Viva Arte Viva, the theme for Venice Biennale 2017, and the reason for my first trip to Venice. The lagoon city, a maze of waterways and narrow cobbled paths is enchanting, to say the least—but this visit was extra special, coinciding with an art tour curated by Dallas Contemporary.

Damien Hirst, Venice Biennale 2017

Damien Hirst, Grecian Nude, 2017

The water taxi docked at Palazzo Venart just after midnight, and beneath the moonlight, the Grand Canal and garden entrance to the hotel looked hauntingly spectacular. The once Venetian palace, Palazzo Bacchini della Palme, recently renovated into a five-star hotel would be home for the next five nights. I arrived in Venice ready for a Monday morning kick-off, along with an art posse from Dallas for pre-opening activities of the Biennale.

Palazzo Venart, Venice, Italy

Grand Canal entrance to Palazzo Venart

Monday began with a tour organised for Dallas Contemporary by Christie’s, thanks to Bianca Arrivabene and Capera Ryan. I was rather taken with Bianca, with her cool attitude and chic demeanour, all very understated and polite—much later I became informed that as Countess Bianca di Savoia Aosta Arrivabene, Bianca certainly knew a few things!

First stop, Damien Hirst’s exhibition, ‘Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable’ at two locations both dedicated to Hirst—Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana. The sheer magnitude of his work is breathtaking, quite unbelievable, as Hirst’s tongue-in-cheek title reminds us all.

Ancient relic of Mickey Mouse, Damien Hirst, Venice Biennale 2017

Damien Hirst, Mickey, 2017

Damien Hirst, Treasure from the wreck of the Unbelievable, Venice Biennale 2017

Damien Hirst exhibition at Punta della Dogana

Many of the sculptures at Punta della Dogana are oversized relics, all encrusted with barnacles and corals after spending countless thousands of years underwater, of course unbelievable! However, I was mesmerised by the largest sculpture at Palazzo Grassi, ‘Demon with Bowl,’ where exhibition curator Elena Geuna shared details on how the giant sculpture, which was in fact resin, and not a bronze sculpture, was installed section by section. You cannot visit Venice without immersing yourself in the world of Hirst, regardless of your opinion on his make believe storytelling, the art collection, which exhibits as an underwater archaeological excavation is incredible.

 

Our lunch destination—the Aman Venice, a decidedly decadent 16th-century palazzo, and also the family home of Bianca, was the most elaborate affair as we ate lunch amidst art and antiques—heirlooms of past family residents. Now a hotel, under the care of the Aman Hotels and Resorts, Palazzo Papadopoli is a grand Baroque-style residence, a boutique resort with an intimate feeling of home, which essentially it is, Bianca and her family reside in the penthouse. Well worth a visit for lunch or dinner, if not to stay.

Aman Hotel, Venice

Aman Venice, Mirror Lounge

Post lunch and a boat ride away, we ventured to the island Murano, to observe the technique of hand-blown glass in a factory. Thanks to our expert guide, Bianca walked us through back lanes, behind the front facing facades of Murano glass vendors to locate the facility. A hot experience, but worth every moment watching the intricacies of handling and crafting of glass-making. Appropriately, just around the corner, we visited French artist Loris Gréaud’s exhibition, ‘The Unplayed Notes Factory,’ held at an abandoned glass factory—sadly a sign of the times for the industry.

After an exhausting day, yet insightful and inspiring in every way, my husband and I decided to dine at the restaurant in our hotel, rather than venture back out onto the cobbled streets. Glam, the creation of two-star Michelin Chef Enrico Bartolini, needless to say, was divine in every way, and very Glam.

Lorenzo Quinn, Support, Ca' Sagredo Hotel, Venice Biennale 2017

Lorenzo Quinn, Support, 2017

The next few days I was immersed in a visual marathon of contemporary art, meeting artists along the way as they shared personal insight into their exhibitions. Dirk Braeckman at the Belgium Pavilion, Erwin Wurm at the Austrian Pavilion, along with curator Chris Bedford who walked us through the U.S. Pavilion, exhibiting artist Mark Bradford—all at the Giardini.

Ian Davenport, Venice Biennale 2017

Ian Davenport, Giardini Colourfall, 2017

Wu Jian'an, Chinese Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2017

Wu Jian’an, The Birth of the Galaxy, paper-cut collage, 2012

At the Arsenale in the main pavilion, we met with American textile artist Sheila Hicks for a colourful conversation—thanks to Galerie Frank Elbaz. At 83-years young Ms Hicks was certainly in a playful storytelling mood, as she expanded on her love of colour and textiles.

Sheila Hicks, Escalade Beyond Chromatic Lands, Venice Biennale 2017

Sheila Hicks, Escalade Beyond Chromatic Lands, 2017

With a visit to Museo Correr at St. Mark’s Square, we met Iranian visual artist Shirin Neshat, who graciously enamoured the group in a quiet chat. Neshat described her photographic portrait exhibition, ‘The Home of My Eyes,’ as a reflection of diversity, and cultural and social identity through the eyes of people from Azerbaijan.

Liliana Porter, Venice Biennale 2017

Liliana Porter, Man with Axe, 2017

After visiting the Boris Mikhailov exhibition at the Ukrainian Pavilion curated by Dallas Contemporary the day prior, and following a Soviet theme, we toured the V-A-C Foundation, a recently renovated Palazzo that exhibits modern and contemporary art mostly by Russian artists, which is co-curated by the Art Institute of Chicago. Not that I am specifically intrigued by this genre of work, however the tour of historical references and controlled political messaging through art is fascinating—resonating similarities with today’s fake news propaganda.

Off-site, from everything related to the Venice Biennale, my favourite museum visit without a doubt is the Peggy Guggenheim Museum, and the Mark Tobey exhibition ‘Threading Light,’ the first retrospective in over twenty years showcasing 70 works of art—this visit is worth every moment of your time.

Alicja Kwade, Venice Biennale 2017

Alicja Kwade, natural stone, sounds, 2017

With all these incredible experiences, the one dinner that was by far the most exquisite—an invitation to attend Fendi’s festivities, celebrating the opening of Venice Biennale. Thanks to my good friend Capera Ryan, Christie’s deputy chairman for the invitation, we arrived early evening at the Arsenal to visit the exhibition preview of the Italian Pavilion.

The most overwhelming show was undoubtedly by artist Roberto Cuoghi, with ‘Imitation of Christ.’ I do believe that art should create a reaction, good or bad—and this certainly was disturbing. As I walked between each padded pod with resin sculptures inside decomposing with mold, the stench left me breathless. This depiction of death and the decomposing of Christ’s body at varying levels of rot concluded with writhing sculptures on a wall. The religious meaning, while cerebral, with subtle artistic nuances in medium, and well-crafted in the use of technology, for me, summarised purely as the exploration of a holy death. A gruesome topic.

 

From grim to glam, we departed posthaste arriving at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco for dinner, hosted by Pietro Beccari, FENDI president and CEO, along with two hundred glamorous guests. Within the Salone Maggiore, two long mirrored tables abundant with white peonies reflected the glory of Tintoretto’s frescos from the ceiling, and Ruinart champagne flowed all evening during our three-course dinner. How do I ever top that!

Tammy Cotton Hartnett, Max Trowbridge, Capera Ryan at Fendi dinner

Tammy Cotton Hartnett, Max Trowbridge, and Capera Ryan

Fendi dinner at Scuola Grande di San Rocco

Dinner in the Salone Maggiore, Scuola Grande di San Rocco

Tintoretto fresco at Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice, Italy

Tintoretto’s fresco at Scuola Grande di San Rocco

My first trip to Venice was truly the most incredible experience, special because I shared the trip with friends, educational because I had the opportunity to explore and learn. I look forward to the next Biennale, roll on 2019!

ps. Viva Arte Viva, Venice Biennale 2017 ends November 26, 2017.