Late last week, battalions from the international art world descended upon Venice for the city's biennial, arguably the world's most important art exposition. Over the course of several days, critics, curators, and collectors tromped around the ancient city, braving its mazelike streets and befuddling vaporetto water-ferry system, taking in as much art as possible. What's at stake for the artists showing here is immense: If their work manages to stand out, they instantly become players on the global stage. (After scoring a hit in 2001 with a dark, computer-rendered video, for instance, Swedish artist Magnus Wallin had offers for 15 shows the following fall.) But the way buzz builds in Venice can be peculiar. Art-world types may pride themselves on their ability to ignore hype and render individual judgments, but during the biennial, Venice functions as a giant echo chamber.
People compare the arts biennial to the Cannes Film Festival: At both events, causing the right kind of stir can launch your career. But at Cannes, films screen on a preset schedule, which means that most critics present assess each film at the same time, and their assessments roll forth in a steady, sequential rhythm. In Venice, each person sees the art in a different order. And few people see everything because the biennial is split into two main sections—the massive Arsenale building and the Castello gardens, in which most major countries own permanent pavilion buildings. In addition, there are spaces scattered haphazardly across the rest of the city's three main islands, which makes for endless rounds of find-the-palazzo orienteering. At Cannes, the reviewers watch the films in the dark, silently, so when the lights go up, their responses tend to have concretized. But biennial-goers commonly travel in loose packs, so even first impressions can be influenced by the commentary of one's companions.
Passing one another on bridges and chatting at champagne receptions, people engage in endless iterations of the same conversation. The first question is, "What do you think?"—meaning "of the whole biennial," compared with previous biennials. In the beginning, responses are fragmented, filled with caveats about not having seen everything. Within 24 hours, long before everyone has seen much of anything, a consensus forms, giving people a sense of how high the bar has been set (and preconceptions about the quality of the work they've yet to see). This year, the bar was low. The two Spanish curators, María de Corral and Rosa Martínez, were appointed lamentably late in the game after infighting at the Biennale's organization. The curators played it safe, selecting works they had previously exhibited and artists with a record of producing decent pieces. There were few outright mistakes, but also hardly any discoveries or surprises.
Then comes the next question: "What did you like?" This year, the most buzzed-about piece was probably Francesco Vezzoli's Caligula. The young Italian artist exhibited a trailer he'd made for the 1979 film, which was originally written by Gore Vidal and then badly botched by Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione, who produced it. Vezzoli convinced stars such as Benicio Del Toro, Milla Jovovich, and Courtney Love to appear in the five-minute video. Oddly, the trailer's pacing and histrionic tone seemed better-suited for pumping a summer blockbuster than the more historical and literary movie Vidal supposedly intended.
Nonetheless, in a generally well-mannered show, Vezzoli's work offered a radical change of pace, an assault upon the senses laced with celebrities, orgies, and gold-plated dildos. Most people walked out smiling. At the very least, the piece was new and fun, and it stood out among works that seemed either underpowered or overexposed.
Within hours, the mobile phones of Vezzoli's art dealers were pulsing with calls from collectors wanting to buy the piece (it's not for sale). Within days, the Gagosian Gallery was rumored to have added Vezzoli to its roster.
But by then, a third question had begun to circulate: "Do we, the art world, really like it that much?" Second-guessing their initial pleasure in viewing the piece, people started to wonder if they hadn't been suckered by Vezzoli's sex scenes and celebrity wattage.
You could see the same dynamic develop with Swiss video-maker Pipilotti Rist, who won the Premio 2000 prize eight years ago in Venice but whose recent work has often left people lukewarm. Rist's piece, installed in the church of St. Stae along the Grande Canale, was described as the off-site piece to see, proof of her comeback, a powerful experience. By the third day of the biennial, there was a 40-minute wait in the scorching sun to see her work. Once inside, though, many viewers were disappointed. The projection onto St. Stae's vaulted ceiling was a pastiche of images that included close-up shots of nipples and flowers and images of fruit being squished underfoot on a forest floor. The camera often pulled back for slo-mo shots of a redhead with pre-Raphaelite hair striding, twisting and turning her nubile form. Occasionally the images even went kaleidoscopic.
Again, it was easy to see what the early scouts had liked. But once Rist's buzz had reached a high intensity and people came expecting to be bowled over, it was a letdown to find oneself in the world's largest chill-out room. By the end of the week, Rist's support seemed to be subsiding. Frieze magazine's scouts adopted a dismissive lad-mag tone in a text-message update they sent to subscribers: "Lie down and nurse your hangover in Pipilotti's trippy chapel."
On Monday, much of the art world reconvened in Switzerland for the Art Basel fair. And there you could hear the final round of Venice buzz: "You really should have made it to the Lithuanian off-site pavilion." Or some other obscure space—Scotland, say, or Central Asia. Of all the Venice chatter, this tends to be the kindest. Art professionals are predisposed to rave about works they labored to locate. And they can do so feeling certain that few of the people they're lording it over will get a chance to second-guess their ecstasies.