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Come for the Biennale, Stay for Venice Itself

a building with boats in front of it

David Levene/Eyevine/Redux

The Anish Kapoor Foundation in Venice.

Jeffrey Gibson was returning to his studio last summer after visiting a metal sculpture foundry in upstate New York with a carful of his studio employees. When a call went to voicemail as he drove, the caller followed up with a text to his studio manager, also in the car. “Pull over,” he told Gibson. “You need to take this call.” The much-lauded artist, who is of Cherokee descent and a member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, picked up to find out that he’d made history: He’d be the first Indigenous artist to have a solo show at the Venice Biennale’s U.S. Pavilion. In doing so, he becomes a member of a rarified group of solo exhibitors that includes Jasper Johns and Mark Bradford.

Gibson’s work combines American, Indigenous, and queer histories with influences from fashion and pop culture, often incorporating words, phrases, or lyrics. His exhibition at the Biennale is titled “the space in which to place me” (referencing Oglala Lakota poet Layli Long Soldier’s poem “He Sápa”) and features 32 works, including sculptures, a video installation, and paintings. “We are doing a total transformation of the building and a sculptural installation in the forecourt,” explains Abigail Winograd, commissioner and a curator of this year’s U.S. Pavilion. “It’s going to look like all the things you know about Jeffrey Gibson—pattern, color, text, and performance, and works in a variety of media—and is going to hopefully turn this building into a machine for transformation.”

a man holding a colorful scarf

Menelik Puryear/Sotheby’s

Often called the “Art World Olympics,” the Biennale, founded in 1895, is now in its 60th edition, which will run for seven months, with exhibitions and shows large and small happening throughout the city. There is one Central Pavilion with the main exhibit, which this year will be curated by Adriano Pedrosa, artistic director of Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand in Brazil and the first Latin American to fill the role. Altogether, 88 countries will be represented. It’s an epic undertaking—because there are no cars allowed on the islands of Venice, all art must be brought in via boat in crates that will fit under the area’s many bridges. The Biennale’s opening week typically draws over 20,000 collectors, art-world heavyweights, and others who want in on the action, all converging on islands whose normal year-round population hovers around 50,000. It is estimated that more than 800,000 people will experience the Biennale over the entire course of its run this year. The last art Biennale, in 2022, saw fashion brands including Bottega Veneta, Dior (who tapped Jeffrey Gibson to customize a bag last year), Louis Vuitton, and Valentino hosting events that drew the likes of Julianne Moore, Catherine Deneuve, and Maya Hawke.

a large colorful banner

Christopher Pledger/Eyevine/Redux

House of Spirits,” Jeffrey Gibson’s 2023 installation at the London festival Queer Nature.

Despite significant issues with overcrowding due to tourism, the City of Canals remains alluring to the creative set. “Everyone wants to come here, for the Biennale but also for Venice,” says Karole Vail, director of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation director for Italy. Vail’s grandmother, Peggy Guggenheim, displayed her art collection, which included surrealist, futurist, and cubist pieces, in the Greek Pavilion during the 1948 Biennale. Soon thereafter, she acquired an 18th-century palazzo and filled it with her collection; by 1951, she began opening her palazzo to the public. Today, it’s considered a must-visit destination.

Others have followed suit, turning Venice into a bona fide modern art world mecca. Kering founder François Pinault chose Venice as the only city outside of France to publicly display selections from his personal collection of contemporary art. Fondazione Prada’s sole outpost outside of Milan is an 18th-century palazzo on the Grand Canal. And Anish Kapoor, who represented Great Britain in the 44th Biennale in 1990, now splits his time between London and Venice; he has an apartment, studio, and foundation here.

a large building with pillars


The Arsenale’s Corderie, a Biennale exhibition venue.

Artist Daniel Spivakov moved his studio to Venice last year. A native of Ukraine, he was part of a 2023 group show at the Pinault Collection’s Palazzo Grassi that garnered buzz, and he stayed on because, he says, “this is probably the best city I’ve been in that fits my needs in my artistic practice. You don’t really have distractions.” His studio is on Giudecca, Venice’s largest island, a mostly residential area with few tourists that’s home to Crea Cantieri del Contemporaneo, an art center nurturing creatives. Venice keeps Spivakov on his toes. “You don’t get used to being [here]…there’s an element of surprise,” he says, citing the changing color and height of the water and the lack of greenery. “You don’t really feel the change of seasons here. It can get confusing, like somebody set up this bubble.”

That bubble will undoubtedly burst with the onset of the Biennale. “It turns the city into a living organism instead of just a wax museum, bringing artists like myself, who are willing to participate,” Spivakov says. “It’s the thing that brings this city to life.”

A version of this story appears in the May 2024 issue of ELLE.


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