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Art’s Biggest Party: The 2009 Venice Biennale

More than a year in the making, the 2009 Venice Biennale kicks off this week with high expectations. The ailing art world needs a shot in the arm right now, and everyone is looking to the 53rd International Art Exhibition, which runs through November 22, to provide it. Some 6,000 members of the international press and 30,000 museum directors, curators, collectors, artists, and dealers descend on “La Serenìsima,” the serene city, to view proud national pavilions and special exhibitions — turning the three days of previews and openings into one continuous party.

Daniel Birnbaum, the artistic director and curator for the 2009 Biennale, leads the charge with Making Worlds, a large group exhibition that takes place in the Giardini and the Arsenale. Birnbaum’s curatorial concept defines art as representing a vision of the world, rather than just another commodity. He sees key figures, including the venerable John Baldessari and the generally misunderstood Yoko Ono, who are being awarded Golden Lions for Lifetime Achievement, as influencing successive generations. Ironically, Mike Bouchet’s planned social commentary — a full-size, typical American suburban house that was meant to float in a canal near the Arsenale — sank during installation, making it a truer vision of the present-day world than the artist intended.

Challenging Making Worlds as the best international roundup in Venice is Mapping the Studio, curated by Francesco Bonami and Alison Gingeras, at the immaculate Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana, which are run by the François Pinault Foundation. The latter building, which was once the Venetian Republic Customs House, was newly transformed into a state-of-the-art museum space by Japanese starchitect Tadao Ando. There are 300 works by 50 artists on view — including Jeff Koons, Maurizio Cattelan, and the Chapman Brothers — from the smart collection of French billionaire François Pinault, head of the Gucci Group and Christie’s auction house. Alison Gingeras, who has worked with Pinault since 2006, told Modern Painters that the exhibition title “refers to the associative, intuitive thinking of an artist’s process,” which Pinault understands and appreciates, and she promises surprises in the “less conventional pairings.”

Another significant Venice venue is the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, and this year the museum boasts two outstanding shows of contemporary work by Belgian provocateur Wim Delvoye — best known for his Cloaca machines that “eat” food and drop excrement — and Robert Rauschenberg, who won the Grand Prix for Painting at the 1964 Venice Biennale, and died last year at 82. Delvoye exhibits Torre, a dynamic, rusty Gothic tower, made from laser-cut Corten steel and installed on a balcony of Guggenheim’s famous, but unfinished palazzo, eternally altering our memory of it. Inside the museum, Rauschenberg’s Gluts, a series of poetic, junkyard sculptures from the ’80s and ’90s, marvel in the temporary space, while a show in the permanent galleries, drawn mainly from the Gianni Mattioli Collection, celebrates the centennial of the publication of Marinetti’s manifesto of Italian Futurism.

Collecting itself is the subject of the exhibition that has been getting the biggest buzz. Curated and staged by the artist duo Elmgreen & Dragset, The Collectors transforms the Danish Pavilion into a family home, fit for Ingmar Bergman dramas, and the neighboring Nordic Pavilion into a bachelor pad belonging to the mysterious Mr. B., who collects his ex-lovers’ used swimwear, alongside art and design. The Danish Pavilion fronts a “For Sale” sign on the façade and offers guided tours by a real-estate agent, while the Nordic Pavilion is the playground for young male hustlers. Hernan Bas, Klara Lidén, and Wolfgang Tillmans are among the 24 international artists contributing edgy work. Home furnishings come in the guise of art, as well as by way of Scandinavian designer trio Norway Says. With crumbling staircases and cluttered kitchens, the exhibition looks more like a stylish film set than a traditional art show.

The Russians, who must have started planning for this year’s Biennale when they were flush with cash, make a big impact with three standout exhibitions. The Russian Pavilion presents the seven-artist Victory Over the Future show, which features Alexey Kallima’s monochromatic murals of boisterous soccer fans, and Gosha Ostretsov’s installation of a series of chaotic, abandoned rooms, with a mechanical man sketching a project while desolately sitting at a desk in the last one. At Ca’ Rezzonico, a stunning, marble palazzo on the Grand Canal, the Stella Art Foundation hosts That Obscure Object of Art, an exhibition of 70 works by prominent Russian artists from the past several decades, including Ilya and Emilia Kabakov and Leonid Sokov. Meanwhile, Unconditional Love, organized by the Moscow Museum of Modern Art, displays a half dozen Russian upstarts, such as the digitally delightful art collective AES+F, with an international mix of artists who tackle the idea of unbridled affection.

Americans stay in the game with numerous artists spread throughout Biennale group exhibitions and several solo shows at major spots. The US Pavilion opts for a 40-year survey of work by the influential Body Art pioneer Bruce Nauman, while whimsical Pop Art painter John Wesley lands a retrospective, organized by Fondazione Prada, at the Fondazione Giorgio Cini — which is also supporting British filmmaker Peter Greenaway’s multimedia performance bringing Paolo Veronese’s 16th-century painting The Wedding at Cana to life at the Palladian Refectory. Americans Lucas Samaras and Ivan Navarro occupy the Greek and Chilean Pavilions, respectively, and Cindy Sherman steals some of the Venice limelight with a show of her recent series of photographs of aging ladies-that-lunch, which opens June 6 at Gagosian Gallery in Rome.

The Brits storm the city with Steve McQueen, who was widely celebrated last year for his award-winning film Hunger, presenting a new film project in the British Pavilion; the Velvet Underground’s John Cale creates an audio-visual installation for Wales in a former brewery on the island of Giudecca; Martin Boyce honors Scotland with a project that references the labyrinthine nature of Venice at the Palazzo Pisani; and Susan MacWilliam investigates the paranormal in art while representing Northern Ireland. Beyond the UK national tributes, Germany unexpectedly chose British-born, New York-based Liam Gillick for its pavilion, which may be a sign of thinking globally, rather than just nationally.

Elsewhere, Shaun Gladwell shows MADDESTMAXIMVS, a suite of five thematically related videos that riffs on the Mad Max movies, in the Australian Pavilion; and Japan’s Miwa Yanagi turns her country’s pavilion into a playhouse, covering the exterior with a black tent and presenting a fairy-tale-like video and black-and-white photographs of a troupe of windswept women on a journey — a perfect metaphor for visiting the Biennale in these turbulent times.

Image: Ivan Navarro, Nowhere Man VI, 2008