Elton John vs. La bienniale: che cazzata…

eltonjohn-venice_1.jpgThe artworld has a love/hate relationship with celebrities. On the one hand, we’re all part of modern media culture, which ceaselessly rams them down our throats. So I find that even professional art theoreticians often have distressingly detailed knowledge about people such as Anna Nicole Smith or Pete Doherty . On the other hand, it’s disconcerting when so much of the writing about, say, Art Basel Miami Beach or the Frieze Art Fair has to do with celebrities like Kate, Gwyneth, Kanye, Paris, Jay-Z and Beyonce. Because it shows in such stark contrast how totally irrelevant artists are to the mainstream media. Ultimately, it’s not that big a deal, because London and Miami are very big places. If you want to avoid the celebrity hype. just walk away in any direction.

Venice, however, is a small place – less a town than a very large village. And it’s a logistical nightmare to navigate. So it felt like a stomach punch when I read this morning’s news alert from the Art Newspaper, Elton John concerts in Venice raise concern about possible damage to St Mark’s Square, which revealed:

The concerts are part of Sir Elton’s Red Piano tour and will coincide with the opening of the Venice Biennale. Although the City of Venice has not yet granted official permission for the concerts to take place, tickets for the events are already for sale online… Venetians still recoil from the memory of a 1989 concert by Pink Floyd which involved the group playing on a floating stage just off St Mark’s Square. Access to the square was unrestricted and some 200,000 people congregated to watch the British rock band, many camping out for days in advance. The size of the crowd overwhelmed city authorities and the lack of public toilets contributed to a mess which took the army three days to clear up.”

The article goes on to say that the Elton John concert will probably not have quite the same disastrous effects as the Pink Floyd concert. But 10,000 Elton John fans descending on the city will surely cause chaos during the critical last few days of preparations for the Venice Biennial, which – this is being Italy – tend to be when most everything actually gets done. (Obligatory disclosure: I’m staying in a hotel five minutes walk from St. Mark’s Square, and arriving on June 6, precisely in the midpoint between the two concerts.) Getting around Piazza San Marco will be difficult and the often-infuriating vaporettos (Venice’s mass-transit boat network) will no doubt be completely overcharged on the professional-preview day of the biennial.

Just to be clear: I have nothing against the mixing of pop culture and artworld events per se. I’ve been a big fan of Art Basel Miami Beach’s concerts on the sand (especially Scissor Sisters and Peaches, but that’s just a personal preference.) What worries me is that when you bring such a big star to such a small place, everything else gets thrust to the side. Interestingly, this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos deliberately cut down on celebrities after Sharon Stone, Bono, Michael Douglas, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt et al were the media magnets of 2005 and 2006. The artworld might want to take notes.

7 thoughts on “Elton John vs. La bienniale: che cazzata…”

  1. Any form of pop/rock concert in Venice is a silly idea at any time. Venice certainly doesn’t need it and cannot really support it. If the esteemed musical artist really wants to organise a concert to coincide with the Biennale so he can pop in after the show he can always arrange a concert somewhere more suitable in the Veneto nearby. More an example of the ability of celebrities to get their way, I would think, than anyone consciously planning what is best for Venice or for visitors to Venice.

  2. I have been to the biennale twice at opening time, and am still really not sure that I understand the intricacies of how the show is put together, but it seems to me that there are plenty of situations where people make their own events and shows tied to the official one. Both times I went I got the impression that the whole thing is pretty loose, as it is impossible to control a creature that tries to cover so much territory as the biennale. In some ways Venice may be one of the first places where this sideline projects thing has become a bit of a thing, long before the alternative fairs started clinging onto the primary ones, and people began to make publicity opportunity parties out of art events. Elton John has gone to the Venice Biennale many times, and has a long history of collecting art and supporting artists, which sets him apart from the celebrities that you name in connection with the Miami fair. Another issue from an artist’s point of view – I hate the idea that if I became well known, that it would somehow be off limits for me to do an exhibition (concert) in a place that has significant meaning to me…besides, I can’t remember what it was because I missed it, but wasn’t there a concert last time too somewhere?

    Also, a fair is a few days long, and these kind of shows go on for weeks. The circus of the opening is fun, if you have an entry point to it – I can’t imagine going another time if I had the opportunity to go to the opening, even with all the tourists making transportation complicated.

  3. Lisa, to me the issue is not about concerts per se. Last biennial, Kraftwerk played the German party, for example. But that was way at the other end of town, late at night, not at a chokepoint, where it could cause paralysis at a critical moment in the run-up to the biennial.

    I don’t blame Elton John. I blame the authorities involved for not thinking this through. Then again, I could be wrong. They might have a tremendously precise plan designed by Swiss logistics experts detailing how they will set up and dismount a huge two-day concert in the heart of Venice – precisely between the main entry into town, the train station, and the location of the Venice biennial – without causing extra stress and circumnavigation for the artists and curators.

    I would like nothing better than to be proven wrong. But if I had to lay money on it, I’d say the water taxis will doubling their prices and making a killing off of people desperate to avoid the crush and finish installing their shows.

  4. I guess I just love a circus! The show(s) will go on no matter what the logistics issues are, I imagine.

    To look at the catch-22 of celebrity participation vs. press coverage in another way – as in Davos – perhaps all of that press coverage made a lot more people aware of the World Economic Forum’s existence in the first place, and understand their own potential individual responsibility. The lesson for us to learn maybe is how to find a balance in these events that gets the popular press to cover the real issues, in an intelligent way. How do we get an average person to see the richness and depth of what we do and make, and understand that it is important to their daily lives, without losing the voice and authority of our individual positions? It is not like someone is going to do this for us, right?

    I am excited to go to Venice, not for anything specific that I have heard about, but because it is an art event that seems to hold its core meaning, despite all of the changes towards globalization in the last 5 or 10 years, which sets it apart from other shows.

  5. Looking beyond this Elton John thing, here’s the issue I see: Media-wise, celebrities are like black holes, sucking in all the matter that surrounds them. People in the arts seem to think that by bringing in celebrities they will also attract the mainstream press. That’s true, in part, but it means that the arts press suddenly also writes about celebrities instead of focusing just on the artworld. Also, if too many celebrities start coming, editors will send their gossip hounds rather than their arts writers. So the balance of which you speak, Lisa, is very hard to strike.

    I’m a big fan of organic growth, and injecting celebrities into the artworld is a more steroidal approach – fast results, undeniably, but how durable and how dangerous to the core organism?

  6. Actually I am less fussed about the celebrities v artists question, than I am about the appropriateness of Venice as a venue for a rock/pop concert. A number of friends support a charity seeking to prevent Venice sinking into the Adriatic. I doubt if they would be well pleased by EJ’s concert. But I digress. In response to Marc’s question: I think it behooves us all to learn to play the media game, however we can. If the celebrities, bless their photogenic qualities, hog the limelight a little more than we would like, at an event we care about, then we need to learn to manage around that. Concert logistics notwithstanding.

    Of course we could also just accept that the celebrity fawning general press are not our market and just ignore what they write. But I guess that isn’t likely…

  7. FYI, from Elton John Hopes To Replace Mansion Garage Block With Art Gallery

    Elton has applied to his local council for permission to knock down a huge garage block at his U.K. Windsor mansion so he can replace it with a gallery to display his entire art collection. The council has informed the “Rocket Man” singer his application is likely to be approved. Elton recently added to his collection of homes after buying a $1.8 million apartment in Los Angeles exclusive Sierra Towers.”

Leave a Reply