Biennale starts in fits

In Venice, standout artworks amid tumult

Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla outside the US pavilion at the Venice Biennale, with their work “Armed Freedom Lying on a Sunbed’’ seen inside. Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla outside the US pavilion at the Venice Biennale, with their work “Armed Freedom Lying on a Sunbed’’ seen inside. (Andrew Bordwin)
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / June 5, 2011

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VENICE — Mayhem, 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, 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.

“Rebel,’’ a film co-directed by James Franco, and featuring a host of film and art world luminaries, was postponed at the last minute, much to the chagrin of those who had taken the 20-minute water bus to the isolated island of Certosa to see it.

The Italian Pavilion, organized by former culture minister and TV performer Vittorio Sgarbi, was a fiasco, a vast and hideous mishmash of miscellaneous, worse-than-mediocre art, so awful that it can only be taken as a deliberate provocation.

And in the Garden of Virgins at one end of the Arsenale (a former navy complex that serves as the Biennale’s other main venue), a likably nihilistic “happening’’ called “Some Like It Hot’’ was staged by GELITIN, an international artist collective. It featured a live punk band, a naked young man sitting on the ground drawing, and broken glass melted in a kiln before being poured onto the ground. But it fizzled out when the kiln’s opening became blocked by cooling glass.

It was that kind of day.

Whether they knew it or not, the Krasnals’ anti-materialistic protest outside the US Pavilion may have touched a nerve. The exhibition cost more than $1 million to stage. It also involved logistics of unusual complexity, as Dave Hunt confirmed at a party Tuesday night at the Hotel Cipriani celebrating the opening of the pavilion.

Hunt, an architecture and engineering consultant (and Ipswich native), was hired to solve the problems tossed up by the artists’ challenging ideas.

“My job was to tell them what’s possible and what is not,’’ he said. “And to keep the costs within the realm of the possible.’’

Among other things, Hunt had to find a military tank (from a tank collector outside Manchester, England, as it turned out); gut it from the inside; deconstruct it for transport by boat before reconstructing it again; attach a treadmill to one of its tracks; and create a subterranean base outside the pavilion to spread the load so the tank would not exceed Venice’s strict weight restrictions.

He also had to get a bank and an ATM manufacturer to agree to attaching one of its money machines to an organ imported from Germany, and work out how to connect the keypad circuitry to a program controlling the organ music in a way that wouldn’t interfere with the bank’s computer system.

Who said art was easy?

Since the US State Department contributed approximately $350,000 to the exhibit, no one close to the project wants to talk too openly about what Allora and Calzadilla’s work might mean. But it certainly looks like an all-purpose critique of US militarism, consumerism, and nationalism.

With so much to see, visitors shared tips and recommendations, eager not to miss anything great. A consensus developed that the British pavilion, converted over the preceding three months into a multilevel labyrinth by two-time Turner Prize nominee Mike Nelson, was one of the best (it was), and that Thomas Hirschhorn’s similarly ambitious reconversion of the Swiss pavilion into a maze of mirrors and commercial products interspersed with photographs of violence and death, was hot, confounding, and stressful, but brilliant.

Three or four national pavilions aside, the most closely watched show at every Biennale is the main group show, held in both the Arsenale and the Palazzo delle Esposizioni in the Giardini.

In this year’s show, titled “ILLUMInations,’’ director Bice Curiger took the unusual step of including three Tintoretto masterpieces (borrowed from the nearby Basilica of San Giorgio).

The basic point — that Tintoretto was himself a radical innovator, much more so than many of today’s artists — was quickly and harmlessly made, and we were left to get on with marveling at his stupendous paintings.

Among the artists whose works made an impact here were James Turrell, Urs Fischer, Andro Wekua, Monica Bonvincini, Cindy Sherman, and Gabriel Kuri, as well as several artists who, though certainly more recent than Tintoretto, are nonetheless not strictly contemporary: Sigmar Polke, Gianni Colombo, and Jack Goldstein, all deceased.

Even in this fine company, the paintings of Quaytman, who now lives in New York, stood out by virtue of their maturity and sophistication. Inspired by a recent trip to Venice, where, she says, “It seems impossible to access the present,’’ she has produced a suite of muted yet powerful works that wind their way into fertile terrain between abstraction, representation, photography, painting, and design.

Detached and cool, they nevertheless have a haunting immediacy, the result of frictions set up by Quaytman’s sly combinations of visual registers: paint and silkscreen, trompe l’oeil and optical abstraction.

Quaytman’s star is rising after a small showing at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston in 2009-10, and her selection in the last Whitney Biennial in New York. Her work in Venice is her best yet.

Outside in the Giardini, meanwhile, the mayhem only increased. Lines to enter the most buzzed-about pavilions got longer, the humidity rose, extroverts in outlandish outfits seemed to multiply, and an atmosphere of fun-fair absurdity took hold.

Walking out, some visitors could be seen smiling in agreement at the sight of a barge tethered just off shore with a sign that read “To hell with everything.’’

The barge was covered with a strip of lawn, a tree, and a tinfoil sculpture of a small plane that appeared to have nosedived to earth. A woman sat reading a book under an orange beach umbrella, as if personifying the Venetian Republic’s former name, “La Serenissima’’ — “the most serene.’’

She had, it seemed, successfully gained access to the present.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at