2017-05-15 17:47:02
Venice Notebook: Samplers From a Biennale Banquet

VENICE — The Venice Biennale, still the world’s most distinguished exhibition of international contemporary art, opened to the public on Saturday, after a prosecco-drenched professional preview that has grown larger and less professional than ever. Not just curators, dealers and critics, but also oversize crowds of collectors and the regulars of Europe’s partying class swarmed the lagoon last week to see the 57th edition of the Biennale — and to make merry until long after the last scheduled vaporetto.

The Biennale comprises a central exhibition, organized this year by Christine Macel, chief curator of the Pompidou Center in Paris; and 85 national pavilions, which feature solo or thematic presentations. Prizes are awarded to the best pavilion — this year it’s Germany, which hosts a harrowing performance work by the young artist Anne Imhof — and to participants in the main show. The whole thing adds up to a kind of art-world Olympics. And museum exhibitions, pop-up shows, public sculptures and the occasional guerrilla performance make Venice the epicenter of contemporary art this spring.

My colleague Holland Cotter will publish a review of the Biennale shortly. But first, here are a few highlights from the first week, inside and outside the exhibition grounds.

Ms. Macel’s exhibition takes a more optimistic and unrestricted view of today’s cultural production than the highly polemical edition of 2015. But several national pavilions took a darker, if still more metaphorical, view of world affairs.

While Ms. Imhof’s German pavilion was the talk of the Biennale, my vote for the strongest national presentation this year goes to the Turkish pavilion, in the converted naval warehouse called the Arsenale and given over to Cevdet Erek, an artist and musician from Istanbul known for tricking out industrial spaces with clattering, unnerving sounds. Mr. Erek has created an impressive, unsettling installation that unites makeshift bleachers, wire fence panels and severe spotlights. It feels as much like a prison yard as a concert venue. Thirty-five speakers murmur with chimes and metallic scratches, but also whispered syllables that may put you in mind of Turkey’s campaign of denunciations by private informants since the attempted government coup last summer.

Outside the Biennale, another young Turkish artist, Asli Cavusoglu, has produced a subtle and wryly engaged response to the Erdogan government’s imprisonment of journalists and writers. At the Palazzo Contarini Polignac, a grand building near the Accademia that is hosting an exhibition of nominees for the Future Generation Art Prize, Ms. Cavusoglu is distributing her own newspaper, “Future Tense,” whose articles on geopolitics, society and Turkey’s recent constitutional referendum are written by astrologers, soothsayers and other prognosticators. One fortune teller predicts that Turkey will be divided into two states; another foresees that Donald J. Trump will not remain the American president for long and that George Clooney will enter politics.

Of the 85 national pavilions, five are presented by countries participating in the Biennale for the first time. The most eye-opening is the pavilion of Antigua and Barbuda (population 91,295), which features a historical presentation of the self-taught artist Frank Walter, who made delicate paintings but also wrote a 25,000-page hulk of autobiography, philosophy and fictional genealogy. Walter (1926-2009), who styled himself as the Seventh Prince of the West Indies, lived his last decades in a scrap-metal shack, evoked here in a video installation. But his paintings — of Antiguan flora, the insignia of European nobility, or small abstractions of stars and circles that recall the Pop Art of Robert Indiana — open onto a world much larger than that small dwelling.

As always, Venice’s museums and private foundations are presenting exhibitions whose openings pulled nearly as many visitors as the Biennale. At the Accademia, a hefty retrospective of Philip Guston examined the influence of poetry on this Canadian-American painter’s churning late figurative paintings. An earlier American artist, the 19th-century realist William Merritt Chase, is the draw at Ca’ Pesaro, Venice’s modern art museum on the Grand Canal. And there is Damien Hirst, whose two-site megashow of false antiquities rescued from the sea caused jaws to drop and eyebrows to arch across the lagoon.

The most startling external exhibition in Venice, though, is at the Fondazione Prada, where visitors queued to see a deep-thinking fun house of a show by three Germans: the photographer Thomas Demand, the filmmaker Alexander Kluge and the set designer Anna Viebrock. “The boat is leaking. The captain lied.” — the title is adapted from a Leonard Cohen song — shifts dazzlingly among scales and across media as you pass from room to room: A scene from one of Mr. Kluge’s films is echoed in one of Mr. Demand’s photographs of constructed paper environments, and then a photograph is reinterpreted as one of Ms. Viebrock’s life-size sets. In a classically Prada move, the murals of the foundation’s canalside home are overlaid in places with cheap, temporary drywall facades — one more kind of layering in this brilliant mille-feuille of a show.

At another private foundation, the Fondazione Querini Stampalia, the brainy Arte Povera artist Giovanni Anselmo is presenting a characteristically subtle exhibition of sculpture in response to one of the most beautiful spaces in Venice. Mr. Anselmo, 82, has installed his works of granite and Plexiglas in rooms designed by Carlo Scarpa (1906-1978), the sainted Venetian architect who reintroduced highly detailed materials, such as marble, travertine and local glass, into Modernist architecture. In Scarpa’s seductive rooms, including one where canal water laps into the gallery, Mr. Anselmo’s deceptively simple granite blocks and sculptures speak even more clearly of the passage of time.

Another intervention in a Scarpa building, which became a word-of-mouth success among the art-world types hoofing across the stones of Venice, is already over. In an apartment that once belonged to Scarpa’s lawyer, and which remains in private hands, the American artist Melissa McGill placed five small boxes with speakers inside — each one playing a recording of the everyday noises in a Venetian square. Her sound works subtly evoked the evaporation of local communities, but the real romance came from the extraordinary privilege of entering this unknown architectural jewel, finding a minute’s peace amid its elegance, and then returning to the artsy throngs outside.