All aboard the Venice Biennale Bargenale, Michèle Lamy’s scaffolding-clad freighter

At once a hangout, restaurant and recording studio with guests including A$AP Rocky, the barge for the Biennale gave Venice a sight to remember

We’re lost. It’s preview week of the art biennale in Venice and we’re wandering, a Parisian architect, an English creative consultant, and I, through the shoulder-width alleys and footbridges off San Marco like Borges characters in a labyrinth – though likely more buzzed on the free prosecco from the party we’ve just left. We’re searching for a party, a cigarette machine, and an ATM. After one too many pathways come to a dead end, I just want to be back on the barge.

To give it its proper name, the Bargenale, as its creator Michèle Lamy titled it, was for most of last week a temporary gathering place, installation artwork, floating restaurant, recording studio and situationist theatre space docked at the garden island of Certosa. Just a thousand metres east of the main action at the Giardini and the Arsenale, the former monastic refuge, military HQ, and now public green space is so remote that even its vaporetto stop is by request only.

The barge was another manifestation of the way Lamy and her husband, fashion designer Rick Owens, have created a separate world. At their five-story Place du Palais Bourbon home in Paris, formerly the headquarters of the Communist party, (and possibly even in their new-ish, work-in-progress penthouse apartment overlooking the Adriatic here on the Lido) everything, from the sheets to the floors to the toilets, and of course, the clothing, is of their own making.

Michèle Lamy: hostess with the mostest.
Michèle Lamy: hostess with the mostest. Photograph: OWENSCORP

Owens and Lamy live by a code: “We make; we don’t buy,” and they have fabricated their world along the lines of their brutalist and gothic aesthetic — though not without a taste for luxury. The world that Lamy built on the barge was no different.

In November of last year, Lamy and Paris-based architect David LeClerc found an underused quarry-stone-transport on a distant island in the lagoon, began drawing up plans, and navigating the bureaucracy of repurposing a barge in Venice. Three weeks before the Biennale, that boat was made unavailable and the team, which now included local engineers and producers, scrambled to find another. The new craft they settled on was 15-20 metres smaller than the first. LeClerc’s designs were altered, pared back, and construction of a black plywood plinth and an open corrugated aluminum hanger was completed just in time for the fete. The exposed scaffolding structure beneath the platform main area, and raising the aluminum shade above the open kitchen, Leclerc said, was not only a concession to limited build time. “Michèle asked for it,” he said, “requested it specifically.”

“Of course I am always renovating, renovating in Paris,” Lamy said. “So what do I see? Scaffolding. Always scaffolding. Voilà.”

The barge’s camel-skin furniture.
The barge’s camel-skin furniture. Photograph: OWENSCORP

The day before the barge-as-restaurant opens to the public, all hands were literally on deck, building the installation A Matter of Life and Death by Lamy’s daughter Scarlett Rouge and her boyfriend Anatol Lafayette – three “trees” in separate gardens of dirt, around which participants held a kind of wish-making ceremony during a dinner for New York art dealer Jeanne Greenberg-Rohatyn. When the maybe 2,000 sq ft dining area was complete it looked an awful lot like the restaurant in Hollywood Lamy owned and ran from 1995 to 2003. “It is Les Deux Cafés!” Owens said on his first visit. And the banquette mattresses upholstered in army surplus blankets were definitely of the same aesthetic school as the restaurant where I first met Lamy as a 17-year-old busboy. The stools covered in the camel skins, though, were something new.

Downstairs, in what would have been the engine room, for the occasion converted into a recording studio, James Lavelle and his UNKLE bandmates periodically recorded tracks throughout the week – one with Lamy reading a Langston Hughes poem and another guest-starring A$AP Rocky, who had come in expressly for the purpose. Lavelle, who had been part of Barge!, the first iteration of Lamy’s floatable feast, a ferryboat-cum-restaurant, salon and dance party at the London Frieze art fair last year, probably had the best sense of what exactly was going on this time around.

“I’ve worked it out,” he said. “This is a Michèle Lamy installation. You know, normally when you set up to record, you know what time people are showing up, you have a sense of what’s going to happen. Not here,” he said. “But it’s not necessarily about you or what you do here, but about being a part of this mad picture that she’s painted.”

Owens and Lamy take the night air.
Owens and Lamy take the night air. Photograph: OWENSCORP

Another way of putting it is that we are in Lamy Land, as Owens calls the special projects division of his company. Time, and even purpose are elusive. When I worked with her at the restaurant, right when a rowdy crowd was tipping into an unmanageable mob, Lamy would announce over her cigarette, “I love chaos,” and then totter home. But if the doings on the boat were chaotic, they were rather sedate.

It felt more like waiting. During one lunch, the artist Gavin Turk joked that if we are meant to be relaxing it is difficult to properly do so without the right cues. “Are we supposed to be relaxing now?” Or were we waiting for something to happen? Unclear.

Lamy likes to cultivate a little mystery. For example, it was once written about her (OK, by me) that, “She’s Algerian, a gypsy; she was born in a resistance camp in occupied France, was raised by wolves in the Ardennes; she’s an arms dealer, a vampire, a witch, and she’s 1600 years old (the number is consistent, as if it were exact, vetted by a team of experts).”

In fact she is 71, spent part of her childhood with her grandparents in the Alpine town of Oyonnax, later worked as both a defense attorney and cabaret dancer in Paris during the 70s, and then met Owens in Los Angeles when she hired him as a pattern cutter on her own line, Lamy. She has diamond-studded teeth.

Point is, if we were all on the barge to do something, Lamy was not telling. Instead she wanted to hear stories. She wanted to tell stories of her own, she said, and the barge, like the London ferry, and a similar excursion aboard a Victorian train near St Moritz before it, are the way she tells them. “And perhaps I feel like this is 1001 Nights,” she said, “and if I stop telling the stories, bop, I’m dead.”

Captain’s pick: Rick Owens stares over the side.
Captain’s pick: Rick Owens stares over the side. Photograph: OWENSCORP

Like the London ferryboat before it, this Venetian barge, despite its often glittering cast of characters, was free and open to the public, with food prepared by a chef in residence, Dieuveil Malonga. Ultimately it was kind of tableau vivant which Lamy had set the stage for and cast. Everyone aboard was invited to play a part, to improvise it as they saw fit. In which case, Lamy, equal parts impresario and enthusiastic party attendee – brought all of these pieces together, not just for our entertainment, but for her own. “It’s not a party boat,” Lamy says. “It was the whole thing, the entire experience that made it.”

On the last day of the Bargenale, I asked Owens what the project actually was. “I’ve tried to figure it out myself,” he says. “There is someone here filming – is it a film, a performance, a restaurant? I think she’s just the mother hen. Her instinct is always to build a nest for everyone to come together, where she can hatch her little chicks and watch them grow.”


Chris Wallace

The GuardianTramp

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