The Next Page: 'Masters of tomorrow,' masters of art: Venice and Pittsburgh

In one summer, Maggie Neil visited two cities that hold the oldest international exhibitions of contemporary art

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Anyone who wandered the crooked alleyways and small winding streets of Venice this summer and fall inevitably stumbled upon some artist's work that completely transformed its old-world setting.

One of my favorites was Ai Weiwei's installation in the Chiesa di Sant'Antonio (Church of St. Anthony).

He created eight large cement blocks -- maybe 5 feet high, 8 feet long and 4 four feet wide -- and organized them in two columns with four rows. The rigid organization and hard gray of the blocks struck me as cold juxtaposed with the medieval church.

As you approached the blocks, you saw that each had small windows. Peering in, you saw that the artist had reconstructed, in smaller-than-life scale but with meticulous attention to detail, moments of his imprisonment in China.

Sometimes he was lying on his bed, sometimes he was taking a shower -- always he was watched by guards and, of course, by whoever was peering into the cement block. It was a commentary on surveillance, on voyeurism, on China, maybe on the church itself. He'd brought his art to life, almost.

This was the Venice Biennale, the world's oldest and most famous global exposition of contemporary art, held every other year. The exposition ended last month.

When people ask me how I spent my summer, I tell them, "I spent two months in Venice, working at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, and then I spent two months in Pittsburgh, working at the Post-Gazette."

Without fail, I get some strange looks. Everyone thinks it's bizarre that a person would choose to go to such different places.

If you try really hard, you actually can come up with a few instances of overlap between these cities. There are the bridges, ubiquitous in both cities. And there is this story I heard:

Industrialist Andrew Carnegie is said to have visited the first Venice Biennale, held in 1895. He must have been impressed, because he decided that he wanted one, too. In 1896, he inaugurated the Carnegie International, the oldest global exposition of contemporary art in North America. (The Carnegie Museum of Art was unable to confirm that account, saying Carnegie more likely was influenced by the Chicago World's Fair.)

Carnegie's idea was to bring the world's most important contemporary artists to Pittsburgh. Instead of collecting old masters, Carnegie stated that he wanted the "masters of tomorrow." The work of the International would form the basis for the collection of a museum of contemporary art -- today, we know it as the Carnegie Museum of Art. The International is held about every three years, and the current exposition began in October and runs through March 16.

Prior to July, I had never been to Pittsburgh, let alone to an International. However, I have been to the Biennale twice, once when I was 11 or 12 and again last summer.

During the last week of May, everyone who is involved or wants to be involved in the global contemporary art scene descended upon Venice. Because the Guggenheim Foundation owns the American Pavilion, and because it is one of the city's prominent art institutions, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection (fondly known as the PGC) hosted all kinds of parties and events during opening week.

As an intern responsible for checking guest lists at the door and guarding the exhibits, I witnessed some of the highlights, including New York disc jockey Afrika Bambaataa and his cohort and a sheikh with his exquisitely-dressed family. One day, actor Leonardo DiCaprio came into the museum. He left in a hurry, though, once people started to realize who he was. The princess of Monaco came too, though I did not see her, as the whole museum shut down for her visit and dinner on the rooftop terrace.

The Biennale officially is located in two of Venice's eastern-most areas. The Giardini, or Gardens, is a large park with different architectural structures. Each of these is called a "pavilion" and belongs to a country.

Every two years, countries choose artists to represent them at their pavilions. Only the U.S. pavilion is privately owned (by the Guggenheim Foundation). The others are owned and maintained by their national governments.

Then there's the Arsenale, historically the structure where the Venetians built ships for defending the city. It houses the art representing countries that don't have pavilions.

Serious, important and famous artists -- such as Robert Rauschenberg, Ed Ruscha, Louise Bourgeois, Jasper Johns and Ellsworth Kelly -- have been chosen to represent the United States at the Biennale.

But sometimes, I thought the Biennale seemed more like Venice's summertime Carnevale. Even though it officially comprises only the Giardini and Arsenale, so-called "collateral events" take place all over the city. Art spills out into the palazzos and streets of Venice like acqua alta (when it rains enough to make the water from the canals spill out onto the cobblestone streets).

Back at the Giardini and Arsenale, it seemed like each pavilion, each country, was trying desperately to outdo all of the rest. Russia succeeded particularly well. In one piece, artist Vadim Zacharov created a room that only women were allowed to enter. As you went in, a woman standing guard at the door gave you a plastic umbrella. For good reason -- inside, hard gold coins were being thrown down by a machine from above.

I think if one of those fell on your head, it probably could cause a minor concussion. In the middle of the room was a large pile of dropped coins. As you left the exhibit, you were supposed to pick some up. You could keep one, but the rest you were supposed to feed back into the machine.

To this day, I'm not sure what that exhibit was about, but everyone talked about it. Even my 11-year-old sister liked it. It was fun; it was interactive; it transformed the space.

Somehow, I doubt the International is like the Biennale, but, of course, I could be wrong. I have to complete my senior year, so, unfortunately, it'll still be a while before I get to see an International. Regardless, I can't help but think Venice and Pittsburgh are connected, after all, by a kind of bridge -- the one created by Andrew Carnegie, more than a century ago, when he decided to import the idea of an international art fair to Pittsburgh.

Maggie Neil, a senior at Yale University, was a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette intern last summer.

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