Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Venice Biennial is just like Miss Universe


For the second time I was lucky enough to get invites to the preview of the Venice Biennial. The Long March for Art, meeting place for Euro trash, reporters, and biennialistas from all over the world was as much of a marathon as I had managed to forget. (I have been told that women have children more than once because they conveniently forget what labor is like, this is a bit how the Biennial works) This time, I'd gone into training - my building's elevator was broken, so I sprinted up the stairs, I hit the gym, and I went on a diet. And I was ready for any eventuality - held hostage by crappy concessions beset by huge lines, much like at Disney World, I packed almonds, anticipating any eventuality, I had: Neosporin, Advil, sun block, a sweater, an umbrella, and all were used by my international biennialista team at one point.

Day one:
After an almost 9 hour flight filled with art world luminaries - one noted director wore what I can only describe as a blue flowered robe akin to something my abuela would wear around the house, over her clothes - their mostly black garb protruding like a pile of carbon from the crowd of wide-eyed tourists in sports themed sweatshirts or Juicy Couture terry-cloth ensembles, I landed in Venice, relatively well-rested. The ATV bus to vaporetto gauntlet went surprisingly well, and my maleta arrived promptly. I felt guilty for saying that next to Italy, Spain was Switzerland. But soon, events would prove my catty comparison right! Our hotel, also biennialista filled, was an Augustinian priest run dormitory for students. Spartan monk's cell type rooms held a Byzantine-ish crucifix on one wall. Very appropriate in a way given the Via Crucis of art that we were embarking on.

A refreshing mid-morning breakfast at Campo Santo Stefano, where I observed older, leathery Italian ladies with unnatural shades of yellow hair, Prada or Gucci sunglasses the size of factory goggles, and suave Italian men wearing English cut linen blazers and cuff links (!), I met my biennialista veteran and extremely glamourous Italian friend, who took me to a super VIP press conference and opening of an exhibition called "A Gift to Marco Polo." Organized in conjunction with the Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art, the show was at a remote island called San Servolo, and the event began with a 2 hour long press conference in Chinese and Italian.

The eight Chinese luminaries whose work sells for over one million US dollars were being feted at this event. It turned out to be a promotion for the 8 museums being dedicated to each of them. This was the first of several events I saw that had to do with launches of museums or exhibitions outside of Italy that used Venice as a platform. Many platitudes about the greatness of China's national artists, the appropriateness of returning the gift that Marco Polo had made to China by displaying China's great art in Venice, and the need to rebut stereotypes that prevail in the West ensued. Each time an artist or functionary spoke, there was applause, several of the artists wore sunglasses, one of them, Zhang Peili (pictured, far right), literally sank under the table in frustration at the ridiculous nature of the comments. Afterwards, crowds of young girls flocked to the artists, asking for autographs. Some of the artists dramatically changed the style and subject matter of their work - from sinister smiling crowds or cynical comments on the convergence between capitalist advertising and Communist propaganda, to work evoking Chinese landscape painting, pottery, and dynastic architecture.

Zhang Peili's work was by far the best. Comprised of an inflatable San Marco tower that rose and fell, it was accompanied by a photo in a lightbox, that at first glance depicted the iconic Venetian Piazza. On closer inspection, one saw a series of odd details - a modern access bridge, a generic building on the far right featuring Chinese characters. This turned out to be a replica of the Piazza created in China by real estate developers. An ironic commentary on the reciprocal commercial relations between Italy and China - historic and contemporary, and simultaneously on the current Chinese economy, the real estate magnates building a museum that would enshrine his own work as a "Master," (the audience kept addressing him and the other artists using this loaded term), he constructed an ironically humorous work.

The artist observing his tower in its fully erect state.

The tower, collapsed and deflated.

No comments: