…the whole city, especially at night, resembles a gigantic orchestra, with dimly lit music stands of palazzo, with a restless chorus of waves, with the falsetto of a star in the winter sky. The music is, of course, greater than the band, and no hand can turn the page.
Joseph Brodsky, Watermark: an essay on Venice
I am on Venice’s Aliguana airport ferry, heading towards the Arsenale stop, which is one before San Marco. We stop at the Lido and then zoom past my destination, Sant’Elena, the tiny island at the very end of the main part of Venice. Although it’s quite dark, I immediately recognise Gerard’s silhouette near the vaporetto stop – he is waiting for me and I’m late. I could have got off at Lido and caught another vaporetta to Sant’Elena, but the ferry worker tells me it would be better to get off at Arsenale and walk back, so that’s what I decide to do. I have forgotten how long it takes to walk from Arsenale to the end of the island but it’s balmy and it’s Venice afterall, so I don’t mind in the least, but I am carrying a small backpack, a big over the shoulder handbag, and I’m dragging a suitcase behind me, so after a few minutes everything suddenly feels much heavier and my legs can’t go quite as fast as I would like them to. I buy a hazelnut gelato near the Arsenale bridge, which now has a temporary ramp over the steps. I walk past the Biennale Gardens, all locked up for the night now, the art from all over the world exhibited there having a well deserved rest from the crowds, and I head towards the little bridge I have to cross to get to Sant’Elena, where Gerard is hopefully still waiting for me. I roll up my sleeves and try to go a little faster.
Sant’Elena is much quieter than the rest of Venice. It is mainly residential and, unusually, is dominated by trees and grass. I can see Gerard but he can’t quite see me because he is looking in the opposite direction, expecting me to be coming from the Lido. As I get closer to the vaporetto stop I call out ‘Gerardo! Gerardo!’ And then he sees me and we meet again after being apart for over a month…
Gerard has come from London, I have come from Latvia, and now we start the last weeks of my big adventure from San Francisco to Istanbul. It is hard to believe I have been travelling for so long. New York seems months in the past, and Salt Lake City, Chicago and San Francisco, like very distant dreams. London looks a little brighter in my mind’s eye, and Latvia, of course, is still so very vibrant, but everything will eventually fade with time. The blog helps hold back the vanishing process. It forces me to crystallise the most important experiences and to select the most iconic photographs from the hundreds I take every day. How grateful I am for digital photography. I remember the days of carrying both regular and slide film, of building up a store of little black plastic canisters in my luggage and then, a couple of weeks after returning home, experiencing the joy – and also the frequent disappointment – of the printed results. Now, I download scores of images daily and then begins the laborious task of editing through them.
My main mission in Venice is to take in the Biennale, the world’s oldest and arguably most significant international contemporary art event, opening every second year in June and closing in November, not long before winter sets in. The main part of the Biennale is housed in the Giardini, a parkland punctuated with uniquely designed pavilions that belong to countries such as America, France, Germany, Holland, Russia, Poland, Finland, Australia, Romania and so on. The next largest site is the Arsenale, which was once the biggest industrial enterprise in Europe, building ships from 1104 until 1797. It features a curated show plus the pavilions of countries without a permanent space to show the work of their representative artists. And then there are all the smaller countries, such as Iceland, Estonia and Bosnia Herzogovnia, which show in houses or museums or palaces in various different locations throughout Venice. These temporary sites are the most difficult, but also the most fun to find, because you get to see so much more of Venice as you wander through the seemingly endless lanes and alleyways trying to match the location shown on the Biennale map with your surroundings.
My niece, Antra, and her friend, Katherine, are also in Venice but for a very limited time. Gerard and I meet them on the day after our arrival to tackle as much of the Biennale as we possibly can. We put in a hard day’s work and see most of the pavilions in the gardens and then rush through the Arsenale to make sure we don’t miss the Latvian exhibit, which is right at the very end of the Arsenale complex.
I am impressed by the Latvian presentation, which was co-curated with New York’s Art in General Gallery. They have selected two young artists, Kaspars Podnieks and Krišs Salmanis. Podnieks has created black and white digital portraits of men and women from the Dustri precinct of Latvia, who are floating against the wintry backdrop of their farming properties. The images are minimal yet powerful. Four are moving, shown on vertical screens, the protagonists hovering mid air above the landscape, the occasional cow wandering through the snow in the background. I am told by a colleague back in Hobart that one of the portraits bears a striking resemblance to me. He is right – there I am, the Latvian farm hand version of me – solid, strong, determined and gum booted.
But the most striking element of the exhibition is the big dead upside-down tree by Salmanis that creaks and groans as it slowly swings from one end of the gallery to the other like a giant pendulum. It is the world turned upside-down, its outermost limits brushing precariously close to gallery visitors and the floor of the gallery space. It is both dangerous and fascinating – knowledge, power, history and nature in a simultaneous state of disintegration and defiance.
The other work we spend time with in the Arsenale is the Turkish Pavilion’s series of compelling videos of muscle builders, people being tattooed, Japanese bondage, robotic machines, Isabella Rosallini preparing for a performance and the dissection of a mouse and a human body. It is hard to pinpoint the exact reason for our fascination, but Gerard and I sit for ages watching these videos.
We see many more works at the Arsenale which I won’t even attempt to describe, with the exception of one, which is the most wondrous thing I see there – and, in fact, at the entire Biennale. It is a very simple but intensely beautiful performance called The SS Hangover, created by Icelandic artist, Ragnar Kjartansson. A small boat, its design a mixture of Venetian, Icelandic and Greek origin, sails from one little dock at the back of the Arsenale to the other. A six piece brass band are in the boat, and they play a gentle, haunting, magical work, composed by Kjartan Sveinsson, that seems to come from heaven itself. The performance is repeated over and over as the little boat sails from one side of the dock to the other, picking up and dropping off a single musician at each end. People gather silently in small groups to listen and to watch. I am totally transfixed.
At the Giardini, I think I like Russia best, because it is so clever and engages the audience in such a playful way. On a ground floor room of the pavilion it is literally raining money, hundreds of shiny coins falling through a big hole in the ceiling. We stand underneath, holding umbrellas for protection, and pick up handfuls of the coins which we empty into a bucket in the room next door. The bucket is hauled by a rope through another, smaller hole in the ceiling, poured into a machine by a corporate suited man, then sent flying down a chute and back through the big hole in the first room. It is an endless cycle of money making the world go round. You can watch the whole process from upstairs, where the big hole in the ceiling is framed by a rectangular prayer stand and where a series of performers sit on a saddle on the ceiling beam, occasionally eating peanuts and dropping the shells to the floor. The work is so very Russian, so very allegorical, so very Dostoevsky in the 21st century.
I like Romania too. When we visit on the first day with Antra and Katherine, the pavilion is completely empty and we leave feeling rather disappointed – surely the idea of an empty gallery is a bit clichéd? But on the next day, Gerard and I return and see a fascinating performance in which a group of actors call out the names of famous art works that have been shown throughout the history of the Biennale and then assume poses that mimic them.
Australia is represented by Simryn Gill, who has installed her work with half the ceiling missing from the pavilion. (A new pavilion will be built as soon as the Biennale is over, but Gill was very happy to work in a semi-deconstructed building.) There is a huge work on one wall created from words torn from book pages that have had insect legs drawn on them; a couple of chairs and a small bookshelf that includes all the books that were used to create the wall drawing; a series of photographs of open-cut mines in various locations in Australia, and some coloured, ring-shapes that are fixed to the walls here and there. Leaves have gathered on the floor and it is clear that the wind and rain are having some effect on the art works. While I like the idea of using a partially demolished building as a site, I am rather disappointed with the overall aesthetic, which lacks impact – both the installation and the concepts behind it feel very fragmented.
We see more compelling work by some of the smaller countries that are exhibiting in buildings outside the gardens and the Arsenale. Angola wins the official Venice Biennale Golden Lion prize for best art work. Curated by two architects, it is a series of 23 posters photographed by Edson Chagas that depict everyday objects and scenes from the streets of Luanda. The posters are printed on thin cheap paper and are stacked on pallets in a 16th-century building, the Palazzo Cini Museum, creating a superb conversation with the richness of the Palace’s collection of art works. The posters are for sale, and I buy the complete set and then have to carry them around for the rest of the day. Apparently, visitors to the pavilion went crazy after the announcement of Angola as the winner of the Golden Lion, grabbing at the posters and tearing them in the process.
I really like Estonia’s exhibition by Denes Farkas because it is text-based, highly conceptual and rather mysterious, qualities I aspire to in my own practice. There is a room dominated by a bookshelf construction filled with hundreds of grey covered books that have single-word titles such as strength, permission, obstruction, respect, elevation, harmony, distraction etc; a room with a table covered in green living moss, a blue painting on the wall, and some pages from books with words highlighted in different bright colours; a text-based video of a conversation accompanied by a sound track that doesn’t quite match the text, and a room with lots of papers and diagrams on the walls. My description may sound rather flat, but the work itself is strangely compelling, a complex puzzle that reflects a deeply philosophical, highly formal and carefully considered approach to the issue of language, communication and thought processes. I tell the attendant how much I enjoy the exhibition and she lets me take one of the grey books from the big bookshelf. It takes me a long time to select the title I want. In the end I pick Receptive.
Slovenia has also offered a clever, conceptually sophisticated work by Jasmina Cibic, called For our economy and culture, in what looks like an empty shop in a little alleyway. The street front window displays a range of traditional paintings of flower arrangements, elaborately framed and hung against a delicate black and white wallpaper decorated with tiny detailed images of beetles which are apparently endemic in Slovenia. This wallpaper is used throughout the entire exhibition. Behind these images, on the ground floor, a video features about six conservatively dressed bureaucrats discussing which artist or artists should be selected to decorate the newly constructed People’s Assembly. The conversation is complex, circular and indecisive as a range of contrary viewpoints are debated. Upstairs, a similarly indecisive discussion goes on between two bureaucrats in a large gallery space. The whole experience is fascinating!
Beyond the Biennale, at the Punta Della Dogana, an arm of the Palazzo Grassi Gallery, we slow down and enjoy the peace and spaciousness of this stunning private contemporary art museum. There is a great exhibition of Arte Povera and minimal work, scary but wonderful bronze busts by Thomas Schutte of men who look like past military generals (I am sure he must have created the full sized sculptures at the south end of Central Park in New York), and a simply sublime installation by Roni Horn – a series of huge glass vessels in various shades of blue, grey and white, sitting on the stone floor, and filled to the brim with water. These are magic vessels, so very beautiful and luscious that I find it hard to leave the room and move on to other exhibits.
At Palazzo Grassi, the whole gallery is devoted to a solo exhibition by Rudolf Stingel. He has carpeted all three floors, including the walls, with enlarged images of a Persian carpet. Some rooms feature only the carpet, but others are hung with very large abstract paintings or very small ones of religious icons. I am not convinced by the combination – the paintings don’t sit very well at all in the overly rich, maze-like environment. If only Stingel had used images that referenced the colours in the carpet. I would also have liked to see variations in the carpet design, which is one and the same throughout.
Experiencing the Biennale and all the associated art is both utterly exhausting and utterly extraordinary. From the very first time I visited Venice in 1992, I fell totally in love with the city, along with countless others (although Katherine and Antra mention people who had said not to bother with Venice as a travel destination, an incomprehensible piece of advice to me!). Riding on the vaporetto, being blinded by the sparkling water during the day or hypnotised by the dusk light in the evening, getting totally lost in the tiny streets, or caught in a huge and sudden thunderstorm, eating the most delicious gelato in the world, hearing the church bells ring or the mad beating of pigeon wings as they rise up from one piazza and fly towards a new location, struggling up and down yet more marble stairs and yet more little bridges, catching the little gondolas that take you across a handy spot where the vaporetta don’t stop, the lion sculptures, the crumbling buildings, the churches, the beautiful glass work, the surprise around every corner your turn, weddings in gondolas, and water water everywhere … it is all so achingly beautiful, so very nearly unbelievable. I would not be surprised if I a caught a glimpse of Dirk Bogarde (who starred so superbly in Visconti’s adaptation of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice) strolling down that next little lane way…