I Fell in Love with Him at the Venice Biennale

I fell in love with him at the Venice Biennale, he had birds and squirrels living under his arms, a fuzzy decaying corpse of a giant – some mysterious being had sprinkled glittering beads over him, so he twinkled … a nightmare? Oh no, an experience created by David Altmejd, a much-talked about artist.

You can find big art shows everywhere now from Beijing to Moscow. Most countries in the world are going into serious worries about financing and recession – but the art world is supersonic. Art prices have no relationship to the mood the rest of the world is in.

By the time my friends and I got to Venice last year, it was midsummer and hot, and I mean 95 degrees hot – barbecue hot.

The Biennale was happening all over town but the primary locations were the Giardini (the gardens), where there were air-conditioned pavilions full of wonders; and the Arsenale, a former rope factory that was not air-conditioned – I stress air-conditioning because, at 95 degrees, the works had to be deeply involving to keep me from melting into a puddle very early on.

If Robert Storr, the former Museum of Modern Art curator, takes on the next Biennale, I hope he remembers how he perspired in his shirt and what delusions one can have in highly theatrical, angry art installations at 95 degrees with no air of any kind available to breathe. Mr. Storr! Puhleeze! How about fans??? In Miami Beach they have fans.

The press wrote that last year’s Biennale in Venice was so serious it was sometimes boring. I am an admirer of America’s art critics who often seem more informed than critics of other issues, so it is from my heart that I suggest it is time they have their eyes examined. None of us found the Biennale boring for a moment, even while being broiled. Art fairs are no longer boring because they are events that attract an extraordinary mix of people wearing the clothes that you see in magazines. There are always rock stars performing in startling places. And you can count on couples holding hands with people they should not be holding hands with at big art fairs.

The theme in Venice was “Think with the Senses, Feel with the Mind,” featuring contemporary art – in all its forms – designed to make you see differently, think differently, understand differently and hopefully become a different person by the end of the show.

There were some fascinating, even mystical paintings hung on walls in Venice – Ellsworth Kelly, Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke – and there was a vast amount of really great photography. But there was a vaster amount of installation art that is hard to describe as it is more like theater. All had the ability to change as you moved, and to make you see things in a new way.

This was not a comfortable show of paintings of ladies in big hats. And there was no thematic style – someone wrote that it was a “contaminate” show and we saw that – each exhibition was either added to or lightly undone by the next. Anger and disappointment with mankind was well represented, so there was wit, but it was not a funny show.

Women were thoroughly represented. Tracey Emin was right out there, legs spread in fury, assaulting you with her raw emotions abut her rape, her abortions and how she feels about them. Monika Sosnowska twisted the skeleton of a building into a pavilion, a bravo kind of feat. Nancy Spero’s “Maypole: Take No Prisoners,” with blood-red ribbons mingled with steel chains, had decapitated, hand-painted heads of screaming terrorized women and men at the ends of them, a powerful condemnation of war.

Sophie Calle filmed 107 women reacting to a typical male good-bye letter suggesting the end of the relationship. It was a show stopper; men and women leaned against the opposite wall listening to the entire presentation, making comments. We all thought it would make a great website. Sophie also filmed a highly touching memorial to her mother as the woman peacefully dies. Everyone I witnessed in the room looked the way I felt, as if it were my mother.

Schlepping along with hot feet, we were cheered by the larger-than-life swimmer, a blissfully cool sculpture in a red bathing suit with a swim cap and goggles on her head, who waited at the entrance for visitors to come and go; a refreshing treat by Carol Feuerman, who must have had a message from above about the weather we would all have to face in Venice.

You can’t buy art at the Venice Biennale, but you see what is considered top of the line. You can buy art in Basel or Miami Beach if you can afford to.

I am looking forward to Beijing, from September 6 to September 9 this year, after the Olympics. People are flocking there to see the new Ullens Center for Contemporary Art – the first big modern art gallery in China. And, of course, the architecture will be interesting – Beijing, as we know, will host the 2008 Olympics, and that always makes a town pretty itself up.

I looked into Beijing hotel suites for friends of mine. I had an old-fashioned idea about Beijing hotels – there are now a lot of suites there for above $4,000 a night. A new one I fancied at the Shangri-La Hotel, just redecorated — I’d call it buttery modern — is supposed to have the best butler in town. Everybody wants to steal him away. Yes, the best butler in Beijing; I don’t know why that doesn’t sing right. The buttery suite would be a little more than $6,000 a night.

China is in the mood for art. There is so much to see in Beijing. For me, the biggest art attraction is the new stadium designed by Herzog & de Meuron. It looks to me like God said, “Let there be more modern art in China! Go for it Herzog!” And, with thunder and lightning, the most improbable, jaw-dropping steel scribble of noodles containing an Olympic stadium fell from the skies! You know Basquiat died. Well, it’s exactly as if Jean-Michel Basquiat hung graffiti on heavenly hooks to help erect an impossible stadium and then looked down and gave Herzog a thumbs up.

Young Chinese are coming on big in the art world. I hear that Charles Saatchi paid close to $1.5 million for one of Zhang Xiaogang’s oils and the Shanghai Biennale (September 9 – November 16 this year) is becoming red hot – if you will excuse the expression. So keep your bags packed – I’ll be back!

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