The Venice Biennale, if you've never been, is a kaleidoscopic maze of countries and continents and the art and people therefrom. Attendees walk dazed and jet-lagged through the narrow, cobblestoned paths of one of the oldest and most astonishing cities in the world, in search of the best art.
As it was impossible to meet a new person freshman year of college without being asked, "What's your major?" the refrain is similar during the Biennale: "What did you like best today?" or its more pretentious cousin, "What's unmissable?" Then, hedging bets, everyone dashes out the next morning to find the Spanish or Finnish or American pavilions, only to find that they really prefer the Singapore or Belgian pavilion after all, and can't quite figure out what it was that other person was going on about when they gushed over the technique or process of the artists representing Germany or Hong Kong or the UK. One quickly comes to terms with the futility of picking favorites.
Scratch that: The Nordic pavilion was the best. Of course, when I convened on the square afterward to join a crew of Aperol-spritzing comrades, blissed out after an otherworldly sound performance from Camille Norment and David Toop as part of Norment's Rapture, some agreed with me in regard to its value, but no one was impressed the way I was.
"But the performance," I said, "how could you not be just bowled over?"
"What performance?" they asked.
It turned out that others who saw the pavilion hadn't seen the performance. But that's the way it goes with the Biennale. No one sees the same thing.
Perhaps the sane way to go about viewing the Biennale would be to take a week or two to slowly stroll the pavilions at Arsenale and Giardini one by one, taking time to savor each piece, pausing between galleries to have an espresso in the shade of a cypress tree and reflect. But I don't know anyone that sound of mind.
I took the Biennale during the preview, which is three short days long. Three days to see art from 136 artists representing 89 countries (plus many collateral exhibitions) results in a situation some have termed "art dump," which seems on point to me. So, then, an art throw-down seems most appropriate, a written compilation of the highlights and lowlights of the 56th Venice Biennale.
In the Dutch pavilion, Herman de Vries's To Be All Ways to Be comprised subtle elements of nature in modernist modalities. One hundred and eight pounds of dried rosebuds made a precise pile on the floor. Pigments from all over the world were displayed on an elaborately catalogued wall of 84 "earth rubbings," smears of dirt hailing from all areas of the world against paper. On another wall, bits of flora and fauna from the Venice Lagoon appeared pressed and tucked, collated into a visual travelogue.
At the central pavilion of Giardini, Jeremy Deller's bright, in-your-face room, a meditation on capitalism, included a cheeky blue banner made by Ed Hall imprinted with "Hello, today you have day off," from an SMS sent to a zero-hours worker, which informed him that his services wouldn't be needed that day. Near the banner, Factory Records had a jukebox playing 40 recordings from Britain's industrial past and present. There was also a collection of images by photographer William Clayton of anonymous women workers from the Tredegar ironworks in South Wales called The Shit Old Days. For most of these women, this was their first time before a camera—their expressions ranged from blank to angry and back again.
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Another hit at Giardini was Hans Haacke's Gallery-Goers's Birthplace and Residence Profile, Part 1, which asked visitors of a solo show at the Howard Wise Gallery in 1969 to mark their birthplace with red pins and current residence with blue on maps of various areas, including New York City. Two lone blue pins appeared in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, a far cry from the city's average gallery-goer today.
Other works of Haacke's from that era were displayed with recent work: World Poll, an interactive iPad installation that asked pollees such questions as, "Do you think your ethnic background has a positive, negative, or no effect on your safety and advancement in life?" Results were projected upon a wall in live time. When I passed through, 66 percent had answered "positive," 17 percent indicated "negative," and 17 percent thought their ethnicities had no effect on their safety and advancement in life at all.
One particularly buzzy ingredient of the Biennale this year was a nonstop oration of Karl Marx's Capital, A Critique of Political Economy, titled Das Kapital Oratorio and directed by Isaac Julien. It was read in English when I was there by Antonio Pauletta and Steven Varni upon a thematically appropriate red stage. Attendees sat stadium-style in an auditorium, halting from the barrage of visual stimuli for a minute or an hour to listen to Marx's incredibly dry musings on money. There's something deliciously subversive about listening to someone drone on about the way commerce operates in the center of one of the world's most important art exhibitions in the age of highly commodified art, especially when that droning is the anchor of the whole exhibition. I watched Pauletta and Varni make their way through Volume I, Book I, Chapter 3: "Money, or the Circulation of Commodities."
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Less successful was the Russian pavilion, Irina Nakhova's The Green Pavilion. Nakhova, who has contributed to the development of Moscow Conceptualism, played with color, painting each room a different hue, but the device felt like little more than just that—what of it? In one room, worms were projected onto the floor; in another, Nakhova's eyes appeared in the goggles of a sculpture of a pilot in helmet and gas mask. But the whole thing fell flat—too stark, too obvious, and not enough cohesion among the three spaces of the pavilion.
That said, there I was accosted by the independent art project #onvacation, which aims to blazon Russia's recent occupation of the Ukraine, in which the Russian government claimed that troops were merely "on vacation" there. Part activism, part social-media blast, the #onvacationers asked participants to don gratis camo-print jackets and tote bags and post selfies on Instagram and Twitter for a chance at a free vacation to the Crimean peninsula, in the seaside town of Balaklava—the very site invaded by Russian soldiers last year.
In the Arsenale, Adel Abdessemed's daggers (Nymphéas) alongside some of Bruce Nauman's seminal fluorescent-sign art (Eat/Death, American Violence, etc.) created an exceptional opening scene. Twelve Years a Slave director Steve McQueen's film Ashes, shot in Grenada on Super8, was mesmerizing. Many, myself included, stayed for more than one full loop on either side, watching various images sail by. The deceptively simple film documented plainly the story of a drug-related murder, and it was hard to tear myself away.
Steve McQueen. 'Ashes' (2014). Courtesy Thomas Dane Gallery
Art truly is everywhere during the Biennale. Right next to a man taking a late-afternoon siesta on a bench along the Viale Trento in a lushly verdant park near the Giardini was a line for Joachim du Bellay's "Les Regrets" sonnet XXXI (circa 1558): "Qui comme Ulysse a fait beaux voyages" ("Who like Ulysses had beautiful journeys").
On a side street festooned with freshly hung laundry, impromptu stencils turned timeworn stone walls into canvases for political activism and tiny masterpieces. Especially in these first magical days of the Biennale, it's hard to take more than a handful of steps without stubbing one's toe on more creative works. And then, finally, the sun sets and everyone sits down to another amazing bowl of pappardelle or gnocchi or linguine alle vongole, sated to bursting with art. È tutto.
The 56th Venice Biennale runs through November 22, 2015.
Bibi Deitz lives and writes in Brooklyn. Recent work has appeared in Marie Claire, Bustle, Bookforum, the Rumpus, and BOMB.