03 June, 2011

3 Jun - A Tank, A Treadmill, A Singing ATM

The Venice Biennale is a spectacle beyond spectacles. It is the Lady Gaga of art events, and details of the extravaganza are filtering back to the US as the press and VIP's wind their way through the National Pavilions, the Arsenale, the galas, dinners, and cocktail parties. I am stung with an urgency to be in Venice. Yesterday.

The news is of the ATM machine in the Giardini, the Tank at the American Pavilion, and the "it" Tote bag. The tote bag to have this year (they are annually distributed as free takeaways) is a gold lamé creation from artist Hany Armanious from the Australian Pavilion. Carol Vogel reports that "officials there said within three hours on Wednesday they had dispensed with more than 2,000 of them and as they’re getting scarcer this season’s “it” bag is becoming a collector’s item."

Vogel also reported back of the sensation caused by the sole ATM in the Giardini (the gardens that host the national pavilions). An interactive installation piece by artist duo Allora & Calzadilla, it "is a pipe organ with an A.T.M. embedded in its belly that is computer-programmed to play a tune when a person puts in their pin number... Theories have even been circulating that the bigger someone’s balance, the more elaborate and longer the composition, something officials at the pavilion hotly deny. During the first three days of the Biennale’s V.I.P. preview earlier this week, more than 100,000 euros were withdrawn from the machine. That amount, Lisa Freiman, commissioner of the pavilion said, is three or four times the normal activity of an A.T.M. in Italy, according to BNL, the bank that operates it."

Other high and low-lights come from Roberta Smith of the New York Times and Jerry Saltz of New York Magazine. Smith described the Italian Pavilion as "a new and historic Biennale low is reached in the vast Italian Pavilion where Vittorio Sgarbi, an Italian art historian, television personality and former under-secretary of culture, has overseen a ludicrously dense installation of work by some 260 Italian artists, almost all of it unredeemable still-born schlock. Bristling with an unbelievably venomous hatred of art, the exhibition would be a national scandal, if Italy weren’t already plagued by so many." It sounds so bad I just want to see it to believe it.

Saltz speaks to a moment in the Giardini in which a "megacurator of an extremely well-known U.S. art museum" groaned that he was embarrassed to be an American as he stood before Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla's installation in front of the American Pavilion. A 60-ton Army tank "shipped from England at who knows what expense, turned upside-fucking-down, turret and gun barrel on the ground, steel treads to the sky. Atop this warlord wedding cake, they’ve installed a treadmill where a world-class runner works out for fifteen minutes of every hour. It’s the health club from Hell, Afghanistan in Venice, and it makes a humongous racket that can be heard all around the Giardini. I looked back at the curator and said, “I think being embarrassed to be an American is partly what this is about.”"

Money that sings (possibly to the tune of your bank account digits), gold lamé tote bags, train wrecks of installations, and upside down ruckus-making tanks with treadmills and track stars. Mix with a crush of patrons, curators, critics, and artists; maze-like Venetian alleyways; Bellinis at Harry's Bar; copious amounts of pigeon poop. Is there anywhere in the world I'd rather be?

Photos: Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images, Ruth Fremson/The New York Times (second two images).