Gioni preparing the exhibition. (Photo by Francesco Galli, courtesy la Biennale di Venezia)
The Venice Biennale was the last place I expected to encounter the Hodag. If you attended elementary school in Wisconsin, as I did, you learned about this mythological monster, a hybrid frog-elephant-dinosaur with clawed feet and a spear-like tail. It resided, according to a late-19th-century hoax, in the city of Rhinelander, in the woodsy region that downstaters call “up north.” The Hodag is mentioned on a wall label in the Biennale, next to a cabinet full of woodcarvings—some of animals, others of fantastical beings—by Levi Fisher Ames, who toured his curious carvings around Wisconsin in the 1880s.