Jarvis, Cherie, Henri - and me

You thought the Venice Biennale was just about art? That's not how it looked to Tim Marlow last week
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The Independent Culture
Wednesday: By the time I'd arrived in Venice word had it that Pulp were going to play at the British party on Thursday and that it clashed with a Grandmaster Flash comeback gig. No sight of Jarvis Cocker about the place but Steve Martin and Charles Saatchi were dining together in Harry's bar (the sequel to Dirty Rotten Scoundrels perhaps?).

The Biennale colonises buildings all over Venice but the core is situated in the Giardini di Castello, half a mile east of San Marco near the old naval yards and arsenal. At the Australian pavilion morning coffee had already been ditched in favour of prosecco and a post-pop painter called Howard Arkley had transformed the place into a garish suburban street complete with vivid interiors, a combination of Patrick Caulfield and Neighbours. In the American pavilion, the Gucci sponsors had finished their breakfast and opened the place up to reveal a delicate, sensual and staggeringly expensive installation by Ann Hamilton (two million dollars and counting). Each of the rooms oozed sound and powdered fuchsia pigment from the ceiling which piled up around the edges of the floor and made wispy patterns on the wall. Rumours that the colours were identical to Tom Ford's Gucci summer collection were unfounded but the pigment certainly stained a few pairs of loafers and the odd full-length frock.

Lunchtime in the British pavilion and the first look at Gary Hume's show. It's terrific - bold not brash, and stunning in the Venetian light. Aside from the polar bears, portraits and pin-ups, Gary's become a bit of a twitcher and begun to paint blackbirds and birds' nests. He's also produced a series of monumental, mazy nudes with a hint of art nouveau about them. The combination of these graphic images and the painter himself clad in sun hat and shades proved irresistible to the paparazzi who hadn't milled about in the British pavilion in such frenzy since Princess Diana made an appearance four years ago.

Russia has gone all Desmond Morris on us and is showing paintings by an elephant called Renee and photographs by a chimp called Mikki. The Czech Republic has set up a tattoo parlour in the name of art and is offering free tattoos as if to show that art is for life. The Yugoslavian pavilion - leaving political and humanitarian questions aside - is dreadful: a dreary series of feather paintings flanked by two terracotta towers, "the outcome", so the catalogue informs us, "of the dialogue between Artist and earth". I suppose if the Serbs had produced a political installation they would have been castigated. Instead, that was left to the Austrians in the adjacent building where an artists' collective called Wochenklausur have pamphlets promoting their "Intervention in Educational Opportunities for Kosovo Refugees In Macedonia". This, of course, is admirable, but the thought of being taught by a bunch of Austrian artists drives me to seek refuge in the Belgian pavilion which Ann Veronica Janssens has filled with dry ice and dandelions.

Party time now beckons and tonight is the big one at the Guggenheim along the Grand Canal. The vaporetto is packed and I'm holding on to a beam with a white-haired old man inadvertently nestled into my armpit. Just beyond, I spot art dealer Eric Frank and start chatting. After a couple of minutes he asked me if I'd met his friend Henri, who ducks out from under my arm and smiles. I realise it's Henri Cartier- Bresson. Stunned, I begin to burble and am just gearing up for a question about Bresson's notion of the "decisive moment" in photography when, fortunately for Henri, the boat docks and we are parted in a sea of disembarking passengers. The nearest we get to arts at the Guggenheim party is a Bellini cocktail but the celebrity count is high: Lauren Hutton is looking gorgeous and taking photographs (in that order); David Bailey is lurking in the shadows, and assorted supermodels are draped everywhere. I even spot the odd artist, with the YBAs out in force. But still no Jarvis.

Thursday: The Corderie, an old rope factory, 9.30 am. It used to house the Aperto, the exhibition which launched the international reputations of young artists from Jeff Koons to Damien Hirst, but it has been disbanded for the last two Biennales. This year, the Biennale's Austrian director, Harold Szeemann, is using it to stage what he calls the Apertutti, where international artists young and old show side by side. Amid the crash- bang-wallop of the International Video Tendency, Bruce Nauman looks like an old master. Young American Doug Aitken looks to be this year's rising star with a vast video surveillance-cum-breakdancing extravaganza called Electric Earth. Szeemann is also taking art to the part that other directors haven't reached and there are exhibitions throughout the dilapidated dockyard. After a hefty dose of Tibetan chanting and simulated aeroplane factories, I stumble across the most moving piece in this Biennale to date: Maurizio Catalan, a young Italian, has filled a small cell-like space with sand out of which two praying hands emerge. It takes one a few minutes to realise that these are real and that a living, breathing fakir lies buried beneath the surface.

To the British pavilion, where Cherie Blair is paying a state visit. The news press are very excited by the fact that Cherie and her young daughter, Catherine, were out on the town until 1 o'clock the night before. I don't recall seeing them at the Portuguese party. Back in the Giardini for another drink with the Australians and painter Howard Arkley tells me that Cherie has visited his pavilion and proclaimed it to be the best thing she's seen. So much for New Labour backing Britain.

After hoovering up a few straggling pavilions, I stagger back to change for this evening's big event: the British party in the Palazzo Pisani Moretta overlooking the Grand Canal. Rumours of Pulp turn out not to be fictional and inside a Tiepolo-and-chandelier-clad room, a small stage has been set up fronted by a large Venetian blind. At 11.30, and with lightning flashing through the windows behind him, Jarvis appears.

Even as we left the Palazzo, the 40-minute Pulp set began to take on the status of the "I saw Jimi Hendrix in a pub in Darlington" variety. A post-Pulp night-cap in the Fenice bar with Richard Wentworth, Cathy de Monchaux and others lasts into the early hours because no one wants to brave the pouring rain. Discover that poor Grandmaster were swamped by a Flash flood and the event had been washed out after half an hour.

Friday: The Biennale closes at lunchtime in preparation for today's grand opening, so I'm up early again to get my last art fix. Meander my way to the German pavilion which has proved impossible to see over the past two days because of a door policy limiting the number of visitors at any one time. The queue this morning is remarkably small (collective hangover?), and inside, Rosemarie Trockel has staged an impressive-looking show with the emphasis, initially, on the act of looking itself. The viewer is greeted by a giant eye gazing out from a vast cinema screen. In the room to the right two other video projections depict what looks like a cross between a sanitised and slightly sinister scientific experiment and Woody Allen's Sleeper. In a darkened adjacent room, a handful of camp beds are lined up on which people are sleeping. After a vision of Tilda Swinton at the Serpentine has fleetingly passed through my mind, I too am overwhelmed by the need to sleep. Off to the Lido now to do just that.

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