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Fear and Loathing at the Venice Biennale

“Why does anyone submit themselves to the Venice Biennale? Few will admit it, but we all know the answer: drama.”

Every two years since 1895 (when deathly pandemics aren’t disrupting the global social order), the international art world gathers at the preview of the Venice Biennale to socialize, self-congratulate, and of course, look at some art. For the occasion, collectors from around the seven seas gather at Piazza San Marco aboard their shiny yachts, turning the Venetian lagoon into an imitation of Porto Cervo. Favoring less ostentatious means of transport, art dealers flock to Venice on private jets and helicopters. Independent curators, journalists, and the last five serious art critics left follow behind by foot. Even artists, notoriously elusive, make exceptions for a trip to the Biennale.

The historical location of the Biennale, the Napoleonic Giardini, turns into Artland: a very chic and exclusive theme park to show off glamorous outfits, practice name-dropping, and possibly visit the national pavilions where the art is divided by country of provenance. Eavesdropping on conversations in between pavilion viewings is a must:  

“Have you done France already?” 

“Oh, please. No, I always do it at the end, only if I have time left. I’ve just done Germany. So great! They have free drinks there”.

But it’s not just the international jet-setters that crave a visit to the Biennale. To my bewilderment, the exhibition is regularly visited by hundreds of thousands of people, willing and ready to martyrize themselves for the sacred flame of art. Every edition of the Biennale is larger than the previous one–more art to see, more unmissable events, longer queues everywhere, including those for the restrooms.  

The Venice Biennale is to art as the Bayreuth Festival is to opera: an indisputable fixture in the cultural landscape, gone completely out of control. I don’t have anything against Richard Wagner, but try to watch the whole 17 hours of Ring of the Nibelung in one go and you’ll likely have bedsores by the end. The feeling is the same for the Biennale. You go through room after room, pavilion after pavilion until the art installations and conceptual videos start to all look the same and your feet can’t take it any longer. 

So why does anyone submit themselves to the Venice Biennale? Few will admit it, but we all know the answer: drama. Quite inevitably, where money, power, and contemporary art overlap, scandal follows. The Venice Biennale has given rise to protests and demonstrations, countless lawsuits, and a couple of foiled diplomatic incidents, upsetting conformists and amusing everyone else for over a century. And it’s been doing just that since the very first year, when artist Giacomo Grosso exhibited Il Supremo Convegno (Supreme Meeting, 1895), a painting depicting a man in a coffin, surrounded by five nude women in provocative poses. The then Patriarch of Venice refused to set foot in the exhibition and wrote to the Biennale’s founder asking for the painting to be removed. The work was kept in place nonetheless and ended up winning the public prize; the people always choose Barabbas. Some thirty years later, the Biennale still hadn’t calmed down. A 1930 article in the Daily Telegraph, headlined “Pope’s Attack on Modern Art”, reported on Pius XI’s instruction to the clergy and the faithful to stay away from the exhibition “for the good of their souls”. And In 2001 Maurizio Cattelan exhibited La Nona Ora (The Ninth Hour, 1999) a hyperrealistic sculpture depicting John Paul II on the ground, hit by a meteorite. You can imagine the Church’s reaction. 

But it’s 1990 that has gone down in history as the most scandalous year of them all. That year’s Biennale included Gran Fury, a New York-based collective of artists and activists, who presented two large posters, one of which juxtaposed a photograph of pope John Paul II with text denouncing the Catholic Church’s attitude towards the AIDS pandemic. The work seriously risked being taken off the wall. Not far from Gran Fury’s room hung Jeff Koons’ Made in Heaven (1990-1991), a series of images depicting the artist in explicit poses with his wife Ilona Staller (also known as Cicciolina, a well known pornstar and member of the Italian Parliament). A visitor slashed the work with a knife, injuring several of the Biennale’s guards too.

If you can’t beat them, join them,” they must have thought at the Vatican, because in 2013, the Holy See got its own pavilion at the Biennale and spoiled all the fun. Sadly, recent exhibitions of the Biennale have been relatively scandal-free. I suspect artists might have felt the need to focus on something else over the past years. Looking at the news on any given day, the world is messy enough, no need for them to stir the pot. Nevertheless, I hope to be proved wrong at the upcoming Biennale. If you couldn’t tell, I enjoy some good art/drama myself. 

In the meantime, in anticipation of my trip to Venice, you’ll very likely find me at the pharmacy, stocking up on sea sickness tablets for the vaporetto and blister patches for my feet. The Venice Biennale takes no prisoners.