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First take on Venice Biennale (critical review to follow)

Posted by Sebastian Smee  June 5, 2011 02:58 PM

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us pavilion venice.jpgMayhem, in the form of a water transport strike, an artists-collective protest, and canceled or misfiring art installations, threatened to engulf the first two days of the Venice Biennale, an event commonly described as "the Olympics of art." But Boston-born R.H. Quaytman rose above the fray, emerging from the Biennale's main exhibit as one of the clear standouts among the hundreds of artists selected from all over the world.

The first day of the May 31-June 3 preview week - which sees dealers, collectors, curators, and press descend from around the globe looking for art's best and brightest - was thwarted by the vaporetti (water buses) strike, which stranded visitors staying far from the main exhibitions. Attendance, as a result, was reduced to a trickle.

Rain marred the second morning, but by afternoon, huge crowds, eager to make up for lost time, had accumulated in the punishingly humid heat. Many waited in long lines outside the US pavilion in the Giardini, the gardens that are home to one part of the Biennale. They watched as a guerrilla-style artists collective from Poland called The Krasnals handed out pink flags and held up a banner that read "Make Love Not Art" and "Art is Expensive, Love is Priceless."

The US exhibit, a series of archly conceptual sculptures and performances dreamed up by the young Puerto Rico-based duo Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla (pictured above), features US Olympic gymnasts performing routines on wooden replicas of airline business-class seats.

There is also a scaled-down replica of the figure known as "Armed Freedom" which perches atop the dome of the United States Capitol, reclining on a Solaris sunbed, and a functioning ATM attached to a massive church organ that plays music when you enter your PIN.

Meanwhile, outside the pavilion, a neoclassical building erected in 1930, athletes from a US team run on a treadmill attached to the track of an upside down World War II-era tank.

The Biennale and its hundreds of affiliated events and exhibitions spread across this entire, waterlogged city.

Elsewhere at the Biennale, art's worth - along with the public's patience - continued to be put to the test. An ambitious and expensive installation called "Ascension," by the British artist Anish Kapoor, failed to work properly. Smoke that was supposed to rise in a vortex to a massive vacuum placed underneath the cupola instead petered out in barely visible wisps. Read more here.

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About the author

The Boston Globe Journalist Series: Sebastian Smee
Sebastian Smee is the Globe's art critic, winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He joined the paper's staff from Sydney, where he served as the national art critic for The Australian. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SebastianSmee. Read Smee's full bio.

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