Dorm Room Art?: At the Biennale



Walton Ford, Culpabilis, 2024. Courtesy of the artist and Kasmin, New York. Photograph by Charlie Rubin.

I touch down at Marco Polo on Wednesday afternoon, one among the many who have come for the preopening days of the Venice Biennale. The airport—with its series of moving walkways shepherding passengers toward the dock—will turn out to be the only place in the city where I manage not to get lost. The line for the water-bus into the city is easy to spot, and as we wait for the next boat to arrive I count fifteen Rimowas, five pairs of Tabis, and several head-to-toe outfits of Issey Miyake. The boat ride, unaccountably, takes an hour. I alternate between fending off seasickness and watching the Instagram Story of a microinfluencer who’d been on my flight and is already flying down the Grand Canal in a private water taxi. 

My first stop after depositing my bags and downing two espresso is Walton Ford’s Lion of God. The show takes up the two full stories of a church-like building in the same square as the city’s opera house, which my boyfriend is telling me—with the sort of walleyed zeal that suggests it’s one of a handful of facts he memorized for the trip—burned down in the nineties. Inside, it’s surprisingly dark, the main floor cut up by temporary exhibit walls painted black, the lights so dim that the details of the building, and the historic paintings spanning the rest of the room, are almost completely obscured. 

In other words, you have no choice but to turn your attention to Ford’s four enormous watercolors, which, despite the best of intentions, strike me immediately as somehow “dorm room.” Maybe it’s the richness of their color set against the black of the room, but I momentarily perceive these objectively impressive works (at least on a technical level) as velvet paintings. The subject is always the same—a lion with a skull in its mouth; a lion with a book in its mouth; a pentaptych of a thorn-impaled paw. Each painting seems to be a different scene from one unified narrative. It’s something biblical, clearly, and the name Jerome pops into my head, along with the fact that Venetian iconography is clearly lion-obsessed, but I can’t quite fit everything together. 

Upstairs, a giant Tintoretto has been moved into the space specifically for the exhibit. It takes up the central wall, and shows Saint Jerome (I was right!) in a state of ecstasy as Mary descends from heaven. I stand before it, a sophisticated-looking group nearby. As it turns out, Ford himself is in attendance, and he strikes up a conversation with one of the women in the group. “I saw you looking at this one,” he says. He points out a faint, shadowed lion in the painting’s bottom right corner, which I’d failed to see, then gestures to  the perimeter of the ceiling, where a few paintings have been carefully spotlit, highlighting the animals often buried in otherwise busy canvases. “I thought, what if you took all the people out,” Ford says, “and focused on the animals?”

That night, I plan to attend a party celebrating Frank Auerbach. I receive an email in the early evening, explaining that some guests are having trouble finding the Palazzo da Mosto and reminding me that the entrance is “actually down a very narrow, unmarked alleyway.” I manage to stumble upon the entrance, almost by pure luck—I see a propped wooden door in the distance, leaking yellow light. 

In the main room, I learn that the palazzo, which has housed the same family for four generations, is also the site of the scene in The Talented Mr. Ripley where Matt Damon kills Philip Seymour Hoffman with an ashtray. I’m not exactly surprised—as anyone will tell you, Venice is a city of layers, a palimpsest. The room is lit, as far as I can tell, by rows of scented candles, the shadows they create giving everything a sort of unreal quality. I spot a few friends in line at the vodkatini bar, where overzealous guests are leaning forward and rocking the table. The bartender moves the table back and forth as a warning, sloshing a full vodkatini in the process. My friends and I watch as the crowd grows more boisterous, converging, eventually, on a vat of risotto and a tray of mini omelets that have materialized in a side room. “Germany is very good this year,” everyone is saying, “Germany is really amazing.” I wonder if Eurovision is on, or if there’s some wild economic news I’ve managed to avoid, before slowly gathering that this is in reference to the pavilion at the Giardini.

More people show up; more food emerges. A woman in a geometric hat spills her cocktail down my dress. I search in vain for the bathroom. I search in vain for water. Another round of vodkatinis. Someone says something about Auerbach’s impasto. Someone compliments my dress. I’m told the pope is coming. As the party wraps up, a woman clutches my arm, a smile on her face like a full moon. “It’s so perfect here,” she says, gesturing widely, as though she means to encompass in the entire city. “I don’t think it’s possible to get sick of a place like this.” 

The next day I head dutifully to Germany. A long line has already formed, and once inside, I’m disappointed to discover there’s another, longer line to enter a little house within the pavilion. This, I take it, is the heart of the exhibit, and I join the sub-line, which has managed to grow in the meantime, looping around the little house. Admittedly, house might be the wrong word. It’s an ominous-looking, multistory curved structure, made of dark, claylike material. It’s speckled with windows, though they’re oddly reflective or maybe just tinted, and I can’t really see inside. After twenty minutes or so it’s my turn to enter the structure, and I find myself standing inside what appears to be an abandoned home. A few mute performers walk about aimlessly. A machine blows dust around. A spiral staircase leads me to the roof, where a naked man is lying corpsed against the wall. I’m unsure what to make of this. Back outside, I feel covered in a film of dust. I try to google the meaning of the little house, hoping for some early review that will piece it all together, but discover only that its walls are covered in real asbestos. 

There’s more, of course, but it feels like more of the same—and maybe, I think, that’s the nature of an event like the Biennale. It’s surfeit; you can’t help but feel overindulged. You are always doing too much, and not enough. By the end of the week I’m listless and tired. On my last night in the city I’m shuffling home from dinner in the rain, stalled behind an elderly tour group, when the siren signaling acqua alta sounds. Workers begin setting up elevated walkways, and I watch a tourist take off her running shoes and wade barefoot into shin-deep water. My phone is dead and, convinced I’ve been walking in circles, I turn down a random alleyway and, for the first time in days, I am completely alone. I continue on as the siren fades into silence and then there it is: San Marco’s basilica, the square completely flooded, bright and still as glass. 


Camille Jacobson is The Paris Reviews engagement editor.