Pick up any glossy magazine from the last few months and you'll find the 'must-have' accessory' for 2003: a white leather Louis Vuitton bag with the famous LV logo dip-dyed in a rainbow of bon-bon bright colours. This reinterpretation of the Louis Vuitton classic is the fruit of a collaboration between designer Marc Jacobs (Vuitton's artistic director) and Takashi Murakami. Jacobs has a keen sense for the moment and was quick to pick up on Murakami as a suitably cross-cultural 'now' artist. For Murakami, who describes his work as the manufacture of 'art products', the collaboration made good business sense - and Louis Vuitton holds a special place in Japanese culture. The artist has observed: 'It feels almost as if carrying Louis Vuitton is like wearing a cross. When you go on a train, a third of the women in the carriage have Louis Vuitton.' The limited edition Eye Love (2002), sprinkled with signature multicoloured eyes, blossoms or smiling flowers, has proved notoriously hard to get hold of, despite (or rather, because of) a heavy publicity campaign which recently saw every window of every Vuitton store redesigned by Murakami. A couple of the bags could be spotted in Venice for the opening of the Biennale, displayed like the crown jewels in the window of the Vuitton store behind St Mark's Square, but the surest sign of their status was apparent on the street corners and blankets spread out along the water front, where stashes of cheaply made rip-offs were being hawked by Venice's army of fake handbag sellers.
In Francesco Bonami's painting show in the Museo Correr, 'Pittura/Painting: From Rauschenberg to Murakami, 1964-2003', Murakami is positioned as a balance for Robert Rauschenberg at the opposite end of its chronological timeline. 'Murakami, like Rauschenberg,' Bonami argues, 'shifts the weight of civilization somewhere else.' But where might this be? Judging from the first thing you see when you enter the exhibition, Murakami's first video animation, it is to a psychedelic LV wonderland with bamboo-eating monsters and sherbert-coloured logos raining from the skies. The super-slick animation Superflat Monogram (2003) was commissioned by Louis Vuitton and screened in stores worldwide to accompany the launch of the new accessories range. As it happens, Louis Vuitton is also the 'Pittura/Painting' show's major sponsor. The wall next to the video screen is plastered with reproductions of newspaper cuttings reporting the shock of Pop art's first appearance in the 1964 Biennale, where Rauschenberg won the top award. Such a reaction seems unimaginable now that Pop has been not only embraced but wholeheartedly assimilated, to the point where artwork and advertisement are indivisible and the relationship between artist and corporation is one of lucrative collaboration.
Meanwhile, in the furthest, dustiest, scruffiest corner of the Arsenale, a ragtag commune of unfathomable artistic production is taking place in the name of Utopia and a new bag has appeared to rival Murakami's as the 'must-have' of the season. Rirkrit Tiravanija's 'Stazione Utopia Station' tote bag, the perfect size for lugging around the Biennale's monumental catalogue, is now seen on the coolest of shoulders. Employing the dependable free-give-away dispersal technique, it performs the dual function of promoting 'Utopia Station', which Tiravanija curated with Molly Nesbit and Hans Ulrich Obrist, while also discreetly advertising fashion house Agnès B, whose logo appears on the back. With a checklist of around 200 participating artists, each interpreting the notion of Utopia, 'Utopia Station' takes to the extreme Bonami's aim of 'creating a polyphony of voices and ideas'. The result is an exhilarating cacophony and Tiravanija, as ever, gives it a positive spin: 'I've always said that Utopia's not found in order, but in chaos.' Elsewhere in a quiet room in the Italian Pavilion is another contribution by Tiravanija: a painting (apparently his first ever), a small white canvas with the words 'Less Oil, More Courage' painted in thick black letters. Perhaps this is a joke about painting, but maybe it's a clear and mild-mannered protest that brings a fragment of greater reality back into the spectacle of the Grand Show, cutting through the politics of curators, sponsors, collaborators, participators, supporters, promotion and parties.
First published in Issue 77