ILLUMInazioni: 2011 Venice Biennale lives up to expectations

After the confused jumble of the 2009 edition, I wasn’t much looking forward to seeing what was on at the Biennale in Venice. Yet, after the past two days, I’m pleased to report that I found this year’s event much better.

The Director, Bice Curiger, has been Curator at the Kunsthaus Zurich since 1993, and has brought to Venice a much-needed measure of clarity and cleanness. The largest pavillion at the Giardini hosts a truly cosmopolitan Biennial show, built around an unofficial lifetime achievement award to Tintoretto, the most modern of the Old Masters.

The national pavillions are mostly solid submissions, with the German homage to Christoph Schlingensief (presenting the installation Eine Kirche der Angst vor dem Fremden in mir, pictured above) deservedly winning the Golden Lion. Another unmissable work is Thomas Hirschhorn’s installation in the Swiss pavillion, Crystal of Resistance (for which I refer you to the designboom post). Among individual artists’ awards, Christian Marclay’s Golden Lion to for The Clock – read more about it here – is also well deserved.

I keep wondering how much art will be hurt by the global crisis: art keeps bouncing back.

The Biennale is on until November 27, 2011.

Artistic vision: The Venice Biennale and Pinault’s new Punta della Dogana

Punta-della-Dogana_Elicottero_4321_nologoIt may be that any Biennial, having a Director whose job is like herding cats (the curators of the national pavillions), is by definition a mixed bag, structurally unable to express any coherent artistic vision. That’s what I came away with after visiting this year’s Venice Biennale, “Making Worlds”, directed by Daniel Birnbaum; in addition to the unpleasant feeling that most of it was looking backwards, instead of straight ahead into the future.

The following day, I visited François Pinault’s new contemporary art center at the Punta della Dogana (pictured), which hosts half of an exhibition titled “Mapping the Studio” (with the rest at Palazzo Grassi). It was everything that the Biennale wasn’t. Instead of the decaying infrastructure of the Giardini and the Arsenale, a freshly restored vast and luminous space, bearing the marks of Tadao Ando’s loving care (and, of course, ample funding by Monsieur Pinault). Instead of a cacophony of voices, a clear curatorial point of view: sure, a provocative, controversy-seeking one at times, but nevertheless an artistic vision, a show of teamwork between the collector and his curators, Gingeras and Bonami. A cross-section of what’s at the edge of artistic creation today, mediated by a discerning taste. Even the works from the 1970s and 1980s seemed fresh and contemporary.

Walking through the Biennale felt like work; visiting the (admittedly much smaller) Punta della Dogana was sheer pleasure.

And how was it for you?

Seven things that don’t work at the Molino Stucky Hilton in Venice

Molino Stucky Hilton, Venice

Consumer advocacy is not the first need that comes to mind when spending a weekend in a Venice blessed by perfect spring weather after deciding that once in a while it’s worth splurging on a luxury hotel. However, the Molino Stucky Hilton, a late 1800s industrial flour mill sitting in a quiet location off the beaten track (the Giudecca island, also home to the historic Cipriani hotel) yet minutes by boat from anywhere in Venice, beautifully renovated as a hotel by the Caltagirone group and opened with great fanfare under Hilton management in 2007, manages to disappoint on so many counts that at some point I started keeping a list. Call me a snob, call me someone who can’t appreciate the fine things in life, but here are seven ways a hotel can go wrong – and at the Molino Stucky Hilton, all seven are wrong.

7. Internet access, provided by Swisscom, is fast and reliable but offered at extortionary prices. Business packages are 24 hours for €27 or 7 days for €108; if you choose Economy access (bandwidth and data volume limitations apply), you can choose between 60 non-consecutive minutes within a 24-hour range for €12 or 24 consecutive hours for €22. During a three-night stay, I burned through three of the sixty-minute packages – I hardly ever used the full hour, mind you, which only left me the added frustration of not being able to carry any unused minutes over to the next day.

6. There is no turndown service for the night, unless on request. And even on request, there is hardly any turndown service – it mostly consists of the removal of some pillows to a chair or a closet, depending on the housekeeping whim of the day. Drapes were left open for us to remember closing on our own. For rooms that set you back between €400 and €700 per night (but you can also choose a €3,700 Tower Suite, should you be so inclined), I find it in extraordinary bad taste not to provide turndown service by default.

5. I’m all for the environment, and in principle I do sympathize with the effort to conserve water and not dump synthetic detergents into the Venice Lagoon. Yet, for the aforementioned €400 to €700 per night, I expect to have the option to keep the same sheets night after night, should I so desire, by placing a little green card that says “I’m green, don’t change my sheets” on my bed before leaving the room in the morning. I do not expect the default option to be that I’ll have to sleep in clammy sheets, unless I remember to place on my bed the little green card that says “I’m just not that into green, so do bother to change my sheets, please”. That is precisely the unpalatable choice that the Hilton management inflicts on any morally conflicted guests at one of its most hyped luxury locations, and probably elsewhere too, considering how much cheaper it is.

4. Suites and junior suites come with complimentary access to an Executive Lounge on the sixth floor. On inspection, however, this turns out to be a singularly depressing space, dimly lit with minimal amounts of natural light coming from gunholes on top of the walls, and reminiscent most of all of a narrow airport lounge at some minor hub. An inexplicably undrinkable orange juice is served, and Sunday newspapers only appear on Sunday morning after reminding the lounge staff that Sunday is, indeed, a day of the week when many newspapers are regularly published.

3. A beautiful swimming pool on the seventh floor of the building is surrounded by such precious few deckchairs that, on a sunny afternoon, guests start getting turned away. This may be indeed a structural limitation, yet it is not one that the hotel designers couldn’t foresee. Another rooftop solarium, perhaps? Deckchairs in the garden? It’s only May and you’re running the pool at full capacity – how many guests are you going to disappoint by July?

2. Ah, no pool, but at least one can get up in the morning and go to the state-of-the-art-gym for a good workout, right? (Remember the open drapes issue above – item 6. – and the fact that the sun does rise at a very early hour these days, especially for a weekend morning). Most people who work out are used to getting their workouts sometime between 6 and 8 am, right? Well, no such luck. The gym, which is described in the in-room Guest Services book as opening at 8 am, really doesn’t open until 9 am. Guests who show up in workout gear anytime before 9 are turned away.

1. Finally, the staff is spectacularly untrained and occasionally clueless. (With a notable exception at the spa, the only department where people were competent, experienced and friendly: if you need a beautician, ask for Ella). Almost everybody looked like they’d just shown up for their first day of work. A request for Earl Grey tea at the aforementioned Executive Lounge (item 4.) was met with an uncomprehending stare and two consecutive attempts at tea that were not Earl Grey. A pool attendant (5.), asked whether there might be a house phone nearby, gleefully answered “I have no clue”. Lapses in training, even at a hotel costing you the aforementioned number of Euros per night, can be forgiven; lapses in attitude will poison the guest experience to the point that a guest will only return under extreme duress. (For a well-thought-out philosophy of the hospitality business, I recommend Setting the Table by New York restaurateur Danny Meyer).

Back in the mid-‘90s, I had what I recall as one of the best hotel experiences in my life at the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, California. A stroke of management genius had led them to conclude that, when a guest spends that kind of money to stay at your property, you might as well throw in a few minibar drinks and Terra chips for free: it’s a little thing, and of course it’s not free because you pay for it in the price of the room, but it completely changes the tone of your relationship with the hotel bill. Unfortunately for us customers, the Post Ranch Inn method did not catch on, and almost everywhere we go we are still being charged megabucks for a bottle of water. (On the minibar issue, there must be a conspiracy among hotels that’s worth an antitrust investigation). My pleasure with the Post Ranch Inn experience was only marred, on my subsequent visit, by the loss of a digital camera with all my Hawaii pictures on it, accidentally left in the Post Ranch Inn restaurant and never found again. Still, years after my first visit, I rave about the Post Ranch Inn. Yes, that kind of boutique hotel is a different business from the large hotel chain business. But still, one would wish to enjoy some glimpses of good service, and good management, even when staying at a bigger place. The Park Hyatt in Tokyo, in my experience, had just that kind of magic sauce. The Molino Stucky Hilton doesn’t.