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June 29 2012

Constructive criticism: from cable cars to bath houses

The cross-Thames cable car is a pleasure ride more than a piece of transport, Barking Bath House brings things back down to Earth, and 4 World Trade Center finally tops out

Those of you who are tired of London-centric architecture reporting, look away until the Olympics is over. Or rather, scroll down a few paragraphs where we get to New York. Because the biggest domestic story of the week has to be yesterday's opening of London's first cross-Thames cable car – otherwise known as the Emirates Air Line. Mayor Boris Johnson hails it as a significant addition to London's infrastructure, carrying 2,500 passengers an hour between North Greenwich and Royal Docks, over in east London, which is great if you want to get from the O2 to the Excel (and can't face the prospect of travelling two whole stops on the tube and DLR), but otherwise, unlikely to make a huge impact, considering London Underground alone carries more than three million passengers a day. It's also great for Emirates, of course, which get 10 years of product placement on the tube map for their £36m sponsorship.

Better to think of it as a pleasure ride than a piece of transport. The view is both spectacular and refreshing. There are fewer central London landmarks than you get with the London Eye, but you do get the thrill of crossing the Thames, and an illuminating overview of the changing Docklands landscape. Added to which, the cable car is much cheaper (£3.20 for a typical adult) than the Eye, and much faster (it's over in five to 10 minutes, depending on the time of day). From above, it's a different city out here: flat, spacious and large-scale, with industrial buildings, giant facilities such as London City Airport and the Excel, and emerging urban development including Greenwich Peninsula and the Royal Docks Enterprise Zone – all laid out with distinctly un-London-like regularity.

It's also becoming a landscape of product placement. Looking out from the airline-sponsored ride, across the water from the telecom-sponsored arena, you can also see a new glass building rendered in stealth-fighter geometry. This is the new Siemens Urban Sustainability Centre, a green technology centre sponsored by the engineering giants, and designed by Wilkinson Eyre architects. Wilkinson Eyre also designed the cable car's pylons and its rather elegant end stations, whose plain, curving, cantilevered glass facades bring to mind the pioneering 1920s and '30s designs of Charles Holden, such as Arnos Grove station.

At the opposite extreme comes another intriguing summer project from Create London, who brought you last year's delightful Folly for a Flyover temporary cinema. This time it's the Barking Bath House – a reinterpretation of the East End working men's public bathhouses, which opens on 13 July. Situated in Barking town centre, and designed by Something & Son, it promises to be a mix of modern luxury spas, low-tech sustainable design and a bit of Essex/Kent vernacular. It's a purpose-built cluster of black-shingled structures with transparent pitched roofs, somewhere between beach huts and farm buildings, under which the Bath House will provide a traditional sauna, a pioneering dry-ice-chilled cold room, affordable pampering treatments and healthy cocktails using locally grown produce (local as in cucumbers growing on the ceiling of the bar). There are also mock pebble beaches outside – just the place to destress from a hard day at the Olympics.

Now over to New York, where this week saw the opening of the type of substantial, sustainable, affordable and low-income housing project British cities are perpetually crying out for. Even more galling, it's the work of British architects. Via Verde, designed by Grimshaw (of Eden Project fame) with local architects Dattner, is a 222-home complex built on a former wasteland in South Bronx. As the green-sounding name suggests, it's a building designed for health – not just the environmental but also the physical kind. There's only so much that architecture can do to tackle obesity, but this building tries to do it. There are communal vegetable gardens and fruit trees on the terraced rooftops, as well as a fitness centre, a ground-level amphitheatre and a community space on the top floor of the 20-storey tower. Stairwells are emphasised over elevators inside, in a not-so-subtle effort to get people exercising. In addition, the building clearly puts more into general environmental wellbeing than your average mass housing project, either in the US or the UK. Its facades are animated by strips of colour, sunshades, balconies and generous windows. For once, the developers have gone that extra bit further on design to create a better-looking building and generally enhance the cityscape. Via Verde is the first fruit of the New York New Housing Legacy scheme to develop sustainable affordable housing. Let's hope it works, and others follow suit.

Meanwhile, at New York's most talked-about construction project, there's some good news at last. The World Trade Center reconstruction has been beset by delays, rising costs, ever-fortifying design revisions and a lack of potential tenants, but while the Freedom Tower has hogged the headlines as the world's most expensive office building, another skyscraper has been quietly creeping up on the site, and topped out on Monday. This is 4 World Trade Center, the least heralded and least conspicuous of the buildings on the site. Designed by Japan's Fumihiko Maki, it's as discreet as you could possibly make a 72-storey building, with a glass facade so painstakingly minimal it recedes into the background: a calm response to the charged nature of the site. But the WTC curse soon struck again. The day after the topping out, a worker fell and was impaled by a steel bar (his condition is stable); then, on Wednesday, a beam being lifted by crane crashed into the windows of the 46th floor, necessitating the closure of the street below.

By coincidence, the architect of another key piece of the new WTC was also in the spotlight this week. Santiago Calatrava – designer of the Transportation Hub – is the subject of a major new exhibition at the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. The Spanish architect/engineer/artist has attracted some controversy recently for his grandiose City of the Arts and Sciences in Valencia, and the substantial fees his practice has allegedly collected for it. But looking at all the pioneering bridges, transport interchanges and other structures Calatrava has designed, and his consistently dynamic, nature-inspired structural aesthetic, it's clear he's a one-off, and an undeniable source of new ideas that have spread through contemporary architecture.

Finally, another accolade for another highly regarded architect. It was announced that Alvaro Siza will receive a Golden Lion for lifetime achievement at this year's Venice Biennale for Architecture. Siza has already won every award going, including the Pritzker prize in 1992 and a Golden Lion for best project at the 2002 Biennale for his Iberê Camargo Foundation in Brazil. The 79-year-old Portuguese is admired as much for his retiring, anti-starchitect attitude as his refined design sensibility. As this year's Venice Biennale director, David Chipperfield, put it: "Apparently running in the opposite direction to the rest of the profession he always seems to be out in front, seemingly untainted and undaunted by the practical and intellectual challenges he sets himself." Or as Siza himself told me at the time of his Serpentine Gallery pavilion commission in 2005, one of an architect's tasks was "to make things look simple and natural which in fact are complex".


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March 08 2012

Read all about it: how Gilbert & George stole the headlines

Urbane artistic pair pilfered 3,712 newspaper bills from outside London shops to create works now on show at White Cube galleries

If you are a London newsagent and have noticed an impeccably dressed but slightly shifty gentleman in his 60s regularly buying chewing gum in recent years, you may have been the victim of a "crime".

He was, in fact, a distraction to prevent you from seeing another impeccably dressed gentleman outside, removing the local newspaper bill from its metal rack.

"We realised we had to steal them," said Gilbert. "We had a drawer full of chewing gum at one stage," said George.

The men responsible for the systematic theft of 3,712 newspaper bills in east and north London are, of course, the artists Gilbert & George – and on Thursday they revealed the results in an exhibition across all three White Cube galleries in London.

The 292 bills that made it into London Pictures form Gilbert & George's largest series of works.

The artists have grouped the bills together by subject – yobs, for example, with LASER YOBS ENDANGERED COPTER PILOT and RABBIT IS SET ALIGHT BY YOBS – and laid them out in groups on a background which features them as ghostly observers.

They assumed that getting the bills would be easy. "We thought it would be very simple, we'd ask the shopkeeper to keep last week's poster," said George.

"But it was: 'What do you want that for guv?'. 'What's your game?' and 'Where are you from anyway?' They were very suspicious and very aggressive – they would never let you have one."

"Not one," interjects Gilbert.

They were caught in the act only once when an "overenthusiastic" policeman came up to George as he was putting a bill in his pocket. He pretended to be a teacher making a display of the posters at his school to try to curb antisocial behaviour and relieve pressure on police. "He replied: 'Oh sir, if only more people were like you.' "

The project has taken up all their time. "We've lived it, we've breathed it, we've sexed it, we've thought it … everything," said George. "More than any other pictures, they went all the way through us."

He said appropriating the bills allowed them to tackle subjects they otherwise may not have tackled: "I wouldn't like to start thinking about how you draw or paint a group of yobs – it would seem very patronising or awkward."

Gilbert & George have been hoarding the bills at their studios in Fournier Street, east London, where they have lived and worked for 40 years. They are something of an institution and there are people who will hang around the street in the hope of spotting the two on their regular walks.

They have won the Turner prize (1986), represented Britain at the Venice Biennale (2005) and had a retrospective at Tate Modern (2007). Throughout, they have never been shy of offending sensibilities: the Naked Shit Pictures from the mid-1990s, for example, which featured the artists naked alongside giant turds.

Four years ago, they entered into a civil partnership which they said was primarily to do with protecting the other's interest if one of them were to die.

Most of the bills in the new show are from Gilbert & George's normal hunting ground around Spitalfields and Liverpool Street, in east London, but some betray a wider journey – N7 GAS TERROR AS COPPER THIEVES STRIKE, for example, which features the postcode for Holloway. "We went to north London for dinner," said George.

The bills are a reflection of a society that we are all complicit in, the artists said.

"It is quite extraordinary that you have this slogan, this poster every single day and everybody just moves on. The next day it's another one. This is life standing still," said Gilbert.

The works are full of "death plunges", "terror" and "murder" but they also have a positive side.

"Yes there's a lot of misery, shame and unhappiness but this is also a celebration in a way because there are many countries where you can't have posters like this. It's a sign of an amazing freedom," said George.

The pictures will be on display at the White Cubes in Bermondsey, Hoxton and Mason's Yard, in central London, until 12 May – it costs nothing to get in and see them, but anything between £50,000 and £250,000 to buy one.


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December 30 2011

December 02 2011

Charles Saatchi: The hideousness of the art world

Even a show-off like me finds this new, super-rich art-buying crowd vulgar and depressingly shallow

Being an art buyer these days is comprehensively and indisputably vulgar. It is the sport of the Eurotrashy, Hedge-fundy, Hamptonites; of trendy oligarchs and oiligarchs; and of art dealers with masturbatory levels of self-regard. They were found nestling together in their super yachts in Venice for this year's spectacular art biennale. Venice is now firmly on the calendar of this new art world, alongside St Barts at Christmas and St Tropez in August, in a giddy round of glamour-filled socialising, from one swanky party to another.

Artistic credentials are au courant in the important business of being seen as cultured, elegant and, of course, stupendously rich.

Do any of these people actually enjoy looking at art? Or do they simply enjoy having easily recognised, big-brand name pictures, bought ostentatiously in auction rooms at eye-catching prices, to decorate their several homes, floating and otherwise, in an instant demonstration of drop-dead coolth and wealth. Their pleasure is to be found in having their lovely friends measuring the weight of their baubles, and being awestruck.

It is no surprise, then, that the success of the uber art dealers is based upon the mystical power that art now holds over the super-rich. The new collectors, some of whom have become billionaires many times over through their business nous, are reduced to jibbering gratitude by their art dealer or art adviser, who can help them appear refined, tasteful and hip, surrounded by their achingly cool masterpieces.

Not so long ago, I believed that anything that helped broaden interest in current art was to be welcomed; that only an elitist snob would want art to be confined to a worthy group of aficionados. But even a self-serving narcissistic showoff like me finds this new art world too toe-curling for comfort. In the fervour of peacock excess, it's not even considered necessary to waste one's time looking at the works on display. At the world's mega-art blowouts, it's only the pictures that end up as wallflowers.

I don't know very many people in the art world, only socialise with the few I like, and have little time to gnaw my nails with anxiety about any criticism I hear about.

If I stop being on good behaviour for a moment, my dark little secret is that I don't actually believe many people in the art world have much feeling for art and simply cannot tell a good artist from a weak one, until the artist has enjoyed the validation of others – a received pronunciation. For professional curators, selecting specific paintings for an exhibition is a daunting prospect, far too revealing a demonstration of their lack of what we in the trade call "an eye". They prefer to exhibit videos, and those incomprehensible post-conceptual installations and photo-text panels, for the approval of their equally insecure and myopic peers. This "conceptualised" work has been regurgitated remorselessly since the 1960s, over and over and over again.

Few people in contemporary art demonstrate much curiosity. The majority spend their days blathering on, rather than trying to work out why one artist is more interesting than another, or why one picture works and another doesn't.

Art critics mainly see the shows they are assigned to cover by their editors, and have limited interest in looking at much else. Art dealers very rarely see the exhibitions at other dealers' galleries. I've heard that almost all the people crowding around the big art openings barely look at the work on display and are just there to hobnob. Nothing wrong with that, except that none of them ever come back to look at the art – but they will tell everyone, and actually believe, that they have seen the exhibition.

Please don't read my pompous views above as referring to the great majority of gallery shows, where dealers display art they hope someone will want to buy for their home, and new collectors are born every week. This aspect of the art world fills me with pleasure, whether I love all the art or not.

I am regularly asked if I would buy art if there was no money in it for me. There is no money in it for me. Any profit I make selling art goes back into buying more art. Nice for me, because I can go on finding lots of new work to show off. Nice for those in the art world who view this approach as testimony to my venality, shallowness, malevolence.

Everybody wins.

And it's understandable that every time you make an artist happy by selecting their work, you create 100 people that you've offended – the artists you didn't select.

I take comfort that our shows have received disobliging reviews since our opening exhibition of Warhol, Judd, Twombly and Marden in 1985. I still hold that it would be a black day when everybody likes a show we produce. It would be a pedestrian affair, art establishment compliant, and I would finally know the game was up.


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November 11 2011

The architects who are taking up pulp fiction writing

Architects reach for their comic books, David Chipperfield sets his sights on Venice, and the people of St Leonards-on-Sea get very excited about a diving board

Is the recession causing escapist fantasies in architects? It seems so. This week sees the publication online of the first instalment of Looking for Spinoza: A Shooting Bad Guys Saga. This dark, retro-style comic book by Franco Falconetto is especially enjoyable for lovers of architecture, with its detailed and rather beautiful chiaroscuro studies of Italian baroque churches and piazzas appearing as stage sets for knife-fights and shoot-outs between heroes and villains.

I hear a rumour that Falconetto is none other than Francis Terry, of classical architects Quinlan & Francis Terry. Own up, Terry. "Yes, these are my drawings," he confesses. "Originally, I started them to amuse the children, but it fast became a way of amusing myself." Explain yourself, buster, I snarl. "Architects are natural comic-book writers," says Terry, singing like a canary. "It uses the same skills of imagining people in spaces in different scenarios."

Terry clearly has a second career ahead of him, as an author and illustrator of knowing pulp fiction. So, too, has Peter Murray, former editor of the RIBA Journal and co-founder of Blueprint magazine. Murray calls A Passion to Build, his online novel, "a racy tale of two architects, Harry Jamb and Frederick Shaw, who start out in practice together but, after an acrimonious 'divorce', compete furiously". The denouement is set in the distressed fictional city of Frampton-on-Tees, a coded reference to architect and historian Kenneth Frampton, where the architects slug it out "in the competition to design the buildings for the Olympic-style EuroGames". Plot and sub-plot race along "watched and reported on by the sexually voracious Rachael Dove, architectural correspondent of the Gazette". Blimey. The book will be online next week at Clip-kit.com.

Murray's tongue may well be firmly in his cheek, yet he is following in a literary tradition that portrays fictional architects as egotistical, over-ambitious and perhaps even insane monsters. Think of Howard Roark, hero of Ayn Rand's blockbuster novel The Fountainhead (more than 6.5m copies sold since first published in 1943). Roark, played by Gary Cooper in the gloriously OTT film of the book, dynamites one of his own buildings after second-rate talents are brought in to complete it without him.

Then there's Malestrazza, the villainous architect in Serge Brussolo's novel Les Emmurés, who concretes his victims into the walls of a very disturbing building. In 2009, it was made into a straight-to-DVD horror starring Mischa Barton, AKA Marissa from The OC.

Venice is an architectural opera. And a soap opera, too. There were fears that Silvio Berlusconi was about to push Paolo Baratta from his role as director of the Venice Biennale in favour of his business buddy Giulio Malgara. Britain's David Chipperfield, apparently, didn't want to curate the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale if Malgara was in charge. Now, with the playboy Italian PM out and Baratta likely to stay, Chipperfield will curate the show, the most glamorous in the international architecture calendar. To date, Chipperfield's work in Venice has been for a renovation and extension to the city's San Michele cemetery. Death in Venice, you might say. He will have to think of something more life-enhancing for next year. And prontissimo too.

Ole Scheeren, former partner of Rem Koolhaas at OMA and project architect of the cinematic CCTV building in Beijing, this week revealed his design for the 268-metre Angkasa Raya tower to be built alongside the Petronas twin towers in Kuala Lumpur, for Malaysian developers Sunrise Berhard. Images show a theatrical building Hollywood directors might well thrill to, with its air of Metropolis, Things to Come and The Fountainhead, in a tropical setting. The moody photograph of the architect that accompanies the press release is gloriously noir. Or possibly pulp fiction.

Finally, Quixotic Architecture has been commissioned by a group of local business people to design a new lido for St Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex. With views to the cliffs of Beachy Head, the proposed Lido, currently in the planning stage, is to be clustered around and below a homage to the original diving platform designed by Sidney Little. Striking, sunny images of the project evoke a world of 1930s design and seaside bathing, all brought happily up to date – architectural escapism at its sunniest.


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October 14 2011

Constructive criticism: the week in architecture

Big Ben is becoming the leaning tower of London, but architects the world over have begun deliberately tilting towers, from the Capital Gate in Abu Dhabi to Anish Kapoor's Olympic Orbit

News that Big Ben or, more properly, St Stephen's Tower, is leaning is not exactly surprising. Battered by the elements and undermined by human intervention – the digging of sewers, railways, roads and underground car parks all around them, as well as the effects of war and earthquakes – it seems remarkable that so many towers around the world stand ramrod straight. Some, like the famous campanile at Pisa Cathedral have leaned since they were new. Others, like the church towers of Venice, have leant gradually over the centuries, as the artificial structure of the islands they rise from rots and buckles.

What has changed in the past few years is the fact that architects are designing towers that lean deliberately. RMJM – a long established British practice – has just completed a 35-storey tower, the Capital Gate in Abu Dhabi, that, said the architects when it was commissioned, "is intended to lean 18 degrees westwards, more than four times that of the world famous leaning tower of Pisa". And it does. This angle of lean has secured the eyecatching tower a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the "World's Furthest Leaning Manmade Tower."

The root of this leaning architecture can be found in the mesmerising, although unbuilt, 400-metre high Monument to the Third International designed by Vladimir Tatlin shortly after the Bolshevik revolution. It was to have leant over Petrograd (later Leningrad and now St Petersburg) at the same angle as the Earth's tilt: 23.5 degrees. Inside its double-helix steel frame, three great chambers – a cube, a pyramid and a cylinder – would have revolved, in turn, yearly, monthly and daily. Appropriately, the "daily" cylinder was to have housed a newspaper. The tower has haunted dreams of architects and engineers ever since: a 10-metre replica has just been completed by the team at Dixon Jones in the courtyard of the Royal Academy of Arts as part of the exhibition, Building the Revolution: Soviet Art and Architecture 1915-35 that opens on 29 October.

"It's been a huge challenge, but what a pleasure creating an interpretation of something you so admire", designer Jeremy Dixon tells me. "It's been rather like interpreting a piece of music where you have to fill in the gaps with imagination and whatever skill you have."

Meanwhile, the leaning, looping structure of the ArcelorMittall Orbit at the London Olympics Games 2012 site is very nearly finished, but the big day of completion turns on the weather: high winds have prevented engineers from putting the last piece in place. What is clear is that this extraordinary 115m red tower, designed by Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond, and realised in co-operation with Arup and Kathryn Findlay Architects, owes much to Tatlin's tower.

Britain will be home in years to come to thousands of almost invisible new towers if the winning entry of the competition for the design of a new national standard electricity pylon is put into production. This is the T-Pylon by the Copenhagen firm Bystrup Arkitekter og Designere.

The judges of the competition held by the National Grid, the Department of Energy and Climate Change and RIBA agreed unanimously that T-Pylon would work best and make the least impact on the landscape. It would be two-thirds the height of current standard British pylons, although National Grid engineers will work closely with the architects before a new version is allowed to march across the country.

In Scotland, a tower that disappeared 18 years ago might just rise again. This was the 90-ft campanile of St Bride's, East Kilbride in the diocese of Motherwell, one of a large number of Catholic churches built from the late 1950s in new towns and areas of new mass housing. A daunting design – its power station-like exterior houses a magnificent daylit interior – St Bride's was designed by Gillespie Kidd & Coia (architects of the internationally famous modern ruin, Cardross Seminary), and consecrated in 1964. The campanile neither leaned nor swayed, but was demolished to keep maintenance costs of this vast church to a minimum. Now the Paul Stallan Studio, part of RMJM, has been asked to restore St Bride's. We can only pray that the campanile will be rebuilt. Without it, the church has been like a headless statue of a saint vandalised by passing iconoclasts.

Back to Earth, or Venice, with a bump. Silvio Berlusconi is trying to replace Paolo Baratta, head of the Venice Biennale, with his friend Giulio Malgara, a 73-year-old businessman whose greatest cultural achievement to date is bringing Gatorade to Italy. The Italian government is expected to approve the appointment.

Baratta has done much to raise the profile of the Architecture Biennale. According to Ricky Burdett, director of the 2006 Architecture Biennale, speaking to Building Design magazine, "In the Italian system, individuals make a big difference, and this will be a serious loss. It is sad and depressing to see that local politics has once again won the day in a country that has so much to offer. The Italian government should reconsider this flawed appointment. But with teenage sex scandals and a banking crisis occupying politicians' minds, I doubt anybody is listening."

Writing in the Architect, the journal of the American Institute of Architects, Aaron Betsky, director of the 2008 Architecture Biennale, says: "My contacts tell me that the outrage this move by Berlusconi has produced is so intense that what is usually a routine procedure validating the prime minister's choice might offer chances for reversal." Mind you, Betsky's Biennale offered the very kind of spectacle that might well have triggered Mr Berlusconi's sudden interest in the Biennale. Ding Dong, as Big Ben might say.


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July 05 2011

Artist Cy Twombly dies aged 83 in Rome

American who exiled himself from his country of birth was seen by many as an heir to abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock

Cy Twombly, the US artist whose graffiti-style paintings on large canvases established him in the eyes of many as the heir to Jackson Pollock, has died in hospital in Rome at the age of 83.

After emerging from the New York art scene of the 1950s, he was to cultivate and be inspired by a life-long association with Europe's history and culture, and is regarded as a key figure among a generation of artists who strived to evolve beyond abstract expressionism.

Born Edwin Parker Twombly Jr in Lexington, Virginia, in 1928, he took on his father's nickname, Cy. A student of a number of US art colleges, he travelled extensively in Europe and was to be influenced in later years by his service as a cryptologist in the US military.

After spending much of the 1950s in New York, where friends included Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, Twombly left for Italy.

His work was shown at the Venice Biennale in 1964 before he began drifting away from expressionism and embarking on the abstract sculptures that were to become closely associated with him.

The artist, who had been living in Italy, was hospitalised in Rome last week, according to Eric Mezil, the director of the Lambert collection in Avignon.

An exposition of Twombly's photographs opened last month at the Lambert collection. An exhibition of his work and that of Nicolas Poussin, whom he admired, started last week at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in south London.

One of the most important exhibitions of his work in decades took place at Tate Modern in 2008. It included his Quattro Stagioni (Four Seasons), A Painting in Four Parts (1993-94).

"Ah, it goes, is lost," Twombly had scrawled in pencil on one of the four tall canvases, in a reflection of some of the themes to which he often returned: time, love and doomed desire.


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June 10 2011

Back at the biennale

'Venice really is the most wonderful place on earth, I said to someone, or possibly no one'

It is impossible to say anything about Venice that has not been said before, says the eponymous hero in my novel Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. Including that remark, replies Laura the woman he has fallen for, thereby completing Mary McCarthy's self-reflexive observation in Venice Observed. Venice is more thoroughly surrounded by quotation marks than any other place on earth. It is, as academics like to say, a textual as well as an actual city, one comprising all the prior novels and poems that have been set there. To visit the city is simultaneously to read it. This is dramatised by Jeff and Laura's visit to the graves of Ezra Pound and Joseph Brodsky (who, in Watermark, quotes a devastating putdown served up by Susan Sontag in the course of their visit to Pound's sort-of-widow, Olga Rudge).

Maybe I missed it last time, but there's now a little plaque honouring Brodsky at Zattere, overlooking Guidecca. Such details aside, the Venetian experience remains entirely resistant to change. Any variants are generated by the season or the particular nature of the festivities that happen to be in progress while one is there. The opening of the Art Biennale – that's what the fictional Jeff, a journalist, is there for – permits no variation at all. The artists in their respective countries' pavilions or featured at the Arsenale change, but the experience always conforms to an identical template. I went back this year for the first time since 2007, curious – and more than a little anxious – about seeing it through the latest literary prism (my own). Narcissistic? Of course. How could it not be in a city built on water and perpetually gazing at its own loveliness: an endless succession (this is McCarthy again) of reflections, echoes and mirrorings?

Jeff is way down the art totem pole. That is a major difference between us. I am not on the totem pole at all, and am completely dependent on my wife, who works at a London gallery, for access. She had got me accredited as a journalist, but I had no intention of filing anything. Obliged, at the place where Anselm Kiefer was launching the latest in his fleet of rusty u-boats, to give the name of the publication I worked for I honestly admitted my status by writing "Plus One". Over the first of many bellinis, at the first party of many parties, I said to my wife that, like people who ask a magician to keep doing a trick until they see how it is done – thereby destroying the magic that provokes this desire for serial repetition – we had surely come one time too many.

As usual a lot of the art was garbage ("a waste of one's eyes"), but there were wonderful things too. I suspect that the garbage-mediocrity-greatness ratio is as fixed as the Venetian experience itself; all that changes is the complexion of the component parts (less porn this year, a bit more politics?). And the great things are all-redeeming – in a setting that, in any case, requires no redemption. Such as? The huge bamboo spiral thingy built by Doug and Mike Starn, towering over the neighbouring Guggenheim like some Asian remake of Tatlin's unmade Monument to the Third International. There was a party there, and we ended up perched at the top, swilling bellinis, marvelling at the health and safety implications of our precarious yet stable nest.

Christian Marclay's The Clock was being shown in two locations – double time! – but whenever I found myself at either place it was always in the temporal midst of a sequence that I'd already seen in London. Time itself came in quotation marks. Still, I found myself thinking with increasing frequency, I am having a quite fantastic and beautiful time, drinking bellinis, shooting the breeze and making off-the-cuff remarks which might well have been self-quotations.

When the book came out it was widely assumed to be a satire of the art world – which surprised me, since I thought I was setting out my idea of a good time, a good time I was now in the process of repeating, almost scene for scene and word for word. (Incidentally, while one can be unintentionally funny or ridiculous one cannot be accidentally satirical – satire's crippling affliction and limitation. I did not intend to write satire, therefore the book is not satirical.)

Venice really is the most wonderful place on earth, I said to someone, or possibly no one. We were on the terrace of the Bauer Hotel at the party thrown by Dasha Zhukova and I felt very happy be to be there, untouched by any sense of contradiction or guilt about the way that a few hours earlier I had proposed lobbing a couple of beer bottles at her boyfriend Abramovich's boat as a protest about the way that he had amassed his wealth and had used it (in the form of this gleaming over-boat) to obstruct people's view, especially the view of people who did not have the great good fortune to be at his girlfriend's party, enjoying a view of the Grand Canal from the terrace of the Bauer, swilling all this free champagne.

The dark water was dappled with lights from water taxis; it was beautiful, magical, romantic and full of promise, and the fact that I had already written up such a romance did not diminish this reality-remake of it at all. Then, through a daisy chain of introductions, we met a magician called Mark Mitton who, in spite of the jostling of the champagne-lashed crowd, produced a deck of cards and treated us to a display of close-quarters tricks. At one point he took my wife's wedding ring from her hand, made it disappear and reappear half-a-dozen times until finally it vanished completely – only to show up again in a sealed envelope in my jacket pocket. The night had jumped out of quotation marks, as if by magic.


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June 07 2011

Venice Biennale: the political power of curating by country

The juxtaposition of the Iraq and Wales pavilions adds to the impact of their statements about war; and Zimbabwe's first exhibition puts politicians in the dock instead of artists

Despite the years of planning that went into both the Iraq and Wales pavilions for the 54th Venice Biennale, it was chance rather than design that placed these two off-site exhibitions facing each other across a narrow canal at the end of the Rio Garibaldi. It's an accident of geography that adds a disturbing resonance to both exhibitions, and an example of how the Biennale's curating by nation often invests the work of individual artists with unintended layers of interpretation and symbolism.

Although the Iraq exhibition Acqua Ferita/ Wounded Water is shaped by the theme of water, the recent invasion and conflict in the country bleeds into each of the six artists' work. Crossing the bridge over the Rio di Sant'Anna to the Wales Pavilion, a visitor is met by three video pieces by Tim Davies titled Cadet. A military parade passes a war memorial in Cardiff; the same memorial is deconstructed by a camera speeding wildly around it, the sound of the artist's breath oppressive and panicked in the microphone. In the final piece a young cadet stands with their head bowed, swaying slightly in a strong wind, as a remembrance service is conducted at a war memorial in Aberystwyth.

Watching these pieces with the images of the Iraqi work fresh in my mind, and knowing they were housed literally across the water, created an uncomfortable juxtaposition. Each exhibition inhabited its own narrative, but viewed in succession that narrative both broadened and sharpened. Here were two sides of a conflict, two exhibitions dealing with aftermath, memory and consequence, two vastly different cultures at great geographical distance brought into close proximity by the tragedy and absurdity of war.

Crossing the bridge to view the Iraqi work again, the experience provoked a series of simple thoughts, made suddenly fresh. Boys I had gone to school with in Wales had killed Iraqis. Other boys from my area had been wounded or killed there. The Welsh Assembly government had voted against the war, and yet had been powerless to stop Welsh boys fighting in it. I'd had these thoughts before, but the years had dulled them. Now, crossing a bridge in Venice, the positioning of these two national pavilions had done what the best art should; make me see and think again by forming resonant visual connections that couldn't be ignored.

Turning up the volume on the political symbolism of artworks turned out to be a consistent experience at my first biennale. By choosing to curate by nation, nearly every show is leant a geo-political shadow. Later that day I watched as Ed Vaizey, minister for culture, chose not to accept an offer to cross the bridge and view the work in the Iraq Pavilion.

At the opening of the China Pavilion audience members held up bags written with the slogan Free Ai Weiwei; at the USA Pavilion an athlete in Olympic kit ran on a treadmill atop an upturned American tank; the lettering of the Serbia Pavilion ran in bold type over the fainter letters of Yugoslavia beneath.

But for me, the strongest and most obvious political resonances were felt in the Zimbabwe Pavilion. This is the first time Zimbabwe has exhibited at the Biennale. The show, titled Seeing Ourselves, has been funded by the British Council, the Prince of Monaco and the Zimbabwean government. In 2010 an artist friend of mine in Bulawayo, Owen Maseko, was arrested and imprisoned, along with the director of the National Gallery, Voti Thebe, for putting on a solo show about Gukurahundi, the massacres perpetrated by the Zimbabwean government in Matabeleland in the 1980s. Owen's case is about to go to the supreme court in Zimbabwe. If convicted he could face 20 years in prison.

In the light of Owen's situation, walking around the Zimbabwe show was a strangely double-layered experience. As someone who has written about and visited Zimbabwe many times, I felt real pride for the country's artists who have, at last, been given a world stage for their work. But a pavilion at Venice is also a point of pride for the Zimbabwe government, and as such the hypocrisy was almost stifling. This hypocrisy was further highlighted when, for a few hours at the opening of the show, all these elements were in the same room at once. Because of this, I was able to ask the Rev Damasane from the ministry of education, sport, arts and culture directly about how Zimbabwe could use its visual artists as a showcase for the country abroad, while still persecuting artists at home.

Standing in that gallery space, surrounded by the work of Zimbabwean artists, in the midst of a massive city-wide festival of art, it seemed the Rev Damasane couldn't ignore the fragility of his arguments in defence of Owen's charges. "Look, you are right," he eventually admitted with a smile. "Creativity should never be taken to court."

Like my thoughts crossing the bridge between the Wales and Iraq pavilions, the Rev Damasane's statement was a true and a simple one. But in the context of Zimbabwe and Owen's case it was all the more powerful for the simplicity of that truth, made fresh again within the eccentric curation of the Biennale. Between the giant yachts, the money and the parties, the true success of the Biennale – and a reason why Zimbabwe should have a pavilion there – is this: while creativity is far from taken to court in Venice, the act of curating by country means that the work of individual artists can, at times, put politicians in the dock instead.


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June 04 2011

The 54th Venice biennale - review

From rolling news footage to anti-capitalist slogans and the last work of an artist killed by sniper fire, the medium and the message went hand in hand at this year's biennale

A Centurion tank flounders on the lawns of the Giardini, massively overturned, its undercarriage exposed like a giant cockroach beneath the blue Venetian sky. The gun barrel, laid flat, looks no more lethal than a limp proboscis. But as you gingerly approach, the whole machine abruptly starts up into motion, propelled by a runner on a treadmill harnessed to the tracks. Deafening, violent, shocking even in its impotence, the work is called Track and Field.

This is the eye-opener to the US pavilion at the 54th biennale and the loudest and punchiest affront in the place. The Centurion is a British creation, but let that pass, perhaps as further evidence of the special relationship. For this is an art tank, with a strong conceit and a cunning pun of a title, yoking imperialism, mechanisation, personal/political goals and much more, with the overall notion of pounding the world.

By the Cuban-American duo Allora & Calzadilla, it could also stand as an emblem of this biennale. For Venice, this time round, is nothing if not political. It is dense with an art of rapid response. It might have looked quite different in January, for instance, before the Arab Spring and the fleet reactions of international artists from Andorra to Azerbaijan, showing here for the first time along with Bangladesh, India, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe and many others in what seems to be a global scramble to secure the last of the 20-year spaces the city is currently leasing for up to £1.4m in the newly converted outreaches of the Arsenale.

From al-Jazeera to CNN to BBC World, newsreel spools its way through the entire event, almost to the point of becoming a medium in its own right. Obama is in Ireland, then London, then back in the White House. Gaddafi appears and disappears in Tripoli. Strauss-Kahn takes the perp walk in Angel Vergara's Belgian pavilion, in which TV news flashes across seven screens while a gentle paintbrush dabs away at the luminous glass surfaces, as if trying to make sense of the onslaught of appalling images of lust, violence, greed – the seven deadly sins in grim total – turning television into both the base and the source for a new kind of helplessly beautiful abstract expressionism.

There are dark memorials to the Libyan dead and banners on the facade of the Romanian pavilion decrying western hegemony in global politics and culture (a dig at the "choking-on-money mercantilism" of the biennale itself). Bahrain was forced to pull out, and Lebanon could not make it after its coalition government dissolved in January. At the Welsh pavilion, Tim Davies is showing omni-purpose military ceremonies reduced to the absurd as raw recruits march round and round in ever faster and more meaningless circles.

There came a point, in the long march through the Arsenale, where it even seemed as though one was watching the filmed burial of Bin Laden himself, somehow bootlegged into Venice, as two soldiers solemnly performed the exequies at sea. It turned out to be the remains of the Nazi Adolf Eichmann, secretly ejected as far from land as possible for exactly the same reasons, so there could be no future memorial and no nation could serve as a final resting place, a parallel most piquantly made in Israeli artist Dani Gal's superb film Night and Fog.

At the time of writing, a young woman has just been released from jail in Saudi Arabia for agreeing to stop campaigning against the ban on women driving. No driving, no voting, and yet women are apparently allowed to represent the nation at Venice as if their work was as harmless as tatting. Sisters Raja and Shadia Alem have juxtaposed a twinkling oval lagoon on the floor against an upright oval of obliterating blackness that looks as if it could be snapped shut like a clam. The artists speak obliquely in the catalogue of "the black silhouettes of Saudi women" and the eternal light of Venice. One would not wish to understate the political content of this piece.

And nobody could ignore the dreadful testimony in the Egyptian pavilion, where video of Ahmed Basiony's last performance – 30 Days of Running in the Space, in which the artist runs on the spot dressed in a bubble of polythene, his breath misting its surface – is interposed with footage he shot in Tahrir Square during the pro-democracy demonstrations. This is where Basiony was shot and died. May he rest in peace.

Reality for the biennale art crowd, such as it is, came on the VIP opening day as the vaporetti went on strike to protest against staff cuts. The Grand Canal flowed almost empty, just the odd gondola and barge, like some living Canaletto. The pavilions were eerily quiet, the Arsenale nearly deserted. Money stayed away, though it lurked in the monstrous yachts moored along the quayside, including Roman Abramovich's palazzo-dwarfing liner.

In the Giardini, there were more publicists than collectors, pursuing more coverage than ever in the biennale's century and more history. But eventually it was business as usual. The latest variation on the principle that art is a safe bet in risky times: even the catalogue bags are now hailed as limited edition "artworks".

The art of the 54th biennale, by contrast, is generally sober, inventive and intelligent. There is a preponderance of installations and environments. More than one artist conjured the ordeal of the Chilean miners with lift shafts and underground chambers. Sigalit Landau dreamed up a salt bridge to unite Jordan and Israel across the Dead Sea; some poetic hope. In the US pavilion, athletes performed heroic contortions to turn themselves, ever so briefly, into human flags for the fought-over island of Vieques.

Japan had Tabaimo's vast projections – a hybrid of animated manga and Hiroshige on acid – cascading down curved and mirrored walls in a dizzying fantasy of Japan "receding into isolation in the face of globalisation" (says the artist). Iraq's inaugural pavilion had six artists' interpretations of water, including a fine semblance of the rippling reflections beneath Venetian bridges ingeniously fashioned from ribbons and foil.

Across the lagoon, in Palladio's great church of San Giorgio Maggiore, Anish Kapoor was raising the Holy Ghost with a cloud of smoke that spiralled and shivered up through the nave. In the Arsenale, one of James Turrell's immense lightworks was sucking the crowds into its numinous pink void.

I thought the Dutch pavilion was a fantastic reprise of a Mondrian painting in three dimensions, connected by stairways, but that's the problem with the forced harvesting speeds at Venice. Four more hours and I might have understood, from laborious texts and performances, that this was in fact a trenchant critique of cultural infrastructures.

Cindy Sherman was being turned into wallpaper, her various self-transformations blown up to billboard size in ILLUMInations (get it?), the main group show organised by the respected curator Bice Curiger. Germany's artist, film and theatre director Christoph Schlingensief died of lung cancer last year so his pavilion became a memorial self-portrait.

Films from his career were screened around a cathedral of pews and altarpieces, crowned with Beuys's hare and alluding to other artists at the heart of Schlingensief's Fluxus oratorio. Harrowing, funereal, with the idea of art as tragic salvation, the experience was agonisingly oppressive and I was rapidly out of there.

The British pavilion is supposed to be Mike Nelson's crowning achievement, partly because it so convincingly transforms that dainty tearoom of a building into a warren of interconnected backrooms of the sort you mind find in a Venetian workshop or a Turkish slum. Tools and benches, concrete floors and strip lighting, filthy mattresses and ancient tellies glowing in the windowless gloom: the atmosphere is of impoverished and unseen lives.

Not that there is anyone here, except the trespassing art crowd. You follow the clues – naked light bulbs, Turkish carpets, mysteriously marked calendars – through a labyrinth that seems to lead to the same empty chamber, except (of course!) that there are really two. Nelson has been doing this for so long he must know that the intellectual experience of his buildings within buildings is always countered by the human urge to work out the floorplan. And nothing dispels the mystery quite like having a guard warn against banging your head on the next low beam.

Generally atmospheric, specifically elusive: that's what the installation should be. Each mise en scène is conspicuously designed to evoke claustrophobia, bewilderment, unease. Yet I felt not the slightest frisson. Nelson will one day make a great work, one that exceeds the spectacle of his flawless craftsmanship to transport one to another chamber of the mind altogether. But this is not it.

The dominant triad at Venice always used to be Britain, America and Germany. But Ireland, Wales and Scotland eventually got their own pavilions and Scotland is showing Karla Black, shortlisted for this year's Turner prize, at her best with a palazzo full of sculptures, fashioned from soap, paper and even make-up, evoking Alps, stalactites and rococo architecture in cornetto colours.

Lately, though, France is the place to go and this year's artist is surely its greatest: the veteran Christian Boltanski. The pavilion is filled with an immense and complex scaffolding around which images of newborns spool at a hectic pace, instantly summoning – the open structure is everything here – a vision of the brain reeling images through its unimaginable interstices.

One born every minute: that seemed the thought. But the numbers racking up in digital lights were running to the tens of thousands within seconds. And in one part of the pavilion, these images are spliced with those of adults, so that death and birth are appallingly comingled. Press a button and time stops momentarily so that you may look upon these faces. But eventually a terrible klaxon sounds and the machine grinds down. The images freeze and it now seems that the babies are not just sleeping but perhaps actually dead. Imponderable mortality made real, Boltanski's work is profoundly affecting.

But the most devastating work in the whole of the 54th biennale is not by a living artist but a long-dead painter. Three Tintorettos have been hung in the Giardini for the first time, including The Stealing of the Dead Body of St Mark, with its apocalyptic lightning, fleeing figures and utterly reckless composition.

Tintoretto's work is a thunderclap of a painting by an experimental genius. There is nothing to touch it here for newness.


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Roman Abramovich upsets the Venetians as he blocks the view

Russian billionaire and girlfriend Dasha Zhukova are major players at Biennale, but locals call mega-yacht 'idiotic'

Rock stars tethered their jet skis to the back of it during the film festival in Cannes, its clean lines have impressed quayside onlookers in Antibes, and England footballer Frank Lampard is reportedly set to propose to his television presenter girlfriend on board.

There can be no doubt that Roman Abramovich's enormous yacht Luna is enjoying the spotlight this summer as it tours the Mediterranean. But the citizens of Venice, a city more familiar than most with extravagant displays of wealth down the centuries, are not impressed.

The Russian oligarch's £115m, 377ft behemoth moored unannounced last week at one of the city's most stunning lagoon locations, as Abramovich and his girlfriend, Dasha Zhukova, pitched up for the Venice Biennale.

Local residents, accustomed to stunning views over St Mark's Basin, found themselves staring straight at the twin helipads and bulletproof windows of the vessel, which dwarfs all rival yachts at what has become an annual reunion of some of the most expensive private vessels in the world.

First to complain was Venice's mayor, Giorgio Orsoni, who is threatening a new tax on vessels such as the Luna. "The boats are getting too big and blocking the view," he said. "These yachts are showing up to see Venice for free, but St Mark's Basin is being turned into a motorway and we have to start limiting the traffic."

Marco Paolini, co-owner of the Caffè Florian on St Mark's Square, whose artsy customers launched the Biennale in 1895, condemned the "idiotic" presence of Abramovich's boat. "There are so many beautiful places here, why do these people have to bring their houses with them?" he said.

Complete with a covered pool, massive communications tower and a crew of 40, Luna is just one vessel in what has been dubbed Abramovich's "navy" of mega-yachts. Now moored at the Riva dei Sette Martiri, close to the Biennale Gardens, local bloggers have joked it could be mistaken for one of the more abstract installations at the show.

Abramovich, 44, has not been glimpsed amid the uproar. But Zhukova, 29, a noted party-thrower, has made the Luna the place to be seen for the critics, buyers and artists currently thronging Venice.

Elton John and Courtney Love were among the VIP crowd ducking in and out of the 89 national pavilions last week, with the longest queues at the British section, which has been given a makeover by installation artist Mike Nelson.

The boat, though unloved by locals who find themselves living temporarily in its shadow, has proved a celebrity magnet this summer, hosting singers Gwen Stefani and Gavin Rossdale at Cannes after Madonna's visit last summer. Reports have also suggested that Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea football club, could lend Luna to Lampard so he can propose to Christine Bleakley of ITV's Daybreak.

Severino Rigo, a retired IBM engineer who lives on the Riva dei Sette Martiri, said: "The real eyesores are the security barriers the crews erect where they dock, which extend out two to three metres across the pavement."

"I do not recall ever seeing such a large yacht as Abramovich's moored so close to the Biennale," said Enrico Tantucci, who is covering the event for local newspaper La Nuova Venezia. "It's like waking up in the morning to find someone has built an office block where the water used to be – no wonder locals have been complaining."

Zhukova's latest artistic project is also unlikely to endear her to Venetians. Many of the city's residents are embroiled in a battle to rid the city of the huge advertising hoardings that have been covering historic palazzi while they undergo restoration. The Coca-Cola billboard which engulfed the Bridge of Sighs and helped to spark the controversy is close to where the Luna is docked.

Zhukova has reportedly asked around 60 artists to create fake 15-second adverts which will be shown on a huge jumbotron TV screen, mounted on a barge sailing up and down the Grand Canal.

Zhukova has said she wants to open a debate about the anti-ad campaign, given that proceeds from the billboards are being used to pay for the vital restoration of Venice's palazzi.

The arrival of the mega-yachts has also exacerbated tensions over the rapidly growing number of cruise ships which steam past St Mark's and down the Giudecca canal before dropping off thousands of passengers who "just have time to eat a frozen lasagna and look for a place to pee", according to one of the signatories to the growing Facebook campaign to stop the 50ft-tall cruisers they claim shake the foundations of Venice's ancient buildings.

Rigo said that the hundreds of cruise ships now filing past his window were an even bigger problem than the mega-yachts. "After all, the private boats represent high-quality tourism," he said.

Not everyone is so negative. Abramovich's huge wealth has become a crucial asset to the Biennale which, held every two years, has become the world's most important contemporary art event. His funding has prompted new competitions and collections. Franca Coin, president of the Venice Foundation, said residents should be grateful to Abramovich and Zhukova for patronising the arts. "One more yacht in Venice is a lesser evil," she told Corriere della Sera.

Zhukova, the daughter of a Russian tycoon, has made a substantial impact in the art world, successfully opening Moscow's first modern art gallery in a former bus depot, while helping her boyfriend in plans for a $400m arts complex on an island he is leasing in St Petersburg.

But for Rigo and his neighbours, support for the arts only partly compensates for the blight of so many gleaming trophies of the super-rich 20 metres from his front door: "The vessels only stay a few days, but I'd rather see the beautiful view from my window, and the tourists don't know what they're missing."

• This article was amended on 5 June 2011 to correct the impression that Zhukova spoke to Italian media about the anti-ad campaign. She told the Wall Street Journal.


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June 03 2011

Venice Biennale: Prada on parade

Fashion couple confirm their places as major cultural figures with display from their art collection

If any designer has effortlessly vaulted the confines of the fashion world to become a major cultural figure it is Miuccia Prada and on Saturday she and her husband and Prada CEO, Patrizio Bertelli, will confirm their status.

Their new venture is opening to the public: a semi-permanent display of works from their art collection, housed in a faded but imposing 18th-century palazzo on the Grand Canal in Venice.

Enter the Ca' Corner della Regina from the water, and you come straight to the work that occupies the lofty, Doric-columned hall, Anish Kapoor's Void Field: a series of sandstone blocks, each with a curious black hole penetrating its surface, giving the impression that these mighty boulders are at the same time hollow or weightless.

It was part of Kapoor's 1990 British pavilion for the Venice Biennale, the 2011 edition of which also opens today on Saturday.

In the surrounding rooms are Italian artworks from the mid-20th century and contemporary international pieces. Among them are Damien Hirst's 1996 Loving in a World of Desire, in which a beach ball hovers, lifted by an air blower, several feet above the ground and Maurizio Cattelan's Untitled of 1997, a stuffed ostrich with its head buried in the sand.

Tucked beyond the elegant courtyard is Cell (Clothes) by Louise Bourgeois, which contains the only possible reference to the couple's day job: nighties, little blouses and delicate 1930s dresses drape themselves emptily within the suggestion of a bedroom.

According to Prada – who wears a pleated-silk skirt, black merino sweater and sensible, striped-plastic flat sandals that she swaps for mountainous heels to be photographed – the couple began buying art in the early 1990s after a friend suggested their Milanese working space would be "perfect for sculpture".

That started them off, she says, "on a full immersion in learning ... We wanted to understand [the 1960s Italian art movement] arte povera better, and contemporary art".

Bertelli, more leonine than the impishly twinkling Prada, chips in: "We didn't seek advice: we studied, we went to museums. We attempted to understand how certain things happened in the arts."

This art-history course was not meant to result in a collection. "I hate being a collector," says Prada. "We just bought some pieces. And now there is so much of it it's a pity for it to stay in stock."

At the suggestion that learning is possible without buying, the designer, who has a doctorate in political science from the University of Milan, says: "I completely agree. It's vulgar, this desire to own things, but it is also very human."

The Ca' Corner, which once housed the archive of the Venice Biennale, has recently lain empty. Last year, the Venetian authorities offered it to the Fondazione Prada, which has staged regular temporary exhibitions in the city. The foundation has the space for six years, with the option to remain for another six.

Meanwhile, the couple are also building a large-scale, permanent gallery in Prada's native Milan, designed by architect Rem Koolhaas.

Under Bertelli's direction, a gentle restoration of the dilapidated Ca' Corner has been undertaken. But this is no white cube: Pino Pasquale's sculpture Confluenze (1967), which consists of shallow vessels of water placed on the ground, sits beneath a glorious painted ceiling on the piano nobile, while Jeff Koons's multicoloured steel Tulips (1997-2005) glints nearby.

As Prada begins to speak about the way the art works in the context of its faded building, Bertelli cuts in and there is a swift back-and-forth of bickering ("He thinks I am speaking in banalities," she says, goodnaturedly).

Bertelli forges ahead: "We didn't want to be too logical with this palazzo. We didn't want to invade, or wipe out the space.

"We wanted it to keep its veneer, and we did not want to exaggerate the skin of the floors or ceilings with makeup."

A critical commentary on each other's remarks is a feature of the conversation: so how do they agree when it comes to buying art?

Into a waterfall of swiftly spoken Italian from Bertelli, Prada interjects: "He is obsessed by Sigmar Polke." And: "Every time he buys another Lucio Fontana, I say 'Not another Fontana!' "

Bertelli bats back: "She is like the fox with the grapes in the fable. It is easy for her to say 'Not another Fontana,' because if I didn't buy them she would."

There are four of the Italian painter's egg-shaped, slashed canvases on the palazzo walls.

They generally buy separately, according to Prada, and only once have they fallen out badly over a purchase.

"It was the first piece I bought, and he sold it, because he thought it was horrible," she says, laughing. It was a Dalí.

Her strategy, she says, is to "never buy anything except those things that change my ideas, if only in a small way".

She also keeps art and fashion well away from each other: "I refuse the connection," she says. "For me those things are completely separate, except to the extent that your mind is your mind, and my work reflects myself."

The opening few days of the Venice Biennale are a social event, with artists, curators, dealers, critics, collectors in the city to see art – and each other.

Roman Abramovich's yacht is moored not far away, and Elton John has pitched up to see an exhibition hosted by Ukrainian oligarch Victor Pinchuk.

Each night sees a baffling array of parties, from prosecco-fuelled celebrations to discreet dinners. Do Prada and Bertelli enjoy the exclusive social scene enjoyed by the world's wealthiest collectors?

Prada replies with a laugh: "I have succeeded in going to not one single party at the Venice Biennale."

On this, at last, they agree: "Our social life," says Bertelli, "is not very sparkling."


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Venice Biennale's far pavilions – in pictures

It's the eve of the 54th Venice Biennale. As the national pavilions get ready to fling open their doors, we bring you a glimpse of the worlds they contain ...



Venice Biennale: where they sup with the devil

The Venice Biennale is where you see the art world for what it is – in all its monstrousness and magnificence

I was standing in Piazza San Giacometto nursing a Campari soda at the Scottish party for Karla Black, and someone said to an old hand, who'd been coming to Venice Biennales since the 1970s, "Has the Venice Biennale changed?" And he said "Yes, and everything about it is worse."

Back in those days, the world of contemporary art was for the large part a backwater enjoyed by those with an eccentric taste for obscurity. Today, it is anything but. The opening days of the Venice Biennale are a kind of extreme distillation of what the artworld has become. Yes, there is art, masses of it, more than ever, too much of it to absorb: "looking" is often downgraded to "clocking". Some of it's astonishing, some of it mediocre and some (I found myself ungratefully thinking after a 12-hour day when I was in the wrong end of the Arsenale from home) a monumental waste of space. There are 89 national pavilions, and countless "collateral events", and museum openings and gallery shows and projects and private collections and on it goes. Finding the good stuff, the heart-stopping stuff, is exciting, and also a bit of a slog. (But, for help, may I refer you to Frieze's excellent on-the-spot blogs, and add that a personal highlight is the Polish pavilion.)

Then there are the people. Artists, of course. Curators, critics. Journalists. More and more and more, collectors. All in a big, and yet at the same time rather small, crowd. This is the part where it gets weird. As a perfectly normal person whose ordinary life does not involve watching the gondoliers polish their boats from one's balcony (which is what I did when I woke up this morning) I was at a party last night thrown by oligarch Victor Pinchuk to support his Future Generation art prize. There he is, just over there, the 300th richest man in the world (or whatever). And in this palazzo this morning was his friend Elton John ("He looked like he was made of wax," said a witness) who bought one of the pieces in the Future Generation exhibition. And over here, is that nice young (and very good) British artist Emily Wardill, whose work is in the show. And there's Tim Marlow, him off the telly (also, director of exhibitions at White Cube). And on it goes. All the possible bits of the artworld crushed into one small Venetian garden, where it is beginning to rain on the food prepared by the specially flown-in Ukrainian chefs.

In other words, here at the Venice Biennale there is absolutely no escaping what a strange and sometimes monstrous thing the art world has become. There again, it's probably no worse than 15th-century Florence or 16th-century Rome.


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June 01 2011

Tank turned into treadmill adds theatre to US Venice Biennale entry

Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla's work also includes real life athletes and a Freedom statue replica in a sunbed

The Venice Biennale – aside from being the single most significant international gathering for the visual arts – is a theatrical event. With 89 national exhibitions competing for attention, spectacle is part of the point.

This year, the spectacle that is wowing the crowds is the huge upturned tank outside the American pavilion in the Giardini di Castello, which has been "repurposed" into a treadmill. At regular intervals, a runner, affiliated to the national athletics body US Track and Field, ascends the tank and runs on the treadmill, causing the tank's wheels to turn – noisily and impotently.

This is the work of the partners, in life and work, of Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla. Allora was born in Pennsylvania, Calzadilla in Havana. Whereas previous biennales have seen the US fielding its titanic artistic figures – Ed Ruscha, Bruce Naumann – Allora and Caldazilla are in their 30s, far from household names (though Tate owns examples of their work), and are based not in mainland US, but in Puerto Rico.

And in fact, according to Allora, nor is the tank American. Rather, it is a Centurion, a British tank purchased from a collector in Bury – "because US tanks aren't declassified," she said.

Inside the pavilion the spectacle continues. "There is a replica of the statue of Freedom that sits on the US Capitol Building, lying horizontally in a tanning bed," said Calzadilla, "Then there are wooden replicas of business class seats from Delta and American Airlines, rendered in wood and recalling painted wooden icons".

These wooden seats are also stage: they become the apparatus for displays by athletes from US Gymnastics, the sport's national governing body. On the first busy press day of the biennale, queues were already forming far outside in the drizzle to see the gymnasts' routines, one of the biennale's talking-points. Using the American Airlines seat replicas as if a pommel horse, the male gymnast leaped and vaulted elegantly over what had become his apparatus, executing handstands on the armrest and cartwheeling over the reclining seat. Visitors observed the gymnast's sheer physical effort from close quarters – his arms trembling from the effort, the sweat pouring from his brow.

The Venice Biennale may be jokingly thought of as the Olympics of the art world, but rarely has it been so literally true: Olympic gold medallist Dan O'Brien is one of the runners in the opening week, and Chellsie Memmel, who won a silver in 2008, is among the gymnasts.

According to Allora, to her "shock and surprise" the athletes and gymnasts have been enthusiastic about the project. "The gymnasts have been in training for six months and have been talking about it as if it is their new event. They've been approaching it in a rigorous way."

The work is, you might say, an investigation of different ways of flying. According to Allora: "We are playing with simple associations: the relation between air travel and the way nations project themselves; the way air travel is bound up in notions of class, comfort, leisure, business. Airlines say a lot about culture and nations. With the airline seats and the gymnasts, we are representing two different expressions of what 'air travel' can be."

The final piece of drama in the pavilion is a custom-made pipe organ combined with a functioning ATM. As you withdraw your euros, a disconcerting burst of churchy organ music is generated through the PIN – the algorithms of the ATM interacting with the algorithms set up by the couple's collaborating composer, Jonathan Bailey. This work, like the others in the exhibition, puts together two apparently conflicting elements – music and a cash machine – and allows, says Calzadilla, "the systems to intertwine".

"We are not being critical of America," said Calzadilla, "but we are being critical. We are asking, what is a treadmill, a tank, a tanning bed, business-class travel. We are trying to make them strange – and make people see them in a new way."

Allora and Calzadilla are at the American pavilion, Giardini di Castello, from Saturday until 27 November.


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Venice Biennale - in pictures

From holy smoke to an upturned army tank doubling as a treadmill, we sneak a peek at Venice's best bits as the annual art exposition kicks off



The luminous art of Venice

Magic veils of light are the artistic and architectural essence of Venice, so ILLUMINations is an apt title for the 54th Biennale

You certainly can't accuse this year's Venice Biennale of ignoring the history of the city that has twinkled on the Venetian lagoon since the early middle ages. Not only is the great 16th-century Venetian painter Tintoretto actually included in the 54th Biennale, but its title, ILLUMINations, surely gestures towards the city's churches and palaces, where majestic works by Tintoretto and other Renaissance artists weave magic veils of light. Tintoretto's light is part of a Venetian tradition of illumination that is both scientific, in the way it exploits optical effects, and profoundly mystical.

So if you are in Venice and want to see some of the city's most astonishing "illuminations", to join the dots historically with this year's Biennale theme, here are some suggestions.

To start at the beginning, at the heart of Venetian history, the golden mosaics inside St Mark's Basilica offer one of the richest optical fascinations anywhere on Earth. Here is art that perfectly complements nature. Myriad tiny tesserae reflect and refract light that enters through arched windows high in the building. So subtle is the workmanship of these medieval mosaics that you do not simply coo at bright, glittering light. Some of the most powerful effects come from the way the glassy mosaics can hold even a mild, waning light to create smoky, nocturnal moods. Over the course of a day, in changing sunlight from outside and in different parts of the curved ceilings, the effects are truly – well, illuminating.

But the Venetian love affair with light was not confined to the church. Palaces too were designed to maximise magical lighting effects. The convention for a Venetian Renaissance palace – you can see examples all over the city – was to have a long central room lit by a row of windows looking out on to the open space of a piazza or canal. Sunshine pours into these windows and richly, delicately, interacts with the space behind them. A more exquisite and rare exploitation of contrasts of light and shadow can be savoured at the Ca'd'Oro on the Grand Canal, where the courtyard is floored with patterns of multicoloured marble whose cool greens and pinks are highlighted by constantly changing patterns of sunlight from the windows on to the canal and the open part of the courtyard (most of which is actually below the palace, like a luxurious cave.)

These are examples of the visual dramas that architecture, mosaics and pavements create in Venice. Painters in the Renaissance responded daringly to such settings. How can a painting compete with a majestically illuminated interior? By being even more luminous. The greatest painting in Venice is surely Titian's Assumption altarpiece in the church of the Frari. It is set against an arched Gothic window that glows with sunlight, and Titian's golden painted heaven, into which Mary ascends, matches and merges with this natural glory. This is one of the most melting visions in the whole of art, somehow looking forward to Monet's Nympheas even as it looks backward to the dazzling Byzantine treasures that Venice brought back from the Fourth Crusade.

Giorgione's early 16th-century masterpiece The Tempest, in the Accademia Gallery, delights in the pregnant blue light just before a storm strikes in northern Italy – a darkling light that can appear out of blue skies in Venice and the Veneto and which has a cool beauty all of its own. The single stroke of luminous yellow with which Giorgione conjures a flash of lightning is a burst of brilliance that rivals Titian.

If the race to see all the Biennale has to offer makes it impractical to see these wonders, just stop a moment to watch sunlight playing on the lagoon. The lights that flicker and fizz through the art of Venice probably originate with artists who savoured the endlessly changing beauty of light on water in their city. Monet would capture these effects in his paintings of Venice. The truth is that everywhere you go in this city, you will find illuminations.


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May 31 2011

UK Venice Biennale entry 'avoids Britishness'

Installation by two-time Turner prize nominee Mike Nelson plunges viewers into dusty Turkish caravanserai

It has taken the artist Mike Nelson 13 weeks, with a handful of helpers and a team of Moldovan builders, to transform the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale and make it completely unrecognisable, including giving the building several temporary domes on the roof.

Nelson‚ twice nominated for the Turner prize, never the winner, has finally been accorded that other mark of British artworld stardom: representing the UK at Venice, the largest, most established and still the most significant event in the international art calendar.

Nelson's already much talked-about installation, which opens to the public this Saturday, takes the visitor through the front door of the elegant, colonnaded 19th-century former tearoom that forms Britain's official pavilion and plunges them into a disorienting, dusty, crepuscular world full of labyrinthine passages, false walls and shoulder-hunchingly low ceilings.

The Venice Biennale – in which 89 countries, 12 more than in 2009, are officially competing for the Golden Lion for the best exhibition – is inescapably nationalist, and, as new countries join, including this year Iraq and Saudi Arabia, tends to reflect the tidal creep of geopolitics. Nelson, perhaps wisely, sidesteps the Olympian aspect of proceedings by having absolutely nothing to say about Britain or Britishness.

Instead, he has transformed the pavilion into a meticulously re-created version of a Turkish caravanserai, Istanbul's Büyük Valide Han. It was built in 1651 as a rest house for travellers, with storage and sleeping quarters built around a central courtyard. By the 21st century, the building had become a muddled but lively accretion of artisans' workshops, and in 2003 Nelson made an installation there for the Istanbul Biennale.

To re-create the space, Nelson spent 10 days sourcing materials, such as window-grilles and handmade doors, from Istanbul.

In many ways it is a characteristic work by Nelson – the visitor opens the door to the exhibition space and seems to slip into another world, with claustrophobic rooms apparently recently vacated by their former inhabitants. There is a chandelier-maker's workshop with a heap of glass baubles piled on a table; carpenters' tools lie on a workbench as if just put down; an improvised bed with rumpled blankets as if for a migrant worker; and there is a grubby little shower room with an extractor fan whirring away. Under the dome lie, says Nelson, the "debris of an old weaving loom".

Eschewing the idea of transforming the exterior of the building – as many artists do for the event, often working against the nationalist architecture of their pavilions, such as Russia's onion domes and the US's neoclassical mini-White House – Nelson likened the installation to a dodgy old paperback bound in smart hardcovers. "At first I was interested in doing something on the exterior of the building but that I decided it would be too theme-parkish," he said.

It is political, he said, only "with a small P" and he did not wish visitors to come away having immersed themselves in the complex histories he is investigating. "Art doesn't have to be read at the moment you visit it. It can have a drip effect," he said. He called the work "a large sculpture you can walk inside".

The Venice Biennale is both the tribal meeting place of the international art world, and the event that, more than any other, points the way to the future of contemporary art.

New participants include Andorra, the People's Republic of Bangladesh, and Haiti. Those returning after an extended absence include India, Congo, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Cuba.

Each biennale also includes a large "international exhibition" sited in the Italian pavilion of Venice's Giardini and the city's disused arsenal. This year, the exhibition, Illuminations is curated by Bice Curiger, and includes work by British artists Ryan Gander and Haroon Mirza. As well as the pavilions in the Giardini, artists representing other countries not in competition are dotted throughout the city. Wales is represented by Tim Davies and Scotland by Karla Black.


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Venice Biennale: Mike Nelson's British Pavilion – review

The British installation is a convincing fictional world – but the best part is re-emerging into reality

Mike Nelson's work buries the British Pavilion at Venice and transfigures it, with grimy corridors, old doors from Istanbul junkyards, mouldering timber beams, the artist's familiar piles of junk. There are abandoned workshops and corners mired in filth.

The transformation is complete: we are elsewhere, between cultures and between times, in a wholly believable fictional reality. It is a mental as well as physical architecture. But whose place is this? Perhaps we are in a house shared by an artisan at the end of his days (and at the end of his tether), a local photographer who has lost the plot, endlessly re-photographing his run-down neighbourhood, and a character from one of Orphan Pamuk's historical novels. Who knows?

Nelson's work is as filled with unsifted layers of association as it is with the physical evidence of unlived lives. The artist (pictured right) has not only translocated and expanded a work he made for the Istanbul Biennale in 2003, but given us a prosaic ruin. We pass through room after room, discovering a pair of startling, domed top-lit spaces which it is hard to believe are not entirely real. But nothing is.

Even tracking through the be-grimed spaces with numerous other, well-dressed denizens of the international art world, all as intent on keeping their clothes clean as looking at the work, one passes through Nelson's labyrinth as if no other visitor has penetrated this forgotten place for decades. That's the magic of it.

But I tire of Nelson's endless dilapidation. It is the falsest thing about what he does, and ends up terribly mannered, a kind of modern picturesque. Nelson's repetitious inner world constantly consumes and regurgitates itself. Everything he has ever done is all of a piece. The best moment comes at the end, as you stumble into a courtyard surrounded by high walls and blind windows, exterior staircases leading nowhere, with a square of blue Venetian sky above. It's a relief.


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Karla Black: 'Don't call my art feminine'

In the Palazzo Pisani, Glasgow-based Turner prize contender sculpts cosmetics into peach and pistachio 'cave paintings'

In the 15th-century Palazzo Pisani, Karla Black has made the kind of work that whets the appetite for the Turner prize, the award she is tipped to win this December: boulder-size bundles of sugar paper chalked over in shades of peach and pistachio and bedecked with talcous mounds of plaster powder; sheets of paper sprayed with fake tan; and balsa wood painted with eyeshadow. In one series of rooms, the floors are scattered with soil on which sit industrial-size cubes of soap from toiletries chain Lush, a sponsor of the exhibition.

Don't, though, whatever you do, call this apparent onrush of girliness feminine. She finds this description of her art disgusting. "It is ridiculous and annoying," she says. "Why do people call it feminine? Because it is light, fragile, pale? Because it is weak, impermanent? When you start going to work on it you realise how ridiculous the description is. How can a work of art be feminine?"

It is certainly Black's year. Aside from being the insiders' favourite, neck and neck with painter George Shaw, to win this year's Turner prize, as Scotland's representative at the Venice Biennale she has been thrust on to the largest and most prestigious international stage for art.

Though not an official participating country – Mike Nelson represents the UK in the Biennale proper, eligible to win the Golden Lion for the best national exhibition – this is the fifth time Scotland has staged its own "collateral" show, an increasingly important platform for the nation's artists. Martin Boyce, fielded by Scotland in 2009, is also shortlisted for the Turner prize.

Her sculpture, Black says, is absolutely non-representational. "There is no image, no metaphor," she says. Rather, the point is the sculpture's sheer materiality, its heft and presence and fact of being in the world as it confronts the viewer. The use of materials gleaned from Boots' cosmetics counter, she explains, is not a kind of feminist critique of sculpture – "though I am a feminist". It is, she says, not as simple as that: "When I am spraying fake tan on paper I am actually thinking of people making cave paintings. They would hold the colour in their mouth and spit it out: that was the first spray paint."

This autumn, Black will be preparing for her Turner prize exhibition at the Baltic centre for contemporary art, Gateshead. Having been far from a household name, she will be pushed out into the public gaze, her work seen by thousands and pored over by the media. "I'm pleased," she said. "But I am keeping my head down. I have a lot of work to do and I am concentrating on it. Next year it will all be over, and it will be someone else's turn."

Karla Black is at the Palazzo Pisani (S Marina), Calle de le Erbe, Cannaregio 6103, Venice, from Saturday until 27 November


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