The Knowledge

Who To Spot At The Venice Biennale

A roundup of the industry heavyweights to look for at this year’s art fair

  • The Corderie Arsenale, Venice. Photograph by Mr Giulio Squillacciotti. Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

One might well question the wisdom of setting the notoriously dissolute art world loose in a city known for its negronis, and fretted with open bodies of water. But so it is. Every two years, Venice hosts the world’s oldest, and arguably most important, celebration of contemporary art. Sane people can visit the Biennale any time from May to November, but collectors, curators, advisors, critics, artists and other art-world insiders descend on the city from 10 May for five days of booze-fuelled opening parties and sober, early-morning private views conducted from behind dark sunglasses.

Founded in 1895 as a celebration of Italian and international art, the Venice Biennale soon included national representations of art alongside the main exhibition. By the outbreak of WWI, Belgium, Hungary, Germany, Great Britain, France and Russia had all erected permanent exhibition pavilions in the Giardini di Castello. This year, alongside Viva Arte Vita, the ambitious Biennale exhibition curated by Ms Christine Macel of the Pompidou Centre, and the 85 national pavilions, a city-wide parallel programme of events will tackle subjects ranging from climate change to Brexit and the Russian Revolution.

Here, MR PORTER highlights the people to look out for from your gondola.

The modern surrealist: Mr Pierre Huyghe

  • Mr Pierre Huyghe, Cologne, 2014. Photograph by Ullstein Bild/

Was it the skeletal white dog with the bright pink leg, or the masked monkey dressed as a waitress? The hermit crab crawling through its aquarium wearing a Mr Constantin Brâncuși sculpture as a shell, or the classical statue with a head made from a nest of live bees? Thanks in part to his cohort of animal collaborators, French artist Mr Pierre Huyghe’s work certainly sticks in the memory. We generally avoid hyperbolic terms such as “leading artist of his generation”, but Mr Huyghe is the real deal. In the past decade or so, the venues for exhibitions of his work read like a checklist of the world’s greatest museums: LACMA, Los Angeles; Tate Modern, London; Pompidou Centre, Paris; Guggenheim Museum, New York; Reina Sofía, Madrid; Moderna Museet, Stockholm… The list goes on.

In part, Mr Huyghe’s power lies in his knack of approaching coming concerns side-on, among them the philosophical issues that arise from the instinct to attribute human thoughts and feelings to both animals and blank avatars. In part, too, it comes from an embrace of chance encounter and unscripted experiences. “If there are accidents, things I don’t control, changing dynamics, then the exhibition evolves as an organism – and then being there is also a moment where I myself discover things, and that is very important to me,” he says.

Where to find him: The Fondation Louis Vuitton is celebrating Mr Huyghe throughout this year. Running concurrently with the Biennale, Espace Louis Vuitton Venice will show A Journey That Wasn’t (2005), Creature (2005-2011) and Silence Score (1997)

The curator: Mr Pablo León de la Barra

  • Mr Pablo Léon de la Barra, New York, 2014. Photograph by Mr Kris McKay. Courtesy Solomon R Guggenheim Foundation

Back when people still wrote and read blogs, Mr Pablo León de la Barra’s prolific postings on his Centre For The Aesthetic Revolution site provided an invaluable window into buzzy creative scenes beyond Europe and the US. Today, as the man with his finger on the pulse of art and wider cultural matters in the Caribbean and Latin America, he’s much in demand as a speaker, selector and all-round expert as well as an exhibition maker.

An increasingly ubiquitous presence on the international scene as a curator, Mr de la Barra’s name has been linked to institutions and events from Rio de Janeiro’s Casa França-Brasil to the Sydney Biennial. He sits on the advisory committees of the Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation in Miami, and the Fundación Luis Barragán in Mexico, but his fanciest hat is as specialist curator for the Solomon R Guggenheim Foundation, responsible for the Latin American segment of its Global Art Initiative. As his listing on ArtReview magazine’s “Power 100” puts it, “the art of Latin American flows through this curator”.

Where to find him: at the Pavilion of Mexico, where this Mexico City native is curating a show of work by Mr Carlos Amorales

The film maker: Mr John Waters

  • Mr John Waters, Los Angeles, 2013. Photograph by Mr Billy Farrell/ REX Shutterstock

Proving that portfolio careers aren’t just for MBA graduates, film director Mr John Waters has diversified his output considerably since the gross-out golden period of his movies Pink Flamingos (1972) and Female Trouble (1974). There’s been the one-man stage show This Filthy World, his attempt to hitchhike across the US, documented in the book Carsick (2004), a collection of profiles and interviews published under the title Role Models (2010) and, this September, Camp John Waters, an adult summer camp that invites you to experience Hairspray karaoke, scotch and cigars and other “favourite camp activities” alongside the pencil-moustached one himself.

There has also, since the early 1990s, been art, most of it, like Mr Waters’ movies, trampling the line betwixt good and bad taste, high and low culture: an S&M baby buggy, grotesquely Photoshopped images of celebrities, a mocked-up cover of a gossip magazine featuring Ms Joan Didion in a swimsuit. At a moment when, for example, the artist Mr Jordan Wolfson is applauded for a CGI animation of Huckleberry Finn urinating into his own mouth, one might argue that it’s the art world that has moved towards Mr Waters, rather than vice versa.

Where you’ll find him: in the main Biennale exhibition Viva Arte Viva, where his work is part of the official selection

The aural artist: Mr Cevdet Erek

  • Mr Cevdet Erek, Istanbul, 2016. Photograph by Mr Volkan Kiziltunc. Courtesy of IKSV

Artist Mr Cevdet Erek plays the drums in a band called Nekropsi (which means autopsy), which is probably all the warning you need not to expect anything too fluffy from this Istanbul-based artist. Having trained first as an architect, Mr Erek went on to study sound design, and has since developed an artistic practice that draws on the interplay of built space and audio. He channelled his various areas of interest into art-making following a period studying at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam in 2005, and his work has been the subject of solo exhibitions across Europe in the past 10 years.

Mr Erek is still writing, recording and performing as a musician, and his work was last represented in Venice at the Film Festival rather than the art Biennale. In 2015 he composed the music for Mr Emin Alper’s movie Frenzy, which won the festival’s Special Jury Prize. In the same year, he staged a performance of Mr John Cage’s notorious sound work 4’33” in a disused Istanbul car park, free and open to all, including cats and dogs. An intellectual, maybe, but not a snob.

Where to find him: at the Turkish Pavilion, where he will be presenting his transformative sound and space work ÇIN, which turns the exhibition space into a complex acoustic chamber in a structure reminiscent both of football terraces and ancient auditoria

The artist: Mr Mark Bradford

  • Mr Mark Bradford, Los Angeles, 2014. Photograph by Mr Billy Farrell/ REX Shutterstock

A recipient of both a MacArthur Foundation Genius Award (in 2009) and the US State Department Medal of the Arts (2015), Mr Mark Bradford has come a long way since he was styling hair at his mother’s salon in Mid-City, Los Angles. Still, it paid for him to spend half of each year making his way around Europe in his twenties, to achieve a scholarship to the prestigious CalArts at the age of 30, and to support himself when he graduated in 1997. It also inspired one of the most significant departures in his work. In 2001, Mr Bradford did two paintings using the small rectangular end papers that are used for wrapping clients’ hair when it is permed. He stuck them across the canvas in a grid pattern. The paintings were sizeable – the largest was nearly 4m wide – and sold to a local collector straight out of the studio.

Later that year, Mr Bradford’s work was included in Freestyle, an exhibition of “post-black art” at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Since then, he’s been making up for lost time. Speaking to The New Yorker, art advisor Ms Amy Cappellazzo described the market for his work as “white-hot at all levels”. His vast abstract canvases, many built up with multiple layers of Shellacked paper that are then etched into with a power sander, now net seven-figure sums. Mr Bradford funnels revenue from sales of his work into Art + Practice, a private foundation that focuses on “contemporary art and social justice and community activism” in Leimert Park, LA, which he runs with his partner, Mr Allan DiCastro.

Where you’ll find him: at the US Pavilion, where his artistic and social interests are entwined in a suite of new works entitled Tomorrow Is Another Day

The visual artist: Mr Shezad Dawood

  • Mr Shezad Dawood, Venice, 2017. Photo by Mr Bart Sienkiewicz/UBIK Productions

Not short of ambition, east London-based artist Mr Shezad Dawood is preparing to launch Leviathan, a 10-part film project that interweaves themes of migration, mental health, democracy and sea monsters, all set in a post-cataclysmic future in which much of the world’s population has mysteriously committed suicide. Mr Dawood’s affection for B movies may inform Leviathan’s aesthetic, but the project’s content has been developed in collaboration with engineers and biologists at Venice’s Institute of Marine Sciences, which will showcase the first parts of the cycle in its old headquarters at the waterfront Palazzina Canonica.

A series of Mr Dawood’s paintings, executed on precious Fortuny fabrics, that show artefacts taken from the sea around Lampedusa by forensic anthropologists from the University of Milan will also be on display. Pictures of children’s shoes and life-vests, talismans and sachets of earth from migrants’ home territories vie for attention against the richly patterned cloth samples, some of which will be seeded among the textile displays at the Fortuny showroom in Venice.

Where to find him: Mr Dawood has organised a “garden salon” outside the Palazzina Canonica, which will host talks by marine scientists, environmentalists and NGOs working on topics related to migration

The collector: Mr François Pinault

  • Mr François Pinault, Venice, 2009. Photograph by Mr Eric Vandeville/Gamma Rapho

Founder and now major shareholder and honourary chair of Kering, the group behind luxury brands including Gucci, Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen and Saint Laurent, Mr François Pinault also owns one of the largest private contemporary art collections in the world. After some 30 years of collecting, in 2000 Mr Pinault embarked on a project to open a permanent home for the works in the old Renault factories on the Île Seguin in the Parisian suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt. Five years later, he announced that impediments placed in front of the project had made it impossible, and that he had, instead, secured two spectacular buildings in Venice as exhibition sites for the Pinault Foundation. 

Centrally located, the Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana have maintained an important presence for contemporary art in this ancient city since they opened in 2006 and 2009, with major group shows as well as exhibitions dedicated to Mr Irving Penn and Mr Sigmar Polke. Last year, Mr Pinault announced that, all being well, he would finally be able to fulfil his dream of opening a permanent site in Paris to show his collection and that his foundation had taken over the city’s old Bourse de Commerce building.

Where to find him: Mr Pinault’s Venice spaces are currently home to Mr Damien Hirst’s Treasures From The Wreck Of The Unbelievable, an art stunt on an epic scale

The art dealer: Mr Axel Vervoordt

  • Mr Axel Vervoordt, Venice, 2009. Photograph by Mr JP Gabriel. Courtesy of Axel Vervoordt Company

As an appreciator of beautiful things, of hand making and history, Mr Axel Vervoordt seems to want to have it all. The Belgian is not only a celebrated interior designer (Architectural Digest lists the Kardashian-Wests and Messrs Robert De Niro and Calvin Klein as clients and describes him as “one of the world’s most emulated taste­makers”), Mr Vervoordt also deals in antiques, artefacts and masterpieces of 20th-century design. And then there’s the homeware collection, the real-estate development projects and the art galleries in Belgium and Hong Kong

It’s an empire, certainly, but one with an underlying logic. Mr Vervoordt’s connoisseurship may extend over many fields, but at base, whether art, antique, building or bedcover, what attracts him are engaging, often natural or weathered materials, beauty of form and resonant history.

Where to find him: at the Palazzo Fortuny, where Mr Vervoordt and Ms Daniela Ferretti present Intuition, which investigates the world of dreams, meditation, telepathy, creative power and inspiration through historic, modern and contemporary artworks

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