The Art!  The Fashion!  The Money!  The girls!  The boys!  The yachts!  The parties!   SIMON CONWAY queues up for Mike Nelson at the 2011 Biennale.

There are types and sub-types for the vernissage of the Venice Biennale (the neon-kinetic pageant of art and money that surrounds and annexes the city every two years).  There’s the gallerists and curators (smartly suited, chattering quietly in corners about trends and “wall-power”).  There, descending briefly from the super-celestial sphere of the plutocracy, are the blazered and tailored oligarchs (here to make offers).  There’s the Lovelies (a term you can use for the absurdly attractive people wandering in, who you will find at film festivals and polo tournaments and private islands around the world).  There, jostling for the canapés, are the international art journalists, from London’s battered hacks to slick French TV presenters, to obscure Thai bloggers).  There’s people who look like they’ve taken a wrong turn at the Chelsea Flower Show and ended up looking at two placid porn stars on extruded polyuretane thrones (‘Senzafine Unica’ (2010) by Gaetano Pesce).  There’s distressed Italian aristocrats giving up their palazzi to Finnish installations; cultural attachés, some baffled young people from a China art newspaper, plenty of professional hangers-on fighting for invites; the Presidents of Argentina and Israel (separately); lost tourists; gap-year adventurers flooding out from Canberra; Prince Michael of Kent and Michael Stipe (also separately).  Somewhere, hiding underneath it all (glimpsed at press conferences, or at dinners of welcome, or performing nude in the Giardini) are the artists: from severely serious retainers, to comic turns.

The principal part of the Biennale is the Giardini – where the big countries hang out in splendid pavilions (looking like curious mini-mansions, rather like Bishops Avenue in London or Newport cottages in Rhode Island).  Wandering up Main Street, past Russia and Japan, you see the British pavilion at the head of the street, with a very long queue down from its smart front door.  This queue, for Mike Nelson’s much discussed, quickly approved Installationhas become an important sight for the Biennale.   On Wednesday, the queue to get in is taking two hours.  “We are all suffering for the genius of Mike Nelson,” says one unhappy

The New Modern not having the pull of some other publications (the Racing Post, say, or the Beano) I relied on a friend who is an Arts Journalist.  The Arts Journalist was kind enough both to let me sleep on the floor in his hotel and attend a night of parties thrown: from blue-blooded mavens sipping vintage champagne (“the Guggenheim party”) to Gatsby-esque, fire-lit courtyards (“the Pinault party”) to formal dinners in exquisite saloons (“the Boltanski Party”) to bands playing live on hidden islands (“the Catalan toilet paper party”), we lost half a day to the art world’s excess.  The parties of the Venice Biennale, the exorbitant absurd parties, are as much part of this pre-opening week as the art (overheard on a boat en route from one lavish do to another: “I’m not actually bothering with the art – I’ll come back in November when it’s quieter”).  Through the city, strolling with purpose, people in beautiful clothes can be seen striding around clutching flopping and shining cards of entrance, over the Accademia and past the Campanile, before disappearing into gothic doorways.

The high points this year of the art include the astonishing US Pavilion, which is showing work by Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla. Outside the pavilion itself is “Track and Field” (which consists of a live athlete, wearing a vest emblazoned with the letters “USA”, running on a treadmill, which in turn powers the caterpillar tracks of an overturned battle tank). The noise reflect the glory and hubbub of the Biennale in its essentials – the work that goes in to create the art is neatly reflected back upon itself.   Christian Boltanski in the French pavilion fed multiple pictures of newborns through a projector to allow them to juxtapose with adult faces.  More here than a mere genetic lottery argument, the audience – again (again) reflected neatly.  Similarly, Karla Black  in the Scottish (side) pavilion worked with the great ideas of consumption that flow and ebb around the Biennale and Tabaimo in the Japanese Pavilion are well well worth popping in to see.  Off from the main Biennale, the islands and lagoons hide some spectacular works (though Anish Kapoor’s much trumpeted Ascension was, for this critic at least) something of a disappointment).


The 54th International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale runs in Venice throughout the remainder of 2011, in both the Arsenale and Giardini, and in a number of other locations throughout the city.  Visit

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