Go for the Venice Biennale, Stay for Fondazione Prada

Venice has several pockets of quiet. When you move away from the heavily trafficked squares, with their bustling package sightseeing deals, American tourists keen on experiencing their first gondola ride, and authentic Italian leather purses undoubtedly originating in China, a new city emerges. It’s one of genuine tranquility, where, along every narrow corridor, hidden surprises await those patient enough to weave through to the unknown.

The Fondazione Prada, Miuccia Prada and co-president (and husband) Patrizio Bertelli’s palatial new contemporary art space in the historic Ca’ Corner della Regina building, is one such surprise. Its inaugural exhibition, curated by Germano Celant, highlights a selection of the Italian designer’s personal art collection and officially opened to the public on June 4, amid the frenzy of festivities centered around the 54th Venice Biennale.

The Ca’ Corner della Regina, an 18th-century palazzo and the birthplace of Caterina Corner, the future queen of Cyprus eventually bequeathed to Pope Pius VII, was entrusted to the Fondazione by the city of Venice in an agreement that will last six years, with the option to renew for six more. With its antique details, the 1724 relic is a stunning capsule of Baroque architecture, with just the right amount of romantic decay to win over even the most staunch modernist. Prada’s art collection, built up since the early 90s, sits within as though it were acquired with this structure in mind.

The first floor houses “Void Field” (1989) by Anish Kapoor, a Richard Serra-inspired installation of rust colored “boulders” arranged among a Venetian colonnade. If followed to the end, guests are afforded a view of Venice’s Grand Canal. On rooms to the left, we see Damien Hirst’s witty “Loving in a World of Desire” (1996), a colorful, levitating beach ball in contrast to its neighbor, Charles Ray’s “Tub with Black Dye” (1986), a black water bathtub adorned with test tubes—more sinister than one anticipates after Hirst’s playful piece. Following is Maurizio Catalan’s “Untitled” (1997), where the head of a taxidermy male ostrich juts into the ancient floorboards, perhaps looking to dig up the history of his new home.

The second floor introduces more Hirst, “Waiting for Inspiration, Blue” and “Waiting for Inspiration, Red” (1994), two strange sculptures with holes cut through glass begging resistant visitors to interact. The paintings of Blinky Palermo, Lucio Fontana and Enrico Castellani show us the best of Prada’s pension for Minimalism. Further in, Jeff Koons’ “Tulips” (1997-2005) demonstrates how sexy stainless steel can look when paired with a Renaissance ceiling treatment. Upstairs, the most discreet gem of all awaits those willing to walk up the four diminutive steps to a wooden door, where through a peep hole the subversive, detailed claymation film “Turn into Me” (1998), by Swedish-born Nathalie Djurberg, depicts a scene of death, where a woman unknowingly leaves her body as an offering to mother nature.

Finally, in the last room of the large palazzo, we are introduced to an intricate series of architectural models detailing the future home of the Fondazione’s expanded new art center in Milan, designed by Rem Koolhaas and his firm OMA, set to open in 2013. If the miniature unicorn preserved in formaldehyde or the larger porcelain “David” are any indication of what Milan’s holdings will include, we’re sure to see more Hirsts paired with the historic work that Italy is most appreciated for. Until then, if knock-off Italian leather isn’t motivation enough to visit this stunning city of Venice, then certainly the Ca’ Corner, where the exhibition is on view through October 2, proves worthy of a trip.

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