The city of Venice brims with so much art that it's easy for culture-seeking travelers to lock themselves away in museums and galleries, admiring the sheer historical breadth of the collections.
During a recent trip to Venice for the opening week of the city's Art Biennale, the oldest and one of the most important international contemporary art exhibitions, I almost overdosed on the cultural offerings. The biennale itself, which runs till November, should not be missed: it is an outstanding sweep of contemporary visual art as well as theatre, dance, cinema and music performances.
The massive exhibition opened on June 10, and the city dressed up for the occasion: Think fuschia reptiles tied to balconies or a giant lace tablecloth draped along a facade of a building. The trip on the waterbus down the Grand Canale also offers views of elaborate architectural facades. At its entrance, the Palazzo Grassi shows off a giant human skull made from stainless-steel pots and pans that twinkle in the sun. Further down the canal, there's a sort of Noah's Ark with painted sails. Just past San Marco square, at the entrance of the Giardini, there's a sculpture of a man leaping into the sea.
Adding a gauche touch of privilege was Ecstasea, the 282-foot sailing vessel (complete with helicopter pad and helicopter) owned by billionaire Roman Abramowicz; it caused quite a stir docked near the Arsenale, not far from the Giardini. But Abramowicz wasn't the only luminary there, of course. The biennale attracted many collectors and celebrities, including Mick Jagger's former wife, Jerry Hall. I spotted the blonde-tressed supermodel and actress, still cool at 51, at the ticket office and waiting patiently in queues at the most popular pavilions.
Though the biennale has exhibitions set up all over Venice and on nearby islands, the most creative installations are concentrated around the Giardini and Arsenale. Many artists this year offered aggressive works that often expressed the horrors of war. Others, like Sophie Calle in the French pavilion, examined more personal dramas. Calle's multimedia project, Take Care of Yourself, pivoted on the end of a romantic relationship. She asked 107 people to interpret a break-up letter that her boyfriend sent her and used their responses for a narrative that is both comic and moving. The commentators included journalists, clowns, psychologists, singers, dancers and even a parrot (which tried to eat the letter). Using photos and videos of this entourage, plus texts of their comments, Calle offered a novel and artful way to deal with a breakup.