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August 2 2014

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Beyond the Arty Parties: A Look Inside the Venice Biennale

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Massimiliano Gioni at the Trussardi partyThings must once have been so much easier for the social set. They simply followed the sun. But in the past few weeks alone, the bold-type butterflies have winged from Frieze in New York to the film festival in Cannes—with diversions to Monte Carlo for the Dior Resort show and the Grand Prix—and, now, to Venice, where the Biennale, the senior citizen of international art events, swung into gear with three preview days. They launched with the New Museum’s dinner on Tuesday night for its director of exhibitions, Massimiliano Gioni (left), who is not only the curator of this year’s Biennale but also the artistic director of the Nicola Trussardi Foundation in Milan. On Thursday night, it was the Trussardis’ turn to host a party in honor of Gioni. Jessica Chastain and Leonardo DiCaprio were among the guests. Bridging the two evenings was an opening at the Fondazione Prada of an exhibition that fetishistically re-creates, down to the size of the rooms in the original, a watershed show from the Kunsthalle Bern in 1969.

All in all, the preview days perfectly captured the swirling symbiosis of art, film, and fashion that is currently gilding popular culture with a hectic glamour. But even the movie stars couldn’t deflect the spotlight from the 39-year-old Gioni, who, with charisma to spare, has hitched his own star to the venerable wagon of the Biennale, in the process creating the kind of art happening that people will buzz about for years—or at least for the rest of 2013 (it closes November 24).

Marino Aurtiri's installation at the Venice Biennale

If you have the great good fortune to make it to Venice this summer, you’ll be able to experience Gioni’s recasting of contemporary art as something playful, wondrous, mythic. His launchpad—and the title he has given his curatorial effort—is The Encyclopedic Palace. In 1955, an Italian immigrant named Marino Auriti imagined a towering structure covering sixteen blocks on the National Mall in Washington, DC, where all the world’s knowledge could be stored (above). The scale model Auriti built is the centerpiece of Gioni’s exhibition in the Arsenale, the complex of ancient warehouses and armories that is one of the Biennale’s “official” locations. So powerful is Auriti’s concept that it immediately strikes an obsessive, fantastical, almost dreamlike chord, which echoes not just through the Arsenale but through the work of the dozens of artists Gioni has curated in the huge central pavilion of the Giardini, the municipal gardens that are the Biennale’s other focal point. In fact, that chord is so insanely irresistible (literally—the obsession bordering on madness of outsider art is one of the dominant sensibilities on display) that it seemed to infect the exhibitions staged in the international pavilions that encircled Gioni’s playground. These ambassadorial exercises in aesthetics (picture a World’s Fair of art) are often heavy-going, but I tried to imagine what kids would make of Jeremy Deller’s murals and bird-of-prey movie in the UK pavilion, or Vadim Zakharov’s huge showerhead raining gold coins down on the crowd in the Russian pavilion (below), or Mathias Poledna’s three-minute cartoon in the Austrian pavilion, which revives Disney’s labor-intensive pre-digital animation of the late thirties and early forties to gorgeous, disturbing effect. I felt like a kid myself looking at these things, thrilled, enthralled, slightly derailed, but refreshed of vision.

Vadim Zhakarov’s installation at the Venice Biennale

Then there’s Venice itself, a city whose labyrinthine beauty is an open invitation to get lost. You’re never exactly sure just where you are, and that vague and pleasurable sense of discombobulation is enough to turn any old sophisticate into a slack-jawed yokel. It comes in other ways, too. On Tuesday night, Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson had an after-party in the first-floor salon of the palazzo where he was staying (maybe it wasn’t actually a palazzo, but after a few hours, every place in Venice feels like a palace, though—footnote—there’ll be little to touch the latest outpost of the Aman hotel chain when it opens in what was once the Palazzo Papadopoli next week). When partygoers made to leave some time later, the tide had risen and the Grand Canal had crept across the ground floor. Our boat was unable to dock. That’s the kind of arcane problem that brings out the poet in a guy.

Photos: Neil Rasmus/BFAnyc.com (Massimiliano Giorni); Courtesy of the Venice Biennale

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Dept. of Culture