The Gentleman's Guide to the Venice Biennale

Contemplating a summer vacation? Try zipping over to Venice to enjoy the culture, food, and—if you’ve got the constitution for it—many, many boat rides.
Avatar:
Author:
Publish date:
Social count:
0
Contemplating a summer vacation? Try zipping over to Venice to enjoy the culture, food, and—if you’ve got the constitution for it—many, many boat rides.

La Biennale di Venezia—the 120-year-old biennial art fair set in the beautiful, sinking city of Venice, Italy—opened to the public early this month, and runs through November. The Biennale, this year curated by Okwui Enwezor, is on the cutting edge of contemporary art, and the bright minds, celebs, and artists who flock to Venice for the occasion make it a place to see and be seen. 

Of course, a gentleman knows how to travel with ease. He wears clothing suited to his destination and navigates his surroundings with confidence. He knows what to see, what to do, and where to eat. Or he will after he reads this handy guide. 

WHAT TO PACK:

Sunscreen, yes. Skin cancer: not sexy. Shoes, yes; two pairs only. Sneakers are making a comeback, particularly in Europe, and don’t worry, your white kicks are still fresh. High-tops and canvas also acceptable; we’ll trust you leave the New Balance joggers stateside. Sunglasses, de rigeur—leave the mirrored ones at home, please. Don’t forget your passport, portable phone charger, data plan—for the Instagram, duh—and digital camera, if you’re the type. No selfie sticks. Please.

The Italians are fond of an idea called sprezzatura, which you’ll recognize as the embodiment of studied nonchalance. It’s carefully disguising the effort you might have put into your appearance with an air of 'who, me?' Also known as 'I woke up like this.'

WHAT TO WEAR:

The Italians are fond of an idea called sprezzatura, which you’ll recognize as the embodiment of studied nonchalance. It’s carefully disguising the effort you might have put into your appearance with an air of 'who, me?' Also known as 'I woke up like this.' Also known as making it look easy.

You can’t fail with a tailored shirt, long or short-sleeved, although, fair warning, it’s warm in Venice. Pick something in a breathable fabric like linen or cotton, and don’t restrict yourself to just white. In terms of pants, ankles are in, so cuff generously and go sans socks, or put some thought into your pairing — a dot, a stripe, or if you’re feeling daring, give a hat-tilt to the fashion genius Alexander McQueen and earn yourself some art cred withthis skull set.

As far as jackets go, you are allowed to go light: think beige or blue, not bright white. You’d be surprised how much color popping happens in Italy. You won’t need a tie, but if you crave one, err on the side of skinny. Clean up your look with a classic watch like theSwatch Sistem51, a sleek, sexy automatic movement watch with a 90-hour power reserve. Or if you truly want to turn heads, ignore everything I’ve said above and pack a sick suit with an allover pattern — keep the sock game strong, though. If you can wear it anywhere, it’s the Venice Biennale.

WHAT TO SEE:

The Venice Biennale consists of two main exhibits in two locations: the Arsenale and the Giardini, with other exhibits and activities throughout the city. A ride in a private water taxi will be enough to get you from A to G; if you’re more into public transport, buy yourself a Vaporetto pass and take the water bus from place to place, a feat surprisingly easy to negotiate.

At the Arsenale show, essentially one long corridor, take your time. The show this year is intensely political, featuring a diversity of artists and a wide swathe of political sentiment. You can’t miss the Bruce Nauman neon pieces right as you enter— it's the one flashing phrases like EAT/DEATH, surrounded by clusters of machetes by Adel Abdessemed. Further on, Melvin Edwards and Monica Bonvincini explore and aestheticize prickly aspects of violence in their separate installations of found metals and, in Bonvincini's case, literal chainsaws—murky and a little heavy-handed, but awesome to behold. Take a breather in the rainbow mess manufactured by Katharina Grosse, reminiscent of asteroid impacts and alien invasions, then forge on.

Don’t miss the Tuvalu pavilion after the main Arsenale show—it’s a feat of atmospheric evocation, featuring fog, semi-submerged footbridges, and a lot of beautiful, rippling blue water. The light comes into the old armory building just-so, and it’s gorgeous.

Other highlights of the Arsenale show include huge self portraits by Georg Baselitz, paintings from Lorna Simpson and Chris Ofili, misleadingly delicate drawings and embroidery by Tiffany Chung, and a shimmering overhead LCD installation of portraits by Turkish artist KutluğAtaman. Of course, there’s always more to see. Enenzor has put together an exhibit so massive it’s impossible to take it in all at once: once you realize that, you’ll feel a lot better.

Don’t miss the Tuvalu pavilion after the main Arsenale show—it’s a feat of atmospheric evocation, featuring fog, semi-submerged footbridges, and a lot of beautiful, rippling blue water. The light comes into the old armory building just-so, and it’s gorgeous.

On the Giardini side, you’ll find most of the big national pavilions, featuring exhibits curated by each country in a ticket for cultural representation on the grand stage of the Biennale. Do see: Japan, Korea, Germany, Switzerland, America, Canada, and the super-sexy English pavilion, featuring plaster casts and tit cats from Sarah Lucas. Worth a special visit is the Swatch pavilion—no, not a country, but the glowing mechanical garden by Joana Vasconcelos, a poetics of nature when no nature is left, is an interactive sight to behold.

Don’t forget to check out the Giardini pavilion itself, though it gets lost in the flurry of national displays: Glenn Ligon, Christian Boltanski,Walker Evans, Wangechi Mutu, Mika Rottenberg, and Marlene Dumas are all standouts.

Prosecco is the bubbly of choice; be warned that “champagne” can refer to bière de champagne or bière-brut, which is actually a kind of beer made in the style of champagne, with fine bubbles and a high alcohol content.

WHAT TO EAT:

A few tips: it’s fine to drink your coffee with milk in the morning, but after noon you’ll be looked at askance if you order anything other than an espresso. Prosecco is the bubbly of choice; be warned that “champagne” can refer to bière de champagne or bière-brut, which is actually a kind of beer made in the style of champagne, with fine bubbles and a high alcohol content. If you’re trying to eat near the main event, you can generally track down some food around the pavilions, but for more sustenance, try out the restaurants Al Covo(Castello 3968),CoVino (Castello 3829), or Osteria La CorteSconta, all at the Arsenale stop. And if anyone offers you gelato, obviously take it.

BONUS

If you get exhausted from all the high-energy contemporary art—and there is a lot of it—take a break and visit the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, featuring a fantastic collection of early abstract, surrealist, and modern art from names like Calder, Braque, Picasso, Rothko, Mitchell, and even a Magritte. Located in Peggy Guggenheim’s palazzo, many of the rooms are set up as they had been in her lifetime, with photos depicting the decor as it was in her heyday. The collection is well worth a visit, a veritable who’s-who before they got famous, and if you can manage to get up onto the terrace for a special event—well, then you’ll be greeted by the best view of the canal one can get.

Photos by Larissa Pham