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Venice Biennale: where they sup with the devil

3 June 2011

The Venice Biennale is where you see the artworld 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 artworld has become. There again, it's probably no worse than 15th-century Florence or 16th-century Rome.

Author: Charlotte Higgins