VENICE Weeks before the art world flocked to this city of glistening canals and Palladian churches there was considerable speculation about what effects the economic crisis would have on the 53rd Biennale, the Olympiad of art events that opened to the public on Sunday.
The Giardini, the shaded gardens that have been home to the Biennale for more than a century, along with the Arsenale, the former shipyards and rope factory where the Venetian fleets were once built, seemed noticeably less crowded during the four-day preview for the scores of collectors, museum directors, curators and auction-house executives who came to see and be seen. There were also fewer flashy parties, fewer celebrity sightings among the national pavilions and an absence of hit-you-over-the-head installations.
The organizers tried to play down any financial pressure this year but acknowledged that they had $1.4 million less in their budget to work with than two years ago. To make up for the shortfall, they raised the entrance fee from $21.25 to $25.50. Still, everybody wanted to be included. No artist said no, insisted Daniel Birnbaum, this years artistic director. No projects didnt happen.
Yet many artists had to pay for their own projects, whereas in flush times financing is less of an issue. Its like being invited to a party and then asked to bring your own food and drink, one artist was overheard to grumble.
The quieter Biennale, which runs until Nov. 22, had a certain power. Theres no gigantism, no ostentations, said Tom Eccles, director of the Bard Center for Curatorial Studies in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. But thats a good thing. In dealing with the crisis everybody had to think harder and make choices. As a result you have to look a little more carefully.
Among the most talked-about exhibitions was a four-decade survey of work by Bruce Nauman in the American pavilion, which won this years prize for best national pavilion.
The theme for the main exhibition Making Worlds was chosen by Mr. Birnbaum to reflect globalization. A thoughtful exhibition, it purposely includes many artists who arent household names. Its not an annual report, Mr. Birnbaum said. I wanted to widen the horizon of whats seen as canonical.
One of the first things visitors happen on in the main building is an all-white room filled with giant floor-to-ceiling cobwebs fashioned from black elastic rope. The work of the Argentine artist Tomas Saraceno, who took his inspiration from the architect Buckminster Fuller, it is as architectural as it is philosophical. The spider, whose shapes can be so easily destroyed, is his metaphor for the fragility of the world around us.
Its this idea of the origin of our universe, Mr. Saraceno said. The installation is not simply there to be viewed. Visitors can walk around and through the cobwebs. Hopefully, he added, people will get tangled up in them.
Biennales always offer a mixed bag of work. While the marriage of politics and art is nothing new, there were fewer images of war and death than there were two years ago. Some that stand out are the Hong Kong-born artist Paul Chans shadow play Sade for Sades Sake, animated wall projections about torture at Abu Ghraib prison; and the artist Andrei Molodkins Red and the Black, a multimedia work featuring glass replicas of the Louvres Winged Victory. Blood donated by Russian soldiers who fought in Chechnya pumps through one of them, while oil pumps through the other. Their images are projected on a nearby wall.
The Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum has a haunting exhibition called Interior Landscape at the Palazzo Querini-Stampalia. Included in the two-floor show is a work called Worry Beads, a string of Muslim prayer beads enlarged to cannonball size, and Hot Spot III, a metal globe with the continents outlined in bright neon. There is also a map of three cities Beirut, Bagdad and Kabul displayed on three trestle tables with concave forms like a crater left by a bomb.
While oppression and bloodshed always get attention, visitors seemed to be just as interested in a good laugh. Lines snaked outside the Danish and Nordic pavilions two side-by-side houses to see The Collectors, an installation organized by the Berlin-based team of Elmgreen & Dragset, who created a fictional narrative of a dysfunctional family and their neighbor, a gay man (an installation on the wall includes swimming trunks of his former lovers), whose dead body can be seen floating face down in a swimming pool.
As part of the play-acting, the homes are for sale, and a tour by agents of Vigilante Exclusive Real Estate reveal the familys haunted house, which has a broken staircase; a dining room featuring a split down the middle of the table; and a teenagers room with an axe on a pulley that rises and falls as the door opens and closes. The dead mans house reveals pages of a pornographic novel he was writing before his untimely death. Throughout both homes are examples of 20 artist and designer works, everything from paintings and sculptures to furniture and bathroom fixtures.
The number of countries represented is still growing. In 2005 China was here for the first time, followed by the African Pavilion in 2007 and this year by the United Arab Emirates, which arrived with an exhibition of local artists.
While the Russians seemed to have fled the art market this fall, several big oligarchs from the former Soviet Union were in Venice this week, their giant yachts visibly anchored here. Among those spotted at parties or perusing pavilions were the Russians Roman Abramovich and Oleg Baibakov, and the Ukrainian billionaire Victor Pinchuk, whose foundation helped to finance the Ukrainian pavilion.
After a bit of a struggle the Philadelphia Museum of Art was able to cover the cost of organizing the ambitious Nauman exhibition. The survey, organized by the Philadelphia curators Carlos Basualdo and Michael R. Taylor and called Bruce Nauman: Topological Gardens, includes sculpture like his impeccably fashioned hands and heads in the American pavilion. His installations, sound pieces and neon sculpture are in two sites spread across the city: one at the Università Iuav di Venezia at Tolentini and two floors of a 15th-century gothic palace that houses the Università CaFoscari.
At the two university locations Mr. Nauman presented a new video work, Days, in which visitors walk through two rows of wafer-thin white speakers out of which are heard voices chanting the days of the week. In one location the work was recorded in English, in the other, Italian.
Mr. Nauman, who had spent weeks in Venice working on the installations, said he came upon the idea for the piece after a prolonged struggle. I was having a hard time working, but still I would go to the studio every day, he said over lunch last week. Day after day I kept thinking, what am I going to do, its Monday, its Tuesday, and then I thought: O.K., Ill do something about the days of the week. He said he recorded seven voices in locations like Montana, Atlanta and Mexico. He then taped seven different voices in Italy.
How did he know when to stop? Im not sure, Mr. Nauman said, pausing to think of an answer. But his wife, the painter Susan Rothenberg, who was sitting across the table finished his sentence: When it doesnt itch anymore.
- Carol Vogel