Picture it: London’s Stansted airport, departure lounges filled with art-going professionals and their hangers-on, many travelling in their carefully selected sunset cocktail frocks in order to avoid ‘economy class’ creases that no steam iron could remove (this is Ryanair to Treviso, after all). No doubt this is a scene repeated across airports, as the ever-burgeoning art world began its descent on the Biennale, the first to be curated by an American, Robert Storr.
With our leather weekend bag in tow, exclusive preview and party invites in hand, Gentrystyle perambulated to the nearest vaporetto. We head directly to the Russian party held on the Grand Canal, sip Bellinis overlooking Santa Maria Della Salute, and mingle with fresh-faced artist Audrey Bartenov who will appear to us the next day dressed like an early Leigh Bowery in a Yayoi Kusama-inspired light show. Fun stuff. After some fine dining and listening to jazz in the local gardens, we scoot over to the Australia party, only to find crowds departing in mass. It seems Australia made the grave error of running out of booze too early, so the scramble for late-night drinking begins.
Thursday begins with pouring rain. Stepping into the soon-to-be mudslide of the Giardini, we make our way to Tracey Emin’s ‘Borrowed Light’ (the title of a Farrow & Ball paint) in the UK pavilion. No sooner do we arrive and wish to leave than we realise we’ve been locked in the exhibition. Emin – only the second woman artist to represent Britain at the Biennale – is having her photo taken on the steps outside which is an artist-as-event sort of occasion. Eventually the doors open to the gaggle of international photo crews chasing the artist as she stands near to her reserved (in both senses of the word) work. Dressed in a white trouser suit, she looks both demure and surprisingly unsure as to what to do with herself with all this found attention, and instead decides to hug Sam Taylor Wood (who, perhaps surprisingly, is represented in the Ukraine’s exhibition, more of which, anon). Post-Tracey, it’s just one prosecco moment after another, though some artistic standouts in between include: the extremely attractive David Altmejd at the Canadian Pavilion, masterfully dealing with this tricky space with a series of mirrored walls, werewolves, crystals, dildos and a menagerie of birds – part invented, part acquired from eBay; Isa Genzken’s sci-fi grunge aesthetic tantalisingly nudging at the fascistic styling of the Albert Speer designed German pavilion; Steve McQueen, Sophie Calle and Nancy Spero’s engaging works in the Italian pavilion, which force viewers to pause, disrupting the more usual Biennale sprint from pavilion to pavilion, in search of the ultimate art-rush hit.
Missing the Thomas Demand opening (apparently graced with such diverse idols as Jeanne Moreau and Miuccia Prada), I instead visit the Peggy Guggenheim for the opening of the Matthew Barney/Joseph Beuys double bill. But not for long. I swiftly move on to the nearby Scottish party at the Palazzo Zenobio (proximity is everything at the Biennale). The drink was plentiful and the goody bag curious, containing of all things, a Scotland-branded keyring and some posh chocolate, but not so plentiful or curious to hold our attention overly long. Over at the Ukraine pavilion was a party much-discussed in the previous days as ‘the’ party of the Biennale. Here we hit a dead-end, with a large, forbidding gate holding back a growing crowd of hundreds, desperate for entry. Art-world carnage! After a few minutes, I noticed some of the members of the art collective Gelitin come out shouting, ’it is boring and full of dull Ukrainian Princesses with too much lipstick on, don’t bother’. That was my cue to leave. (Police, due to overcrowding, later closed down the party, and by all accounts, it ended up not being ‘the’ party of the Biennale after all.) Mildly disappointed, we opted for the Bauer Hotel (where Anish Kapoor, Lady Helen Taylor and co. were spotted in a cosy corner the night before) to drink champagne with the local London art fraternity.
Friday was given over to the exhibition at the Arsenale. Politically motivated works dominate, chiefly falling between the more dreamy kind and the more didactically realised kind. Lack of pace and contrasts between the works made for a limiting, even exhausting, viewing experience throughout, but I was drawn to Francis Alÿs’ animations and to Ilya and Emilia Kabakov’s complex installation, Manas. Quickly running over to Francois Pinault’s collection at the Palazzo Grassi, I found standout works by David Hammons, before dashing to the Cyprus Pavilion to catch the largely overlooked Haris Epaminonda films.
Respite is found in a perfectly formed Campari and orange at Harry’s Bar with some Gentrystyle comrades, but no sooner had Tessa Jowell arrived (looking undiplomatically dowdy), than I had to head over to the Lido to catch the German party – the Scissor Sisters gig in an empty aircraft hangar – with the feint hope of making the launch of the next issue of Fantastic Man at the Guggenheim après. These two parties – naughtily going head to head at the same time and dividing loyalties in the doing – were, in fact, ‘the’ parties of the week. The White Cube party at the same time, which also promised much that evening with a set by Arctic Monkeys, sounded less glamorous when it turned out that Norman Cooke spun cheesy dance music instead – slight sense of schadenfruede. Meanwhile, back on the Lido, Jake Shears threw his sock into the audience, which smelly garment I quickly snatched and placed in my bag for safekeeping. Afterwards, band member Ana Matronic (who earlier onstage had identified one member of the Gentrystyle crew as ‘particularly fierce’) came to dance with us during the after-party. The next day was a rude awakening and signalled the meltdown to our Biennale – I greeted the morning wearing Jake’s sock, my dear friend Rosie did so covered in mysterious bruises, both of us with crashing hangovers.
Chris McCormack is a freelance writer and artist based in London