BY Linda Yablonsky in Features | 19 APR 22
Featured in
Issue 226

Linda Yablonsky’s Biennale Social Primer

The writer shares her tips for how to navigate the opening week bustle

BY Linda Yablonsky in Features | 19 APR 22

1. It’s inevitable. Sometime during the preview days of the Venice Art Biennale, usually late at night, someone you know will fall into a canal. It’s no big deal. Everyone understands. I remember how, in 2011, the black eye that art dealer Michele Maccarone sported after such a tumble seemed more a badge of honour than a mark of humiliation. Better you than me was the feeling. It can happen to anyone, even the sober – if there are any.

2. Another sure bet: starting on arrival at the airport, you will make new friends. Some may be fellow travellers in the queue for lost luggage. In 2007, Sherri Geldin, then director of the Wexner Center for the Arts, had to improvise her evening wear to attend the dinner for Francesco Vezzoli and Giuseppe Penone, the artists featured in Italy’s just-renovated national pavilion. Luckily, Venice has even more shops than museums. Geldin ran out for a black sheath at the Prada store – a fortuitous purchase, as it turned out: Vezzoli had seated her next to Mrs. Prada. Beside me sat another personal idol, Jeanne Moreau. This was my first Biennale as a journalist. Were they all going to be like this? (Basically, yes.)

Linda Yablonsky at the 53rd Venice Biennale, 2009. Courtesy: the writer
Linda Yablonsky at the 53rd Venice Biennale, 2009. Courtesy: © the writer

3. Each Biennale offers a multitude of opportunities to crash parties for 800 hosted by the likes of François Pinault, and to flex atrophied backdoor muscles honed during the days of Studio 54. That said, if you need an invitation, a table or a water taxi and you haven’t cultivated a friendship with Amy Cappellazzo, good luck.

4. Actually, there is no FOMO in Venice. No matter how many parties you lack invitations to, you can catch everyone you missed, and too many you didn’t, on the terrace of the Bauer or in a corner of that shoebox nightclub near the Peggy Guggenheim, Piccolo Mondo, where art dealers and curators let their hair down really, really low.

Pinault's private dinner at the Fondazione Cini during the 52nd annual Biennale June 8, 2007 in Venice, Italy. (Photo by Elisabetta Villa/Getty Images)
Francois Pinault’s private dinner at the Fondazione Cini during the 52nd Venice Biennale, 2007. Courtesy: © Getty Images; photograph: Elisabetta Villa

5. Among the hidden treasures of Venice are immense, private gardens behind such places as the Fortuny shop on the Giudecca, where Marian Goodman always holds a cocktail. There’s also the island of La Certosa, a boat-building paradise where a dinner might be set within a 12th-century ruin in sight of wild goats and a sandy beach. Do not miss the pleasure of seeing the paintings by Jacopo Tintoretto at a dinner in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, where everyone gets to primp in the mirrors provided for gazing at ceiling paintings, and where a fashion house, perhaps Fendi, will dress guests who aren’t you. This year, the returning honouree may be Cecilia Alemani, who has graduated from curating the Italian pavilion at the 57th Biennale to becoming artistic director of the whole shebang.

6. Because my brief in Venice has always been to cover not just the Biennale and collateral events but as many cocktails, dinners and dance parties as I can find in a single night, what pleasure I take depends almost entirely on the location of my home base. Over the years, I holed up in rooms barely large enough to accommodate a suitcase, in hotels without internet access or air conditioning, and in pensioni flooded by acqua alta. Then, in 2015, the year Danh Vo represented Denmark and curated a show at the Punta della Dogana, he offered me a room in his apartment, close to the Ponte dell’Accademia. Nairy Baghramian was a roommate. Every night, Caroline Bourgeois would drop in with Vo to compare notes with us over a glass of wine. If I hadn’t been suffering from food poisoning, I would have enjoyed it even more.

Mark Bradford speaks at the USA Pavilion during the 57th Venice Biennale, 2017. Courtesy: © Getty Images; photograph: Awakening
Mark Bradford speaks at the USA Pavilion during the 57th Venice Biennale, 2017. Courtesy: © Getty Images; photograph: Awakening

7. One night in 2011, I hitched a three-minute water taxi ride from Palazzo Contarini degli Scrigni, where hundreds were waiting impatiently for Courtney Love to perform, and alighted at Gagosian’s exclusive dinner for Franz West at Palazzo Contarini Polignac, just as Marianne Faithfull was beginning her set. There, ringside, was Love.

8. That same year, vaporetto drivers picked the opening preview day to go on strike. My walking shoes were worn out, so I took the Geldin option and splurged on a new pair from Prada that almost fit. After a day spent hoofing it in very hot sun, my blistered feet were killing me. Now, finally, a decade later, I wear those shoes every day, to compliments from passersby. The lesson: when in Venice, be flexible, of mild temper and don’t limit yourself to art.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 226 with the headline ‘Cocktails and Collateral’. For additional coverage of the 59th Venice Biennale, see here.

Main image: Paintings by Jacopo Tintoretto at Scuola Grande di San Rocco, 2019. Courtesy: © Getty Images; photograph: Marco Bertorello/AFP

Linda Yablonsky is a writer based in New York City USA, and the author of The Story of Junk