In the run-up to my visit to Venice for this year’s Biennale, I have been reading Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer. In the first of the two novellas, (it’s hilarious) the journalist protagonist goes to the 2003 Biennale on a work assignment and is waylaid and undone by the endless round of bellini fuelled parties.
I am travelling with Penny Siopis, and on our first evening in Venice, we hit the 1.54 party for the African artists on the terrace overlooking the Grand Canal at the Hotel Bauer. The starting time is 11 p.m. and Athi Patra Ruga is scheduled to give a performance. As we arrive, a large crowd of would be partygoers is pressing eagerly forwards against closed glass doors, a rush blocked by three brawny black suited bouncers with security headgear.
One bouncer has a list of invitees in his hand, but is not even pretending to consult it, ignoring the frantic pleas of the crowd. Luckily I spot a young woman with a similar list and waving my printed out invitation, we manage to squeeze our way in through the doors.
En route to the party, we had spotted Athi down a side street, with an entourage of balloon bedecked perforrmers, and soon the troupe arrive. By this time the party crowd has thickened and the best part of the performance is the determined force the performers have to summon to get themselves and their balloon covered bodies through the tightly packed partygoers. Popping sounds come from every direction.
Not everyone I am expecting to see is there – I find later they couldn’t penetrate the bouncer barrier – but it’s a convivial start to the Biennale.
On another evening, we take the vaporetto to San Lazzaro Island in the Venice lagoon, home of an Armenian monastery, for the opening of the Armenian pavilion. The artworks are situated in the grounds and also in the rooms of the monastery, already rich with extraordinary artefacts and books.
It is no surprise to find later in the week that the Armenian pavilion has won the Golden Lion for best pavilion, even if people say immediately it is a political award, commemorating the centenary of the Armenian genocide of 1915. A bit like the Angolan pavilion last time round, when it seemed expedient to name an African pavilion best pavilion even if it wasn’t.
But on to the business of the biennale. I am a participant in Venice Breakfast Agendas – a programme of talks and debates organized by the University of the Creative Arts (UK) on three mornings of the vernissage week. I have also contributed a print to a collection called Border Crossings. 23 artists have each signed 100 copies of their print, and these limited edition publications can be bound up and date stamped on the spot. Purchasers can arrange the prints in any order they like for their personal copy. My print is a portrait of Rica Hodgson. A curator from Abu Dhabi leaves my print out of his book on the grounds of Rica’s revolutionary history, which apparently would have been considered subversive by his institution.
One of the best things about Venice, apart from looking at the art of course, is connecting with friends. Lisa Brice and Adam Davies are here, Candice Breitz and Alex Fahl, recently married, Karen Milbourne from the Smithsonian, curator Barbara London, Lisa Brittan from Axis in New York, Laurie Farrell from SCAD and Marshall Price from Duke, Kirsty Wesson and Liza Essers from the Goodman Gallery, Bettina Malcomess, and exhibiting South African artists Jeremy Wafer and Brett Murray.
Many of them converge on the South African pavilion for the opening. I have heard from several sources that the pavilion looks like an art fair stand. A plethora of work by too many artists. The space itself looks better than last year – designer Jeremy Rose’s dry walls are high enough to command the space. The work itself I will come back and look at properly when there is not such a crowd.
I am happy to connect with Chika Okeke Ogulu, curator and art historian from Princeton University, who has kindly agreed to write the foreword to my forthcoming monograph. Chika had been appointed curator of the Nigerian pavilion, for the Biennale, a pavilion which failed to materialize although a space had been booked and artists commissioned. The Nigerian government, facing elections and anxious that they would be accused of wasting money on art while other serious problems were waiting to be addressed, simply failed to pay the rent or any other expenses. Finally all deadlines passed, and an errata note in the Biennale catalogue noted the withdrawal of the Nigerians.
As an object lesson to the Nigerians and to our own unforgivably casual Department of Arts and Culture with their lack of understanding of the crucial role art plays in our culture and in the eyes of the world, I present the thoughtful announcement which was part of the Zimbabwean pavilion:
Otherwise… There are noisy conversations over meals, Italian ice-creams, with their exquisite concentration of flavours, so superior to the ice-cream of anywhere else in the world, there are Venetian delights in shops, and then there is the art itself: Okwui Enwezor’s All the World’s Futures. But that I will write about in a review which will be coming shortly.