If you hit Venice Beach this past weekend, it would have been easy to think you were strolling past the typical crowd of tourists, locals and street vendors. Except for the nearly 50 contemporary artists who were selling their wares on the boardwalk, it was business as usual. Held this weekend as part of the Hammer’s Made in L.A. 2012 exhibition, the first ever Venice Beach Biennial took local artists out of the museum’s white box and put them on the boardwalk — alongside the peddlers and street artists who commonly dot the strip.
On view were temporary sculptures, vending stands selling everything from bookends to abstract caricatures, and a performance that blurred the line between art and existence: Deliberately intoxicated, artists Joel Kyack and Michael Decker tried to sell items to the public.
Invited artists were hard to differentiate from the 25 boardwalk regulars who were selected to participate in the show. In terms of special privileges, the artists had none. They weren’t even guaranteed a spot; like everyone else, if they wanted to exhibit on a given day, they had to arrive by 5 a.m. to beat out the competition. The only element that helped visitors identify the biennial elite was a pink monogrammed balloon handed out to participants.
The ambiguity of distinction forced visitors to consider: Can art ever be more than the context in which it is displayed? “If their balloon deflated, people freaked out and asked for more helium,” said volunteer Kathryn Booth, adding that earlier in the weekend, a box of biennial t-shirts had also been stolen. “Our society is based on symbols. People just want to be in the club.”
Remarking on the increased foot traffic to balloon adorned stands, Robert Warne, who sells “one of a kind dreamcatchers,” claimed that though he was receiving more inquiries, he wasn’t necessarily selling more merchandise. He didn’t seem to care, projecting a carefree vibe that was reflected the most striking difference between the vendors and the exhibiting artists.
“My kids tell me, ‘Dad, you’re not homeless.’ I tell them, Let me relax.” Warne said. “Miguel (the owner of the stand) gives me $25, $30 at the end of the day, and I’m happy with that. I’m absolutely in love with this lifestyle.”