When the Venice Biennale began back in the Victorian era, Britain ruled the waves and so ruled the Biennale. Thus the British pavilion is splendidly sited at the top of the large gardens that host the jamboree, while the American pavilion is out on the edges. China doesn't get into the park at all. If you're a Brit in Venice in June you can walk tall. This highlight of the art world calendar is a celebration every other year of the most cutting-edge art from all over the world, presented in grandly titled and grand-looking pavilions in the Giardini, acres of gardens a vaporetto ride from St Mark's Square.
The nations who weren't doing enough in Victorian times to have a permanent presence in the Giardini find alternative accommodation around Venice. It remains the most political of all art gatherings. In 1974 it was given over entirely to the art of Chile in protest at the Pinochet regime. There is always nostalgic talk of that and of the cultural protests of 1968, just as there is seldom, if ever, talk among our Italian hosts of the 1930s, when the running of the Venice Biennale was directed from the office of Sgnr Mussolini.
Like all good festivals, the Biennale has a fringe, the Aperto, housed in a series of waterside warehouses called the Arsenale. Hats off this year to a group of young London artists who have cheekily confused visitors to Venice by nicking the word "pavilion" to set up the Peckham Pavilion.
And as with most gatherings of the art world, the actual art is only part of the picture. The art world, perhaps more than the leaders of any other art form, know how to play. They certainly know how to party.
It was ever thus. The sculptor Sir Anthony Caro, who was Britain's representative in 1966, recalls: "There was a holiday spirit. We'd all go out in the evenings and get pretty drunk. One day, the British Council took us to Torcello, an extraordinary little island, which has a very ancient church on it. I remember the Council's boat sank, which was rather fun." They don't do fun like that anymore. Nor always is there a party like that put on by Bloomberg when the magnate decided to host a shindig for Mark Wallinger's exhibition. He simply bought up an uninhabited island near Venice, ferried guests out in a boat laden with champagne, and how their jaws dropped as they disembarked on the island with fairy lights illuminating the way across it. The Americans always do it in style, holding a party this year the Peggy Guggenheim museum. Step on to the rooftop terrace and you see the view that Canaletto saw.
It's a sign of the changing face of the Biennale that the other country holding its party there is the United Arab Emirates. It's the first year that any of the Emirates has been at the Biennale. And they are here in force. For the real money this year, and much of the art, look East. Roman Abramovich's girlfriend, the art dealer Dasha Zhukova is here, "supporting" a Mexican artist Hector Zamora, who has bombarded Venice with postcards of an imagined flying Zeppelin invasion of the city. Support means not just dazzling the paparazzi at a champagne reception for the artist. It means cash.
The hot ticket, as far as parties go, is for the Ukrainian pavilion. The curator is, unusually among art history boffins, a former heavyweight boxing champion. There was, it is said, an extremely heated artistic disagreement between him and a high profile London art dealer at the Ukrainian party at the last biennale, at which the entertainment (or the other entertainment) came from Elton John. Whether the Ukrainian tycoon Viktor Pinchuk , who is funding this year's shindig, can match that, we shall see, though there were reports that Elton was again going to turn up and with George Michael in tow. Certainly the venue, the lavish Palazzo Pappadoppoli on the Grand Canal is promising. .
The British Council hired the magnificent Palazzo Pisani Moretta, with Gothic mullioned windows, a sweeping baroque staircase, great Venetian art onthe walls, and presumably a bill that taxpayers will forgive in the name of British art. Rivalry for parties and party venues is as strong as any artistic rivalry. And it is not just nation states that like to show off. Individual collectors do too. The Belgian collector Axel Vervoodt is holding his soiree in the Palazzo Fortuny, named after the Venetian fashion designer and inventor of pleats. Some of the works he owns were scattered around the party last night, an Anish Kapoor here, a Francis Bacon there. The art itself can indeed be both provocative and, to use that awful word, relevant.
I was struck by a group showing of art from Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Where would you expect those three countries to mount their show in Venice? Well, you couldn't make it up, but yes it is in the old Jewish Quarter (though that fact is absent from their invitations). The show itself is designed to counter perceptions in the West that these three counties are synonymous with terrorism. Khosrow Hassanzadeh from Iran has on display a series called "Terrorist", which features giant domestic portraits of his mother and sister. The point is made, and it illustrates how the Biennale can be used to further not just understanding of art, but understanding between countries, at least those which don't employ former heavyweight boxing champions as cultural ambassadors.
But let not that, or Steve McQueen's installation in the British Pavilion, give the impression that the Biennale is synonymous with good art. Venice every other year is also the place to marvel at countries that go out of their way to blunt the cutting edge. I did not think that much could rank below America's video art entry of a few years ago, Bill Viola in his shower on continuous loop. But this week there were some things to send one home screaming. In several cases the art was not helped by the bombastic explanations that accompanied it.
At the Russian Pavilion we were told by a representative of the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation the true meaning of the artwork on show, "Victory over the Future". He said: "Victory as a phenomenon has an endless number of philosophical, culturological, ethical and artistic interpretations. Victory is also an existential and emotional state, one of the primary determinants of the behaviour of each individual and society as a whole.
The artists involved refer to personal artistic experience and Russian avant-garde traditions deeply rooted in contemporary Russian art, creating their own artistic cosmos through their problematisation and metaphorisation of the theme "victory over the future". Too much information! After that the art itself is bound to be an anti-climax. The small collection of absurdist drawings by Moscow's Paval Pepperstein did not stand much of a chance after that.
Steve McQueen's film installation was much praised, but it was evident that the Cannes award winner is as much a film director as visual artist. He liked his art to start on time, and latecomers were not admitted. One of those I saw being denied access was the director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
The Welsh entry by John Cale, rock star of 40 years ago, with screens going blank for periods on end was praised rather less, though it was good to see Cale himself appear at the end. But presumably this is not part of the artwork, unless he intends to appear every day for the next six months.
There was no contest for what was the most talked about work. It was the Nordic pavilion, made to look like the apartment of a louche collector. Pretty boys lounged about, one completely naked and rather well-endowed. Outside, a boy, this one thankfully not real, lay face down in a swimming pool.
The exhibit really started next door in the Danish pavilion with a surreal tour by an estate agent, "here's the little girl's room" and opened the door to destruction and burning embers, "Well, it will make a lovely sauna." And then, "let's meet the neighbours..."
The Italian pavilion devoted itself to art from around the world, a pleasing prospect until one came across a wall with instructions from Yoko Ono such as "fly" and "watch the sun until it becomes square" and "Work out what people see in me." Maybe I imagined that last one.
This week those in charge of the pavilions – governments in most cases, the British Council in our case – have put the 2009 Biennale on show to the world's press, gallery directors and art dealers. And at least one change to tradition has been signalled. The chairman of the Biennale is proposing that in future years the Chinese Pavilion moves in among the "conventional venues". Recognition at last that the world order, even the cultural world order, has changed since 1895.
Stephen Deuchar, the head of Tate Britain, told me: "Two years ago I looked at the yachts lining up. This year the recession has bitten. Those bits of vulgarity have gone. Now it's about the art."
Up to a point. The models, beautiful and often Russian, arrive at the hotel terraces on speedboats rather than yachts but they are very much here, and at the more private parties. I attended a couple, one on behalf of the Tate International Council at the home of a private collector, the walls full of Gilbert and George, deChirico, Richter. Another was in the ornate palazzo with its vivid red walls that Lord Byron rented 200 years ago.
It's about the art, but art in the most stylish and uplifting setting, art combined with networking on a grand and sumptuous scale. This week the Biennale has been on show to the world's press, curators, dealers and networkers. From next Monday the Venice Biennale opens to the world's public for six months. Art lovers will see some of the best and little of the worst that contemporary art has to offer. They will, above all, see Venice, which lends enchantment to even the most portentous, bombastic or downright pretentious. A trip on a gondola under the Bridge of Sighs in the evening still has a power to lift the soul that some of the art works may lack. But a trip on a gondola can never, to quote the Minister of Culture of the Russian Federation, lend itself to "philosophical, culturological, ethical and artistic interpretations".
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