Venice Biennale 1: a little light Russian video sex
Next week the world's biggest art party will be open to the public. For holidaying visitors to Venice it will be their first chance to see what thousands of museum curators, critics and gallery owners are glorying in right now, modest metal tables from Scotland, hardly-moving movies from Holland, massive Japanese breasts, Korean views of condensation and glow-in-the-dark mushrooms (from the USA, I think), everything that makes up the Venice Biennale.
This is my first time here. Even for a veteran of political conventions, literary fairs and other press-fests, the mass of bombast and bullshit in search of beauty takes some serious personal adjustment. Over the next week I may come to make some sense of it.
For the moment, the three-day 'private-view' is almost over. All the highest-rolling Biennalistas are moving on - to their business home in Basel where they hope to buy and sell to each other rather than to whoop it up at each other's expense. Next week, for the professionals, it will be back to the doom-laden trade of finding the big customers of 2009. For this Biennale amateur there is merely the task in the next few days of trying to understand something of all this.
So far, I seem to be at loose among free-flowing Bellini-drinkers and feverishly fierce competitors for who gets the most desirable free canvas bag. FYI to next week's visitors: if you find the one that says 'it's so easy to fuck up but I'm too fucking old now to care' you have got the one that most people want. I have already failed that test for myself, ending up with only a much lesser collection to carry my books through the rest of the summer, totemic-energy-dragons, lobsters and designer-carrots.
But there is a lot of other free stuff to be had, some of it exhibits themselves, like a million holiday postcards from different places around the world, all stamped VENEZIA - elephant packs from Venice, ice flows from Venice, Westminsters from Venice. One of the themes this year is that everywhere in the world is more or less the same place.
The private-viewers very much like the free stuff. Throughout the official and unofficial sites that dot the city there are free iced coffees (from the Illy company that sees its product as essential to fine art), free art books each one of a weight that could kill a man, not to mention again the city's peach-and-prosecco cocktails upon which any art lover can become an instant connoisseur. Of course, if you want to drink a free Bellini on Roman Abramovic's yacht, you may be unlucky. That is an invite of even greater rarity than a 'too fucking old to care bag'. But anyone less fussy is fine.
I have just been to a splendid Russian event. In a brick warehouse in the Arsenale there were tall women in gladiator shoes and killer stilettoes taking canapes and peach drinks from black-suited waiters while watching a giant circular screen on which actors, with only a mildly more malevolent gaze, were doing much the same. It was wonderful, the 'world premiere' of a video installation with the title - unusually comforting for a classicist at the Biennale - of Trimalchio's Feast.
This was nothing too excessive, quite a gentle introduction to the big event. Neither in the audience nor on screen was there anything hard-core, nothing even like the sort of exoticism that excited Petronius, the original Roman author of the Feast in the age of Nero: I neither saw, nor was offered, any hot dinner dish from which live birds flew. There were only eery scenes of seaside decadence, understated sadism with golf clubs and a narrative of what might happen if a tsunami hit the the wrong rich holiday makers at the wrong time.
The audience seemed to like it alot, not just because of the piles of free badges declaring 'Unconditional Love', nor even because the alternative video show was of an interrogator repeatedly banging a young woman's head into a barrel of water. Trimalchio's Feast, with its Gatsby echoes, glossy sex and flying saucers, seems to me an excellent way to have started my Biennale.
The video makers are offering their own free bags here too. A New Zealander who thought (wrongly, I suspect) that this one was the true 'best bag', leant heavily over a table of drinks to see if he could get his prize, bringing upon himself only a hard stare from one of the women in black behind the bar.
'Could I buy one?', he then asked desperately, uttering words more alien here than almost any he could have chosen.
'Sorry, I don't know', she replied not very sweetly.
'I'm just the artist'.
Exit stout visitor, without gift but still fit to fight another day.
(More blogging from Venice will follow here later, perhaps something more serious, certainly with pictures when a little technical difficulty of the not very high-end-art kind has been overcome.)