by Anthony Horowitz, The Daily Telegraph, May 22, 2017
If there’s one thing I’ve learnt about Venice, it’s that it changes with every visit. During the height of summer, with the tourists jamming the narrow alleyways and queuing up to cross the bridges, it can be unendurable. When it rains and they bring out the wooden tables to help you across the flooded pavements, it’s unbelievably depressing. Off-season, in the winter sun, it’s dazzling. And during the first week of the Biennale it’s… well, memorable.
Everywhere you look, there’s something new and surprising to strike the eye. A giant pair of hands emerging from the water to grasp the side of a hotel that might well be sinking into the Grand Canal (Lorenzo Quinn’s Support). A gleaming golden pillar rising phallically above the Campo San Vio (The Golden Tower by James Lee Byars). A comfortable-looking armchair that turns out to be made of 10,000 needles.
I’ve always thought the idea of the Venice Biennale to be a questionable one. What modern artist would want to flaunt his or her work in a city that is, at every corner, a masterpiece in itself? And it’s true. I saw a lot of work that struck me as poor and even tacky, diminished by its magnificent surroundings. Even so, this is an opportunity to visit ancient foundations, hotels and palazzos that would normally be closed to the public and entry to many of them is free of charge.
I often found myself ignoring the contents and just enjoying the lovely balconies, staircases and views. At other times, in the beautiful Fondazione Wilmotte, for example, I discovered artists, in this case, the photographer Frédéric Delangle, who deserve to be better known.
I have been to Venice many times but I have never walked through the Arsenale, one of the venues for the show. So I had never realised quite how vast and magnificent this 12th-century shipyard with its two miles of ramparts actually is. With its pillars, archways and perfectly still water, it’s like walking through a world created by Giorgio de Chirico. There are submarines and industrial cranes which, with the passing of years, have taken on a strange beauty. It was only the Biennale that got me in.
To be fair, many of the pavilions were breathtaking and I just wish I’d had time to visit them all. Lisa Reihana’s Emissaries, which I last saw in Auckland and raved about at the time, represented New Zealand. It’s a brilliant fusion of film and animation and will be at the Royal Academy in London next year. Don’t miss it.
The Italian Pavilion presented a strange, dark warehouse with a staircase that led to an amazing surprise: the roof was actually a lake whose mirrored surface turned the world upside down. I loved the work of the Chilean artist Bernardo Oyarzún, featuring 1,500 primitive Mapuche masks.
I must also mention the Diaspora Pavilion, a brilliant initiative that challenges the very nationalism of the Biennale, presenting the work of emerging artists from racially diverse backgrounds in the UK. Each one was represented by a more established mentor, including the great Yinka Shonibare who was there with his gorgeous artwork The British Library, a writer’s dream. Diaspora was the main reason I was here and although it’s unfair to single out any of the contributors, I was impressed as much by the quality and passion of the work as the queue stretching around the block to get in.
Damien Hirst’s multimillion-pound extravaganza, just down the canal, seemed a lot quieter. I had a timed ticket but perhaps it’s significant that I was allowed to wander into the Palazzo Grassi and the Punta della Dogana (were two massive spaces really necessary?) whenever I fancied. There’s no doubting the scope and ambition of Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable but the truth is that I only went there to be able to say I’d gone – and that’s what I’ve done.
Personally, I think Hergé had the same idea and did it just as well in Red Rackham’s Treasure, but at a zillionth of the price. And Cif Amotan II, the supposed owner of the Hirst treasure, is a truly awful anagram: I am a fiction.
I thought about Hirst as I walked below Castello where an astonishing array of billionaire yachts were moored nose to tail. Was he ensconced on one of them? Who did they belong to? Collectors, curators, artists? There were plenty of wealthy people in town and part of the fun is to see how many parties you can gatecrash. Christie’s were at the Aman Hotel, exhibiting a view of Venice by Francesco Guardi, on sale for a possible £25 million. I was invited there and saw the one undisputed masterpiece of the Biennale, accompanied by champagne and a classical quartet. I somehow doubt that I’ll be bidding.
Venice was not ram-packed but it was definitely full. If you want to visit the Biennale, you need to find accommodation a long time in advance. With every hotel booked, I ended up taking an Airbnb north of the station, near the old Jewish ghetto. It was a revelation. You can visit this city a hundred times and still find new churches to visit, new corners to hang out on.
The area along the delightfully wide and uncluttered Fondamenta dei Ormesini may be a bit of a hike from the centre, but it’s a lively, non-touristy area with dozens of restaurants and cafés full of young people sipping their Aperol spritzers at the water’s edge. It’s a reminder to avoid the crowded shopping streets and find the secret places behind.
The vaporetti were occasionally full so we would take private water taxis to get home. At €60 (£51.50) a time, they weren’t cheap, but there really is something magical about being chauffeured down tiny canals, ducking under the bridges and then emerging into the black water of the laguna with the lightning flickering overhead. Who needs a luxury yacht? For half an hour, anyone can be a multimillionaire.
The fee for this article has been donated to Kidscape ( kidscape.co.uk ).