Once, when someone handed Renoir a pair of glasses, he threw them down: "Je vois comme Bouguereau !" At this year's Venice Biennale the general impression is, "Je vois comme Holland Cotter." On the whole it's all so pleasant, so eager not to offend, and in Venice, in the summer, in the lovely Giardinigardens faced to the flickering sea, so appropriate. This is not Art Basel, and it's not an Art Basel audience, it's middle-class tourists who wouldn't dream of buying anything, they just want to take the kids to Venice and look at Art, and the artists, helpfully, hang their works everywhere it's going to be seen: whether it's actually looked at, is irrelevant. My personal favorite is the performance in, or by, the Portuguese Pavilion, which consists of a sunset cruise on the Grand Canal. The event's supposed to duplicate the working-class ferries of Lisbon, except that, unlike public transportation in any number of Portuguese-speaking countries I could mention, the cruise is free.


Venice is much improved with the fall of Berlusconi. Young people open restaurants here, I'm told, because they want to cook good Venetian food, not just make a fast buck off the tourists; and you can see real glass-blowers in a few shops. Customer satisfaction is a good strategy for selling crafts; for Art, not so much. The signage at the Finnish Pavilion assures us that "[this] exhibition places before us, in plain sight, the collected evidence of something that has obviously required an enormous amount of effort."

Ain't that a birch...

To give you an idea how undemanding the works on view are: some visitors are actually confused by Sarah Sze's sweetly vibrant installation in the American Pavilion—which, incidentally, does not quite manage to sustain itself throughout. Here at least the underpaid Italian youths who've been guarding the pavilions are enjoying themselves; at least they're not bored out of their minds.

If it's punishment you're after, that good old punishment that makes you think that maybe you're thinking about Important Stuff, head for the Russian Pavilion. Nothing tame about the Russian contribution, just plain, unadulterated Intellectual Dishonesty. The main thing people remember about the piece is that it's set up so that only women are "allowed" to walk in, to be subjected to a Shower of Gold as in Zeus and Danaë, not as in Pee, though metaphorically it's more like the latter. The real oppressed person here is Ida, the smart young woman charged with finding excuses for turning people away: "I accept that you may be a transgendered person, Signore, however I am under orders to admit only those whose reproductive organs allow or have once allowed conception."

What a curious, outmoderned concept: a nation or a corporation has its own alloted space devoted to an artwork or several "referencing" an idea, a movement or whatever that may or may not have something to do with the concept that nation or corporation might have of itself. (At least the Swatch Watch Pavilion is consistent: it displays watches.) Perhaps, two years from now, we'll see an International Hip-Hop Pavilion; or a Social-Democratic Pavilion. I'm looking forward to the Yiddishland Pavilion, with works by the world-famous artist, Oy Vey Vey...

Meanwhile, at Art Basel where real Art for the real rich is shown, some Serious Thinking artist decided to put up something called Café Favela, a poignant reminder of the miserable lives of folks who can't afford a Picasso; another group decided to occupy the Café; the Swisstapo turned up in full gear and started shooting rubber bullets.

So there is hope after all...


Paul Werner