Bawdy Sculpture, Mobile Trees Lure Billionaires to Venice Show

Sarah Lucas Sculptures
Attendees look at sculptures by artist Sarah Lucas inside the British pavilion during a press preview at the 56th Venice Biennale on May 5, 2015. Source: Awakening via Getty Images

Performers reading excerpts of Karl Marx’s “Das Kapital” played to a mostly empty theater. British artist Sarah Lucas’s sexually provactive sculptures got lots of attention.

At the start of the Venice Biennale, French billionaire Francois Pinault, who owns the auction house Christie’s, KKR & Co. co-chairman Henry Kravis, pharmaceutical heiress Maja Hoffmann and art dealer Larry Gagosian were among the VIPs who swarmed the sprawling exhibition and attended related parties.

The 56th Venice Art Biennale, in which 89 countries host pavilions with a range of sculpture, paintings, videos and performances, is considered important because it can launch trends and provide exposure for hundreds of contemporary artists, particularly those who are establishing their careers. The Biennale opens to the public May 9 and runs to Nov. 22.

“That’s always the excitement of the Biennale,” said Simon de Pury, an adviser and curator. “You always discover artists who were not yet on your radar.”

Social Themes

The Biennale is split into three sections. Hundreds of works are in the Arsenale, a 13th-century warehouse. Even more are located in the Central Pavilion, an exhibition space in Venice’s Giardini park. More than two dozen countries including the U.S., U.K., Germany, Japan, and France have their own pavilions in the Giardini. Many works deal with themes of race relations, religious freedom and other political and social topics.

“Everyone comes -- they collect the same thing -- and they’re disappointed that what they collect isn’t on view,” said Patricia Marshall, an adviser based in Paris. “I think it’s wonderful. They have to question themselves. They can’t say ‘oh I have that in my living room.’”

Some collectors can say that: many artists in the Biennale are represented by the world’s biggest dealers. Thomas Hirschhorn, Victor Man, and Wangechi Mutu are with the Gladstone Gallery. Ellen Gallagher is at both Hauser & Wirth and Gagosian Gallery while Kerry James Marshall’s works are offered at David Zwirner.

Wide Range

Yet even some artists who are well known have never seen their work come to auction, which can boost their prices. Camille Norment, whose work filled the Nordic pavilion, has never appeared at auction. Neither has work by Hito Steyerl, whose futuristic installation in the German pavilion was a must-see on opening day.

The sheer size of the Biennale made dominant themes from opening day difficult to discern. Still, some consensus emerged at opening receptions and dinners including a party for the artist Simon Denny at the Hotel Danieli and a reception for the Tate museum hosted by the Zabludowicz family, whose yacht is parked near the Giardini.

“There were quite a lot of works on paper,” said de Pury, who co-curated the Azerbaijan pavilion. “Between paintings, installations and videos, there’s a pretty good balance between works on display.”

Pressed Flowers

Dealers, curators and advisers pointed out a few standouts as the preview began May 5. Sarah Lucas’s raunchy, massive sculptures filled the British pavilion. American photographer Taryn Simon, known for presenting her subjects in a cool, forensic style, showed pressed flowers at the Arsenale.

Isa Genzken, a German artist known for her punk sculptures and assemblages, created tiny white architectural models surrounded by Walker Evans’s photos. Joan Jonas at the U.S. pavilion offered an installation that combined prints, found objects like wood and video projections with children. Celeste Boursier-Mougenot’s mobile trees were part of the French pavilion.

The artist Danh Vo had work spread across the Biennale -- he’s featured in the Danish pavilion and he curated a group show in Pinault’s contemporary art center in Venice, Punta Della Dogana.

“I think he’s the star of the Biennale this time,” Paris adviser Marshall said.

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