La Biennale di Venezia, sometimes referred to as the Olympics of Art, is a contemporary art fair that occurs every two years during the summer in Venice, Italy. A number of countries are represented by various pavilions, with awards given to the best displays, hence the Olympics comparison. The Biennale is easily one of the most, if not the most, important contemporary art events of the world, with the latest works by established and internationally-renowned artists and up-and-coming promising new talents displayed side-by-side. The Biennale is held primarily in the Arsenale, an ancient complex of shipyards and armories, and the Giardini, a gated park beyond the Arsenale which houses thirty pavilions of the permanent major participating countries. Smaller countries are often represented in galleries, palaces, churches, monuments, and other venues throughout Venice.
The first time I visited the Biennale was in 2011, and I came away with great memories and a deepened understanding of today’s contemporary art scene. In addition to the wonderful sights of Venice, you can also see some of the most avant-garde, cutting-edge, and talked-about art in the world. For the following Biennale this year, my best friend convinced me to go during the opening of the Biennale, when the Arsenale and Giardini are open for three days before opening to the general public on June 1st for private viewings for the press, those in the art world, collectors, and VIPs. Luckily for me, my friend went to university in Venice and works in contemporary art, so I was in very good company to attend the opening of the Biennale in the last few days of May.
The opening of the Biennale easily rivals and most likely outdoes rival art events such as Art Basel (Basel and Miami) and Frieze Art Fair (London and New York) when it comes to opening events and glamorous parties. The advantage that the Biennale has over its peers is that it is set in beautiful, timeless Venice. Even if you’re not a fan of the art at a particular exhibition, you’re probably still in awe of the grandeur and history of whichever grandiose palazzo or ornate church you happen to be in. The same applies to its opening parties, which are held in some majorly impressive venues. Like any festival around the world, it’s useless to go to expecting to attend the chicest soirées around if you don’t do your homework beforehand.
Having some contacts in the art world or in Venice will go a long way. Even without contacts, you can still brave the social-climbing waters of the opening, but it may be risky. You’ll need to research the best parties and events beforehand and target the ones you think you have the greatest chances of getting into. As soon as you get to Venice, begin speaking to everybody who looks interesting and well-connected, as new connections are better than no connections and will do a long way. Be equipped with a fully-functional smartphone, a stylish wardrobe (we are in Italy, after all), and plenty of confidence. Generally, if you look like you know where you’re going or like you belong, people won’t question you very much. Brushing up on the local language, as when visiting any foreign country, is also optimal. With a little luck, some decent networking, and a bit of research you should be able to finagle your way into a number of fun events. The good thing about Italy, and Mediterranean culture in general, is that it has a more lax take on rules and structure. If you should show up to an event with someone who is on the list and you’re not on it, just have your friend explain that you’re a journalist for some obscure art magazine, make a bit of conversation, and with a little luck you should be ushered in.
Some of the most memorable events that we attended were a dinner inside of Lord Byron’s old palazzo, now inhabited by a socialite baroness. The party was in honor of the opening reception of an exhibition organized in conjunction with the Japan Foundation at the Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa, a contemporary art foundation where my friend had once interned. Upon escaping the tourists that crawl the streets of Venice via a narrow tunnel, we crossed a pleasantly quiet courtyard and entered a long hallway lit by candles placed on either side of the floor, spanning the hallway until we arrived at the reception. We then went up the stairs and opened the main door, and were greeted by a sumptuous palazzo. The first room we entered contained bow-tied waiters ready to provide whatever champagne, wine, liquor, or other refreshment the guests may desire. We continued past a stunning sitting room sprinkled with beautiful armchairs to the dining room, which housed a large oak table covered in a feast of entirely vegetarian Japanese food. The organizer of the event, whom we made friends with, eventually took us upstairs to a private balcony with a stunning view of Venice. I even climbed up on the roof and took this panoramic shot of the sun setting over Venice.
We also attended the opening of the exhibition of the Fondazione Prada, as our friend happened to be working the event as a hostess. It was housed in another beautiful palace along the Grand Canal. The glamorous guests and their outfits were at least as entertaining to look at as the art. Later that night we took a boat to the Lido beach, to attend a party thrown by the Danish Pavilion in an old airport hangar. Peaches came out and performed (my friend even managed to get her number after the show), and then a killer DJ came out and, in true Scandinavian style, kept the crowd dancing to electronic beats until the wee hours of the morning. The next night, we took another boat to a private party thrown by the Italian fashion label Trussardi, housed in an enormous hangar, accessibly only by water, with unlimited open bars the entire night. We weren’t on the list, but managed to finagle our way in, most likely due to the fact that the hostess was probably tired of rifling through her guest list of encyclopedic proportions.
On our final night in Venice, we went to the trendy Hotel Bauer near Piazza San Marco for a pop-up party in the hotel’s club, where we met some very interesting artists, musicians, and curators from around the world, including the graffiti artist-turned-entrepreneur André Saraiva. The most memorable moment of the whole trip was returning to our apartment after the party. Our friend who had been kind enough to let us stay at her place came by the party with a friend of hers, a lifelong Venetian who happened to own a boat. So the four of us left the party in his boat, eventually emerging from the small canal where he had anchored it onto the Grand Canal. Well, by this time the sun was rising and the dawn gloriously illuminated the sky, as if the Grand Canal wasn’t beautiful enough in the first place. On top of that, at that hour there were no other boats on the canal, which is usually filled with vaporettos, water taxis, gondolas, and other boats of all kinds. So there we were, gently motoring down the Grand Canal, approaching the majestic Rialto Bridge, with no one else in sight. It was truly one of the most beautiful travel moments I’ve ever experience, and I managed to capture the two lovely Italian ladies we were with enjoying it.
Regardless of whether you have connections to get into the parties of the opening or not, I highly recommend visiting Venice during this period, as the city is brimming with artistic energy and excitement, you may very well spot a celebrity – Salma Hayek, Elton John, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tilda Swinton, and Milla Jovovich were all in town for the event – and the city is filled with smaller receptions every day to celebrate the openings of the exhibitions. Even walking around on your way to see galleries, you’re bound to come across crowds clutching hors d’oeuvres and plastic cups of Prosecco spilling out onto the sidewalks. Jump in and take part of the fun!
As for the Biennale itself, it’s always imperative to see the exhibitions at the Arsenale and the Giardini, which comprise the core of the art fair. We managed to get into the Arsenale during the press preview thanks to a dodgy invitation that we printed out and my friend’s charm, but we waited until the public opening of the Biennale to see the Giardini. The ticket line was long and slow-moving, so while my friend waited, I decided to take a stroll around the perimeter of the Giardini, having heard stories of people sneaking in through secret entryways. Fifteen minutes later, I emerged from within the Giardini, triumphantly waving at my poor friend, still in line to get a ticket. Contact me if you’d like to know the secret way to get into the Giardini – it’s quite easy and it will save you the hefty admission price! Hint: it involves a canal (no swimming, I promise). I wasn’t overwhelmed by the Arsenale, although there was of course a selection of works that I enjoyed, particularly the vivid video art of Ryan Trecartin. I found the Giardini to be much more entertaining, as visiting the different pavilions of the represented countries is always an experience in itself. My favorite pavilion was the Russian pavilion, which housed a very clever installation spanning themes of gender and capitalism, a part of which is pictured below.
Whether or not you have an appreciation for contemporary art, the Venice Biennale is worth seeing. It is a constant barrage of surrealistic experiences that will hopefully instill a curiosity about contemporary art within the amateur, but even the most seasoned art veteran will walk away having learned something new or discovered a new perspective. The Biennale is something that everybody should see at least once, regardless of whether you attend the opening or not – but the three-day window of the opening is definitely an out-of-the-box way to experience it, and one that I highly recommend.