The city may be sinking, but the Venice Biennale is staging a comeback, presenting a kaleidoscope of impressions, issues, and symptoms.
1. IT TAKES A GERMAN. Okay, he’s Swiss, but Harald Szeemann—legendary standard-bearer of the great Northern European curatorial tradition—has put the Biennale back on track after the last two renditions scraped bottom. He extended the exhibition space at the Arsenale, selected an
impressive range of artists, and installed their work with an admirable sense of space, order, and resonance.
2. RENT-A-HUMAN. Among the most popular materials this year were human beings. Maurizio Cattelan topped this category by hiring an Indian fakir to bury himself in sand for hours at a time, with only his hands, folded in prayer, showing.
3. INSTALLATION ÜBER ALLES. Installation art—once scruffy and subversive—is now the establishment’s darling. Exhibit A: Ann Hamilton’s innocuous, pretty-in-magenta dusting of the American pavilion.
4. MAKE WAY FOR THE YCAs. The quantity and quality of work by young Chinese artists justify this acronym, styled after the YBAs (Young British Artists). If the alphabetic order holds, young Danish, Deutsch, or Dutch artists could be next.
5. THE CHUTZPAH AWARD or A WOMAN’S GOT TO DO WHAT A MAN’S GOT TO DO. With a hidden camera, the Polish artist Katarzyna Kozyra videotaped herself “passing” in a men’s bathhouse in Budapest, helped by an artificial penis, beard, and chest hair.
6. A TREE GROWS IN VENICE. Rikrit Tiravanija single-handedly increased the Biennale’s family of nations, planting a teak tree in front of the American pavilion, building a platform around it, and christening it the First Royal Thai Pavilion.
7. YOU’RE NOBODY TILL SOMEBODY CALLS YOU. Cell phones were everywhere, at receptions, galleries, and darkened video screenings, and most memorably at the invitation-only Pulp concert honoring British painter Gary Hume. Who said the art world isn’t professional?