People walk around an installation by artist Archie Moore called 'Kith and Kin' at the Australian pavilion during the pre-opening of the Venice Biennale art show, on April 18, 2024 in Venice. Picture credit: GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP via Getty Images
Artillery Row

Merchants of the Venice Biennale

For all its pretentiousness, the Venice Biennale still hints towards higher truths

The historian William Dalrymple once visited Mar Saba, an ancient monastery north of the Dead Sea, to research a Byzantine saint. His host Fr Theophanes was more interested in warning about freemasons – “stormtroopers of the whore of Babylon” apparently — and of desert-dwelling demons that “make men into criminals and Roman Catholics.” Eventually Fr Theophanes took him, “to a small chapel backing onto the rock wall. “This chapel was where St John’s body used to lie,” said Theophanes, “before your Pope’s crusaders came and stole him.”

“Where is he now?”

“In Venice,” said Theophanes, “one of the world capitals of body-snatching and criminal freemasonry.”

Whatever about freemasons, Fr Theophanes was right about Venetian body-snatching. At least 800,000 living bodies will pass this year through Piazza San Marco on their way to the Venice Biennale. Few will know that this storied square is named after yet another stolen saint. Fewer still will care. 

They have not come for mummified martyrs. Hope lures these pilgrims. They hope to witness the birth of a relic — priceless, preferably, or at least very expensive. At the 1993 Biennale, a young Damien Hirst first exhibited Mother and Child Divided, the bisected body parts of a cow and her calf floating in separate Plexiglas cases. The official history on the Biennale website breathlessly describes how the famous exhibition was briefly closed when formaldehyde, “started to leak from its container.” Beginning in 1895, that history demonstrates how, decade by decade, the festival became the international art market’s weathervane of taste. 

The history doesn’t long dwell on the 1930 to 1944 period — a lacuna demonstrating that Venice, like all maritime powers, can trim their sails to the wind. They’ve had centuries of practice. Long before St John’s body was stolen from Mar Saba, the body of the evangelist St Mark was spirited out of Africa in 828 AD. Two merchants of Venice hoodwinked the custom officials of the Egyptian Caliph by hiding the relic under pork. That’s the legend anyway. What is certain is that St Mark became Venice’s patron and his symbol became the city’s trademark. The winged lion of St Mark appears on coins, flags and souvenir tea towels. It also inspired Biennale’s prestigious prize, the Golden Lion. Charles Saatchi wasn’t the world’s first branding maestro. 

Venice also used art to project authority long before “soft power” was invented. Whenever I hear earnest debates about whether the Elgin Marbles were legally acquired, my eyes glaze as I picture the four bronze horses perched on the Basilica di San Marco. This Roman Quadriga was booty, brought home after the sack of Constantinople by the same bodysnatching crusaders who vexed Fr Theophanes. Centuries later, Napoleon conquered Italy and carted the horses to Paris. They returned after Waterloo. By then Venice had embraced a new role — tourist trap. 

A trader’s appreciation of brands then, along with an entrepreneur’s gift for reinvention, are constants of Venetian history. They explain why Venice, and not New York, Miami or London, plays host to Modern Art’s Mardi Gras.  The great fairs like Frieze, TEFAF or the Armory are where blue-chip galleries — big beasts like Hauser & Wirth, Pace and David Zwirner — come to shift inventory and where their wealthy prey come to consume conspicuously. The Biennale is different. Here commerce is veiled. When the sales office was closed in 1973, it arguably increased the importance of money. It definitely led to a proliferation of grandiose installations. Most are asinine; a handful sublime. At the Biennale where Hirst debuted, Hans Haacke created his iconic Germania by smashing the Nazi-era pavilion floor. The sales ban also inadvertently gave private dealers greater power. These days they partially fund the spectacles that make the crowds gawp. Don’t feel too sorry for them –at Art Basel they recoup, selling smaller works by the artists they sponsored at Venice. 

The Biennale’s prestige draws the great and good (Pope France’s visit last month made history) and celebrities desperate to look cultured. The most prominent pavilions belong to the states of old Europe and today’s big economies. Oil-rich Arabian states too are increasingly visible. If great powers come to flex, for smaller counties getting in is cultural self-assertion. Ireland and many newly-independent states began participating from the 50s. “Venice is the closest the art world gets to the Olympics,” says Hammad Nasar, the curator of UAE’s pavilion in 2017. And, like the Olympics, boycotting is a way to make a statement; India and Russia withdrew in 2022. Not that you’d notice as ever more countries participate. There’s over eighty this year. 

With all these participants, it is now the trend for Biennales to have a theme. Supposed to impose harmony, all it does is give curators something to talk about. Once all a gallery required was someone to open the wine. Now a legion of credentialed professionals plan exhibitions, select art and artists and write impenetrable catalogues. It took little time for the big dealers to put these new gatekeepers to use. Even though many curators draw salaries from publicly-funded museums and cultural institutions, in recent decades it became normal for the big commercial galleries to draw on their… experience. In any other industry, this relationship would be a conflict of interest. In Venice? It’s synergy, darling. 

The supreme pontiff of this priestly caste is Venice’s Artistic Director. Adriano Pedrosa is a silver-haired Brazilian who doesn’t appear to own any shirts with top buttons. His day job is running the São Paulo Museum of Art. He earned his bones curating lesser art fairs in Mexico, Puerto Rico and Turkey. Describing himself as “honored and humbled”, Pedrosa boasts that he is “the first Latin American to curate the International Art Exhibition, and in fact the first one based in the Southern Hemisphere.” Better yet, he proclaims himself “the first openly queer curator in the history of the Biennale Arte.”

If you’re wondering why these biographical details matter, then you’re probably not going to any yacht parties. Identity currently matters to the people that matter. Venice, like the Oscars and the Eurovision Song Contest, is keen on firsts, especially firsts that can be considered progressive. In 2015, for example, the buzz about Okwui Enwezor was that he was Biennial’s first African curator. 2019 curator Ralph Rugoff made up for being just another white guy by achieving Gender Parity in his artist selection. Cecilia Alemani, his successor in 2022, went one better. She threw whatever the opposite of a sausage party is by creating a show that was 90 per cent female. The New York Times approved: “This Venice Biennale Has a New Star: Women.”

Foreigners Everywhere is Pedrosa’s theme for the 2024 Biennale. The ambivalent phrase glows neon outside the compounds where visitors queue.  The Giardini is the older venue but the Arsenale, used only since 1980, is a fitting setting. Long before the Industrial Revolution got smoking, the Arsenale’s assembly-line was pumping out galleys to let Venetians trade and raid in the Adriatic and beyond. The vast shipping yard is sometimes called “the world’s first factory.” Andy Warhol would approve. Warhol would only chuckle at the art world’s increasingly fraught relationship with money. Don’t let the salesmen using words like ‘liminality’ with worrying frequency distract you. Art fairs are markets. Even the ones where sales officially don’t happen. 

 “Foreigners Everywhere” says Pedrosa, “has many meanings.’’ He lists several — “in a more personal, perhaps psychoanalytic subjective dimension, wherever you go, you are also a foreigner…” Self-congratulation becomes self-delusion as he compares the jet set to refugees; his Biennale’s focus is “artists who are themselves foreigners, immigrants, expatriates, diasporic, émigrés, exiled, or refugees — particularly those who have moved between the Global South and the Global North.”

The broadsheets ate up the social justice angle. “Indigenous Artists Are the Heart of the Venice Biennale” (New York Times again). But while a seasoned player like Pedrosa makes this kind of thing look effortless, it sometimes goes awry. 

Consider the cautionary tale of Dasha Zhukova, Roman Abromovich’s wife, the beautiful Russian socialite once called “the Queen of the Art Scene” by Harpers Bazaar. What her oligarch husband did with football, Dasha attempted to do with art. She worked fast, hosted the Serpentine’s summer party in 2008, and next year opened a contemporary art museum in Moscow — Anthony Gormley exhibited there, amongst other big names. With a straight face, art-dealer Larry Gagosian attributed Dasha’s overnight success to, a “combination of genuine passion and intelligence that, as with all natural leaders, has the ability to attract and engage creative people.” Gallerists like to welcome new money. Imagine their frustration when a blunder at the 2011 Biennale queered the pitch. The Abromovichs annoyed all of Venice by mooring their giant £115m yacht beside the Giardini. 

Before this gaucherie could be forgotten, Dasha went and broke the internet. In 2014, a magazine profile appeared illustrated by a photo of Dasha sitting on — how to put this? — a chair shaped like a black woman in S&M gear. No, really. The Guardian, having facilitated Dasha’s rise with puff pieces, dispatched critic Jonathan Jones to explain that, “There’s nothing racist about the ‘racist chair’”. But nothing could change the fact that the picture was posted on Martin Luther King day. Since then, Dasha has increasingly exercised her natural leadership in fashion.

It’s not quite a Siberian exile. Fashion and art always overlapped — before Christian Dior conquered the catwalk, he ran a Parisian art gallery and exhibited Salvador Dalí. Today, these realms have mostly merged. “It’s so connected” Miuccia Prada told Vanity Fair in 2019 “the fashion, the art, the culture, the politics.” Following Fondazione Prada’s lead, Chanel is getting into art sponsorship. Celebrity “collabs” blur the line more. The handbags that sculptor Takashi Murakami designed for Louis Vuitton in 2003 are now collector’s items. There’s a nice one in blue denim going in Sotheby’s for only €4520.

Talking cash is crass but in Venice, where anti-capitalism is de rigueur, it’s useful to know who’s paying. To arrest the eyes of a crowd that rarely lingers, exhibitors must go big and be brash. That costs. Private dealers carry part of the burden but ultimately national pavilions require state funding. That comes with strings. Artistic independence is nice in theory but art that gets to Venice will reflect the taste of the one signing cheques.

Every national pavilion sends a message about national values i.e. the values its elites choose to emphasise. Liberal Australians still mourning last year’s defeat of the referendum, which would have created a permanent body to advise government on indigenous affairs, took heart that the Golden Lion was won by an Aboriginal artist. Archie Moore’s Kith and Kin is a giant genealogy drawn on site in chalk. It is an original and affecting piece. It is also assertive, contrasting a young 254-year-old White-dominated state with an indigenous history that spans millennia.

Picture credit: Jed Cullen/Dave Benett/Getty Images)

Argentina’s entry by the artist La Chola Poblete is another elite refutation of national stereotypes. Its “queer imagery, pop references, the Virgin Mary and the goddess Pachamama,” according to critic Adrian Searle is a “form of resistance to social norms in the macho culture of Argentina.”  Resistance in the unexamined morality of biennale is always a good thing. And if resistance attracts corporate sponsors — La Chola Poblete was Deutsche Bank’s “Artist of the Year” for 2023 — well, that’s progress. 

More state-sanctioned norm busting is displayed at the Pavilion of Brazil which is now temporarily the Pavilion of Hãhãwpuá — an Indigenous term. “Our aim is to rewrite history,” said curator Denilson Baniwa with impressive frankness. With similar ambitions, Denmark is represented by an Inuk artist from Greenland.

Joining this post-colonial conga line is my compatriot Eimear Walshe. Her installation Romantic Ireland involves actors dressed as 19th Century peasants wearing tweeds, linen and, in a slightly anachronistic touch, leather gimp masks. Topics like “cuckolding, dogging, or kink” are useful, says Walshe, “as inroads to speak about colonisation or capitalism.” And they say romance is dead. This juxtaposition of tradition and transgressive sexuality was rather shocking, forty years ago. Now it’s almost quaint. In recycling Irish rebel song tropes — while downplaying their suspicion and resentment of foreigners — Walshe walks a thinner line. Curator Sara Greavu insists that Walshe’s installation is “not nativist”. It is rather “sensitively displacing and embracing these elements as it prefigures alternative social relationships.” 

Well, ok then.  

Romantic Ireland is a mildly risqué fashion photoshoot, history as cosplay, stripped of substance to fit a narrow bandwidth of contemporary politics, but at least it’s well executed. Sometimes, selection goes horribly wrong and reveals a country’s divisions to the world. One such debacle is Polonia Uncensored

Painter Ignacy Czwartos was selected when the conservative Law and Justice ruled Poland. He was deselected when Donald Tusk’s Civic Coalition swept to power last year. This victim of regime change earned little sympathy from a militantly woke art establishment. Not taking cancelation quietly, Czwartos marched on Venice and set up a one-man fringe-festival. No surprise that Poland’s culture minister who inaugurated the official pavilion didn’t stop by Czwartos’s show to admire his painting of Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin flanking what appears to be a swastika. Like all good culture war skirmishes, both sides denounced each other as fascists.

A more serious spat occurred with Israel’s pavilion. With a petition to exclude Israel circulating for months, the selected artist Ruth Patir surely knew trouble was brewing. Unbeknownst to the Israeli government, she refused to open her exhibition until there is “a ceasefire in Gaza”. The protesters were too riled up to let the Israeli pavilion being shut stop them in the days following from handing out leaflets demanding “a boycott of the Israeli pavilion. We demand the biennale shut it down.” 

In its embrace of spectacle and student politics, the Biennale increasingly bears comparison to the Met Gala. Instead of providing a stage for the world’s creative variety in all its eccentricity, the pavilions echo with the same liberal nostrums in different languages. The combination of kale-eating puritanism by day and cocaine-snorting decadence by night gets tedious, especially as Venice conspires to bankrupt you all hours. If €25 bellinis and one star hotels at five star prices weren’t enough, the city has just imposed on tourists a €5 entry fee.  Such avarice confirms Fr Theophanes’s suspicions of the world’s body-snatching capital.

No sooner was St Mark’s body ensconced in Venice’s Basilica than a tradition sprung up that the evangelist once visited the lagoon. The bodysnatching thus became a belated homecoming. It’s an invention of course — and possibly the body too is fake. A church in Cairo claims to still have St Mark’s head. 

Scoffing at relics misses their point. Their provenance matters less than what they do. Cranky traditionalists like me may rail at the Biennale’s pretentiousness but those gawping at the latest installation wish to be lifted to a higher plane. Occasionally they are. That’s why the Biennale still matters. The format is like speed dating — wading through a sea of phonies is worth it for one moment of connection, of truth. Ron Mueck’s giant sculpture of a crouching anxious boy in 2001 seems in retrospect to herald a world transformed. You can’t put a price on that.

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