transition to Biennale season are the more exotic birds flocking in small urgent groups to the cafés and art venues a months before the opening.

The Biennale is in the first place a huge party that everyone—not only gallery-owners and curators and collectors and artists and museum people and cognoscenti and just plain snobs from around the world, but thousands of the better-heeled residents of the town as well, look forward to every two years. For three days innumerable parties are thrown up and down the Grand Canal in the great Renaissance Palazzi, at the several Museums, from the Guggenheim (Modern Art) which reigns over Venice like the Grande Dame Peggy Guggenheim (whose home it once was), now thoroughly respectable and uninventive, to the Palazzo Grassi which, with the spacious Punto della Dogana opposite it on the Grand Canal, (brilliantly renovated by Japanese architect Tadao Ando in a manner harmonious with the dominant Renaissance architecture of Venice) house the principal collection of contemporary art of the town year-round, most if not all of it the private property and tastes of the French mega-collector, Pinault, and more parties are held up and down the lesser canals and second-rank Palazzi and of course at the much sought-after openings of the National Pavilions throughout the Giardini, where States since 1895, now 44 of them, celebrate their national selections of artists—let along the high-society parties often given for an artist representing private interests. People figuratively elbow each other aside for access to the prestige events and then elbow each other aside literally at the tables groaning under lavish spreads and champagne. If that seems like a lung-full of a sentence just for parties, make no mistake—the essence of the Venice Biennale is to be found here: with the high-powered collectors and curators, name-artists, gallery-hyped emerging artists and an increasing number of wealthy self-financed artists who rent churches and other historical venues for their often derisory offerings to the party table. This latter vanity fare is an amusing but regrettably growing aspect of the Biennale. While the Biennale was founded with an eye to commerce and promoting sales of new art, over the years it took on an overwhelmingly international and institutional cast, with the success of the National Pavilions becoming a matter of national prestige, so that even the smallest and poorest of States endeavor to get at least a walk-on part if only to strut for an hour upon this world stage. On the other hand, in the last decade or so, with the ballooning of the international art market, the competition of private interests has become at least as important as the more “disinterested,” institutional venues—and many of the artists and galleries present in the Biennale simply move on next to the Basel Fair, which waits around the corner shortly afterwards, its appetite whetted—the prime art market worldwide.

This Biennale, like all Biennales since the late sixties, has an overarching theme drawn by the chief curator, Massimiliano Gioni, of New York’s New Museum, which models the show as an Encyclopedic Palace, one which would reflect the visions and versions of artistic inspiration, past and present, in a universal template. Overwhelmed by national and commercial interests, doubtless quickly to be revised by the curator of the next or the following Biennale like all universalist claims, nonetheless Gioni’s direct curatorial responsibility for the embodiment of the theme in the Central Pavilion is admirable, non-commercial, and unlike any previous projects. Consider that the Pavilion is physically entered through a 100 yard-wide arc of beautifully displayed pages from C.G. Jung’s hypnagogic Red Book (2009) with its trance-like drawings and dream-mandalas! Another equally surprising and highly effective exhibition deeper into the building appears to bracket the first in its closing semi-circular display of all the pages of a comic strip book by R. Crumb in which the eccentric cartoonist has drawn illustrations of...


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