A metallic art installation reminiscent of a snake node is suspended from the ceiling in a gallery hall, surrounded by other diverse art pieces.

Yunchul Kim, Chroma V. Korean Pavilion, 2022.

Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Roman März.

From the first Biennale di Venezia in 1895 to the OVRs of today, the ways we view art have changed—but perhaps not quite as much as we think.

It’s getting better. At least for the moment—cases are dropping, international art events are opening on schedule. Nature, we joke, is healing. From my desk in Brooklyn I scroll Instagram. In Venice: a press photograph of Simone Leigh on stage, accepting the Golden Lion; a writer I know is waiting for her food at the Osteria “al Mariner,” a canal and decrepit façade in the background; an art advisor has posted a video, hair whipping across her face as a speedboat delivers her to the next party. It’s been like this all week. Posts of pavilions—Chilean, Korean, American; posts of art—good, bad, ugly; posts of reunions between friends who haven’t seen each other in ages—not since the last Biennale, which, despite its name, was three long years ago.

The images of friends are the most emotionally piquant, perhaps because of all of the loneliness and loss experienced since the last Biennale, or perhaps because that’s what Venice has always been about—people coming together. It’s true. On April 30, 1895, the first Biennale opened to celebrate the wedding anniversary of Italy’s King Umberto I and Margherita of Savoy. An international event as an anniversary present (they’d married a quarter-century earlier) might strike contemporary audiences as a bit extra, but this was a time of grand expositions. With the industrial revolution bringing about new inventions to show off, new ways to travel the world, and new money to spend—the international happening was suddenly en vogue. From the first World’s Fair at London’s Crystal Palace several decades prior, to the first modern Olympics in Athens the following spring, Venice, from the get-go, was just another stop on the party circuit.

People gathered outside a white building under a clear sky surrounded by trees.

Venice Biennale, 2022

Courtesy of Hyundai Artlab

But from our vantage, another, more recent date is just as important. On January 22, 2011, the first VIP Art Fair opened online, with the VIP standing for viewing in private. While innovative, the fair was plagued by technical setbacks, and hesitation from all corners of the art world. The Financial Times called it a “Virtual Failure”; according to Forbes it “bombed.” And so, the online fair model basically disappeared for the next decade, until the pandemic-starved art fair complex was forced to adopt the technology in the form of viewing rooms. These rooms, which are basically image carousels on webpages (and also have the handy acronym VR), now complement gallery exhibitions and fundraising auctions, even after we’ve returned in person.

Between these two poles—gathering in public, viewing in private—the art world uneasily teeters. But while it’s fun to imagine our social conditions as being “new” and “unique,” it isn’t always fair, or even true. Art has always been experienced somewhere between the public and private realms. A trip to the Gallerie dell’Accademia will show altarpieces designed for congregations of the faithful alongside icon paintings scaled for portability and private viewing. If you weren’t lucky enough to own, you traveled to see, and the work lived on either as a postcard or a memory.

A crowd gathers in daylight outside an exhibition space, nestled amidst trees.

Korean Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 2022

Courtesy of Hyundai Artlab

After two years of living apart, interacting through screens, the return to events (where we still interact through screens!) offers an opportunity to reconsider the balance between first-hand and mediated experiences (art, and otherwise). It’s an opportunity to reflect upon once-established categories like public and private. And yet, to do so requires a forum as expansive as possible: a forum born of this moment, responding to both the local and international, physical and virtual, adapt at considering new technologies, bridging all types of experience—like all those little bridges in Venice, bringing us from one work of art to the next.

Back to Instagram: the writer has left the café, and posts this to a story: i think good work is the stuff that lives in your memory. Scrolling through the algorithm, the next Venice post I come to is from someone who isn’t even there. They’ve reposted a story from the account @venice.art.biennale: a photo of Simone Leigh, sitting on the back of a speedboat, canal and domed skyline in the background. Smile on her face, Golden Lion in her hands. Beneath is a simple caption: icon!!

An upclose installation fragment next to a sign reading "GYRE: Yunchul Kim".

Yunchul Kim, Chroma V. Korean Pavilion, 2022.

Courtesy of Hyundai Artlab

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