I haven’t been able to decode this construction. There is a bucket inside the wicker sphere, and a batch of ropes, and a piece of fabric. Make of it what you will.
“Biennial” means “every two years” in, I suppose, every language from Amharic to Tongan. Even in Italian.
But in Venice, “Biennale” has come to mean “The Voltron of international modern art exhibitions put on every single year to draw more people here for longer so they’ll, you know, spend money.”
The original event was inaugurated in April 30, 1895 and was dedicated solely to art. Back then, that meant painting and sculpture. But scheduling it to skip a year meant losing momentum, and limiting it to painting and sculpture was dangerously droll.
By now some Venice Biennale opens every spring, so they have worked around the logistical and etymological complications of “bi” by having created an assortment of choices — there is, alternatively, the Biennale of Art, Architecture, Dance, Music, Theatre, and the Venice Film Festival, which has always been once a year, though I suppose if there were a way to have one every four months the city would rejoice.
The opening weekend of the annual Biennale, of whatever sort, as I have chronicled in other years, is a spectacular spasm of art objects and art people in the zone of the Giardini, where the national pavilions are. You have to pay to see what’s in there, but for these few triumphant days the neighborhood is bestrewn with art of the performance and/or concept variety. Or something.
Your eyes do not deceive you — this is a young woman folded into a net several feet above the ground. The day after, the chrysalis was empty, leaving just a big clump of tangled twine strung up there. More art.
I regret to report that I didn’t linger for the final performance so I don’t know what it entailed. Perhaps the young woman de-cat’s-cradled herself back to earth in some way. Or maybe disappeared. Anyway, what she did had a title, which I appreciate. The wicker sphere didn’t bother giving itself a name.
On the other side of the Viale Garibaldi from the twine-entangled girl was this. Was it a visual echo? That’s all I can think of. That, or this is the Maypole Dance of the Huldufolk.
It’s hugely entertaining to see this gathering of the art clans in their startling garb, as well as the blithe spirits who come to demonstrate their feats of skill and daring. They’re here to exhibit something about themselves, about the world, about what’s wrong with the world, about what’s wrong with everything, about I don’t really know what the heck what.
I dimly recall that perplexed unenlightened viewers used to be sneered at because they didn’t understand the work before them — peasants! But now I have the impression that artists have ceased to concern themselves with being understood. If these artists were people who had undergone years of therapy, I’d think that this state of mind represented progress.
As it is, I don’t know what it represents. My grasp of the convoluted symbolism now in vogue is extremely feeble, and certain exotic forms of irony are evidently beyond my mental or emotional capacity to comprehend, much less appreciate.
But I’m cool with all this now. If they don’t care about being understood, I’m not worried about not understanding.
These women understand art, especially the lady on the right, who is in touch with her inner Peggy Guggenheim.
And these women two steps away understand a whole lot of other things.
Two thoughts have taken up permanent residence in my brain.
One: That much of contemporary art has gotten trapped in the Dadaism Room and can’t get out. (The room has no doors, being Dadaist and all, ha ha).
Here’s the five-second rundown on Dada, helpfully summarized by Wikipedia:
The term anti-art, a precursor to Dada, was coined by Marcel Duchamp around 1913 when he created his first readymades. Dada, in addition to being anti-war, had political affinities with the radical left and was also anti-bourgeois.
The beginnings of Dada correspond to the outbreak of World War I. For many participants, the movement was a protest against the bourgeoisnationalist and colonialist interests, which many Dadaists believed were the root cause of the war, and against the cultural and intellectual conformity—in art and more broadly in society—that corresponded to the war.
Dada activities included public gatherings, demonstrations, and publication of art/literary journals; passionate coverage of art, politics, and culture were topics often discussed in a variety of media.
So if it seems that art and politics and social causes have thrown themselves into a hot-tub together and are drying off in the Biennale, there is a long history of this already. Nothing new going on here, folks, sorry.
The usual procession of extreme luxury yachts came to the Riva degli Schiavoni. Little me thinks I’m looking at boats that cost too much. I wonder what a Biennale artist sees?
Two: That much of the art seen here, and anywhere else these artistoids go, doesn’t refer so much to culture as it does to other art. It’s the visual equivalent of novels that are really about language. Conclusion: As it gets broader and covers more conceptual territory, art is becoming shallower and shallower. Western culture itself may be in the process of shallowization, but art is only making it worse.
Paul Gauguin noticed something of this already happening in the late 1800’s: “The history of modern art is also the history of the progressive loss of art’s audience,” he observed. “Art has increasingly become the concern of the artist and the bafflement of the public.”
We wandered, baffled and bemused, around and through the throngs over the weekend, and below are some examples of what we saw on Friday and Saturday (Opening Night!). The Biennale will go on till November 22; this divertissement gets longer each year. If they continue at this rate, eventually it will just be simply the “Ennale.”
A couple stops to examine (and admire?) the fragments scattered on the ground. Again: If you have to ask, you’ve just embarrassed yourself.
They are bits of paper folded in a fiendishly clever, origami-like way. I can tell you nothing more.
I can explain this: It’s a young person (man?) dressed entirely in black holding a red balloon in the shape of a heart. That’s my explanation.
A cactus with two ovoids on each side. Witty and irreverent and so much fun. You know who appreciates this piece of art the most? The barge driver who got paid to carry it around.
A girl is strapped into an old electric chair; of course the headpiece needs to be adjusted by a helpful collaborator perhaps from the hair and makeup department. The hair must be perfect. If you want to know what this is about, you’ll have to subject yourself to the explanation at www.samarcandaproject.org. Hint: It’s ponderously loaded with the most intricate art-babble I’ve heard in a while. Bottom line: It’s a protest. Art as social megaphone. But blah-blah-blah doesn’t sound any better either loud or soft.
I’ve slighted the glamorous people in this piece, but I couldn’t resist this woman. As far as I’m concerned, walking in those shoes qualifies as performance art. The unusual color combination plays an important part in the entire presentation.
I was startled — as was everyone else in the neighborhood — to come across this extraordinary quintet on our very own little bridge. You think this is about naked and semi-naked people posing in public? Peasant! It’s a Protest, of course!
I had to look it up, but this concoction of leaves and skin has a name, and is is intended to draw angry attention to the uprooting of the olive trees in the region of Puglia.
The artist got everybody’s attention — anybody with a camera was snapping madly away — but I wasn’t aware of any explanation of the deeper significance of the endeavor. Do white-painted naked girls wearing a rabbit mask naturally symbolize the destruction of olive trees?
Apparently yes, they do.
The bunny-faced girl took a break later, freeing herself of her frondy friends but still accepting huge numbers of eager snapshots. She just walked along the street like this: white, nude, and rabbit-headed. It all totally makes me think of olive trees in Puglia. As photographer Ansel Adams once remarked, “There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.”
Or we dispense altogether with the concept and just stick with the sharp image. These are nightmare pictures, which have left frivolous little Dada behind and plunged into the abysses of Surrealism. Luis Bunuel would have been proud. This is on a hideous hoarding on the nearby fondamenta with a number of appalling partners.
Like this, for example. It will probably be there till the end of November, or till next year’s annual bi-annual event.
You can send me ten reams of single-spaced explanations, but you will never convince me that this has any meaning whatsoever. And the girl’s right foot is freaking eerie. But I do admire the folds of her skirt. I wonder what they mean?
Every year the city places laurel wreaths at the most important patriotic monuments. The most elaborate one, with an aureole of palm, is placed at the tomb of Daniele Manin.
April 25, as I have reported on other occasions, is a double holiday in Venice: The anniversary of the liberation of Italy after World War II (this year marking the 70th milestone), and the feast day of San Marco, the city’s patron saint.
And gentlemen must acquire a long-stemmed red rose (the “bocolo,” in Venetian) to bestow on their lady love(s). Here, gondolier Marco Farnea buys two — one for his wife, the other for his gondola. It’s an extra-festive occasion, too, because it’s his name-day.
Either of those facts deserves reams, and reams are ready and waiting, thanks to phalanxes of historians.
I simply want to keep the world apprised — yes, I modestly claim to keep the WORLD apprised — of a date that deserves remembering. And here, it’s remembered twice.
First, the roses:
Marco pushes off with the next boatload of clients, the two roses lying at his feet.
A quartet of firemen leaving the ceremony of the flag-raising in the Piazza — one is already armed with his rose.
The Red Cross sells the roses at a booth in the Piazza (as well as sending volunteers around). All for a good cause.
Independent rose sellers are all over our neighborhood all day. They sell mimosa on International Woman’s Day and umbrellas when it’s raining.
Yes, National Liberation Day is important, but this Venetian store makes it clear that tomorrow it will be closed because it’s San Marco’s day. Any other reason is just extra.
Someone placed a bocolo on St. Paul’s altar in the basilica of San Marco. I’m baffled, but I’m still glad to see it there. And no, you’re not supposed to take pictures in the basilica. I’ll never do it again.
And second, the liberation itself, as seen in Venice.
The arrival of the Allied troops in Piazzale Roma on April 29, 1945. Lino remembers that everyone was saying “The Americans are here!” He ran with his friends to see them, and they all asked for chewing gum, and they got it, too.
This is not a cretinata tree, it’s one of the most amazing wisterias in a neighborhood billowing with wisteria. I wait for it all year.
“Cretinate” (kreh-tee-NAH-teh) are actions or statements perpetrated by one or more cretins — a far too useful term in these parts, and one I’m sorry doesn’t exist in English.
But maybe it’s not that there are so many cretins here. Maybe there are lots of highly intelligent, profoundly sensitive, extremely kind and rich people who just happen to say cretinous things. If so, there are still too many of them.
A few days ago we heard the latest of an infinite string of fantasies stated as facts by Paolo Costa, the president of the Venice Port Authority. He gives every sign of being a born believer in the inherent importance and value of Mastodontic Projects, as they put it here, because he has spent the last few years pushing ferociously for approval for the excavation of the Contorta Canal to bring the big cruise ships to the Maritime Zone by way of the lagoon, and not by the Giudecca Canal.
Apart from whether or not this would be a smart move for Venice and its economy (read: keep the port working at full speed), the canal itself has been recognized by an array of environmentalists and even politicians as being enormously damaging to the lagoon ecosystem. (May I note, once again, that the lagoon is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a fact which apparently is difficult to remember, seeing how casually everybody goes rampaging around doing whatever they want, though if harm were done to the city to the degree that it’s done to the lagoon, the world outcry would resemble several sonic booms).
Let us revel in the double-cherry trees, especially this one which was flowering its heart out in a completely meaningless fragment of Mestre.
I’m coming to the cretinata, uttered by Mr. Costa. He has uttered many since the subject of banning the big ships has been current. The reason he utters them is because it appears to be his heart’s desire to be involved in a Mastodontic Project, seeing as he missed out on the riches lavished on everyone involved in the last one, which is MOSE.
Actually, I don’t know that he missed out. Perhaps he got his share that time around, and is determined to have a reprise.
Whatever the case may be, no Crusader ever made a vow that could match the vow he seems to have made to himself to get that @#*$%! canal dug.
So where’s the cretinata? Here it is:
“The Contorta Canal is the only intervention which can save the lagoon and the jobs of the cruise business.”
First, it can’t be the “only” intervention” that could be effective. There are a number of alternatives which are struggling to be considered, pushing frantically against the inert bulk of the Contorta proposal. To be accurate, it is the only intervention which has the active interest and support of Mr. Costa, and he is applying pressure for its approval by every means known to humans. After all, sheer dogged perseverance finally got the MOSE project approved, although it took 30 years. So it ought to work just as well for this project. That seems to be the approach he’s taking.
In my opinion, saying that something or someone is the “only” one of its kind, when that just happens to be the thing the speaker wants, is a statement more often made by young, distraught children than mature, responsible adults. It sounds fishy to me.
Second, I have never heard anyone except Mr. Costa hazard the statement that the excavation of the new canal would “save the lagoon” (though he doesn’t say from what). I totally understand his desire to keep the port humming, but his opportunistic addition of saying the canal will “save the lagoon” is like telling a woman “By the way, you’re beautiful” when you’ve just asked her to lend you $500.
Many Venetians have long been aware that the lagoon needs saving (from the voracious motondoso, from devastating illegal clam digging, and from the incessant erosion exacerbated by the Petroleum Canal — another Mastodontic Project!). I didn’t realize that digging a new canal would be a positive step in any direction except more erosion and more environmental degradation.
Since Mr. Costa has never made anything resembling an environmentalist statement, I have to assume that “saving the lagoon” is Costaspeak for “doing what I want.”
Here endeth the first cretinata.
I’ve never discovered lilac trees in Venice, which makes me all the more grateful to see these at the Rialto for the few days they’re on sale.
Interlude: I used to know a little boy who, at the age of about 2 1/2, had already grasped that saying that he wanted something didn’t inspire the desired response from his mother. So he cleverly switched to saying “I need it.” That little boy did not grow up to become the President of the Port Authority; perhaps he was a cousin.
These were the pioneer blooms, now gone for another 12 months.
On to the next cretinata, which comes from the Princess Bianca di Savoia Aosta, quoted in “An Insider’s Guide to Venice” in the Wall Street Journal a few days ago.
I admit that statements from people whose names start with Princess (or Defender of the Faith, or Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, or Knight Commander of the Order of St. Gregory the Great) get attention.
Having a fancy title doesn’t necessarily mean that you know things, but it does mean that your statements will probably be taken as true. Such as the Princess’s following remark:
“VENETIAN MOPED // Brussa IS Boat. Rent a “topa,” a zippy four-meter boat, at Brussa, to go for a relaxing and fun spin through the canals before heading out into the lagoon. It’s not as intimidating as it sounds—locals use the topas like mopeds.”
Words such as “zippy” and “spin” give the impression that the canals, like the city itself, are here mainly for entertainment and diversion, just one big amusement park with peeling palaces. They don’t give any hint of the reality — that the canals are narrow, crowded, and full of boats doing real work which take up space and aren’t especially accommodating to high-spirited gilded youths out for a little run about town before drinks at the Cipriani, or wherever.
Second, “locals” do not use the topas like mopeds. “Locals” have their own boats, usually, or have friends with boats. Topas are for special jobs or projects — most often like work — which usually do not involve either zipping or spinning.
Third, apart from being awkward and difficult to perform, zipping and spinning would be a challenge to do without breaking the speed limits, which are now being more strenuously enforced since the new traffic regulations went into effect. The only boats I can think of whose zipping or spinning is overlooked are the fireboats and the ambulances.
“Like mopeds” implies speed, agility, and quantity, like the swarms in Rome and Florence. There is no craft here which could be compared in any way to a moped. Not one.
Which leads me to conclude that the princess either doesn’t know what a topa is, or what a moped is. It would be like me saying “Lapps use reindeer-sleds like mopeds,” or “Somalis use camels like mopeds” or “New Zealanders use dolphins like mopeds.”
For a tiny sliver of time each year, ordinary leaves are as beautiful as flowers.
But I’m being too serious, it’s one of my major defects. So let me offer a more effervescent cretinata, perpetrated by two incredibly clever employees of the ACTV who went fishing on company time.
Connoisseurs of lagoony creatures know that this is seppia (cuttlefish) season. Even if you don’t happen to be a connoisseur, all you have to do to realize the season is on is either go to the Rialto to see what’s on sale, or wander along your fondamenta-of-choice in the morning or evening (or night) to peruse the men who are standing there with their fishing rods and nets and ink-stained buckets. The Zattere, the Riva degli Schiavoni, the Fondamente Nove, and even scabrous old Tronchetto are all excellent places to snag some seppie.
Unless you’re supposed to be doing something else, like work.
I realize that seppie exert an irresistible fascination, but it’s better to give in to it off the clock.
On the evening between Tuesday and Wednesday, two employees of the ACTV were on duty at Tronchetto in the area dedicated to the ferryboat from the Lido, and one of their tasks was to keep an eye on things in general and to make sure that nobody was doing anything near the landing-stage that could create problems for the ferry.
It would appear that these two zealots decided that seppia-fishing on the nearby fondamenta was likely to create problems for the ferry (actually, for their own fishing plans), so they wasted no time in banishing the fishermen from the fondamenta.
Shortly thereafter, the banished fishermen, watching from a nearby fondamenta, noticed the two zealots pulling out their own tackle and beginning their own great seppia-hunt from the now-liberated good spot.
This was unwise.
The banished and extremely annoyed fishermen proceeded to phone the Provincial Police, who are responsible, among other things, for checking fishing licenses. Before long a patrol-boat appeared, and the officers showed as much zeal in the execution of their duty as the two ACTV bullies had done in theirs.
The officers took away their traps, their fishing lines, and their seppie. The officers also searched their cars, and fined them for fishing without a license.
The officers then reported the incident to their employers, who were probably less concerned about the fines than they were about the fact that their two trusty agents had been amusing themselves in an off-duty sort of way when they were, technically speaking, very much on duty.
Moral: Don’t antagonize seppia-fishermen? That’s a good one. Another good one would be: Don’t behave like a cretin.
It rained the other day and I happened to be at the Villa Foscarini Rossi in Stra. Not exactly next door, but well worth the voyage.
In spite of all this tomfoolery, spring is proceeding in its appointed course, and I am loving every aspect of it.
The trees are fully-leaved, as of about ten minutes ago, and the greenery still looks as fresh as salad. Trees are blooming according to plan: the white-flowered plums have come and gone, followed by forsythia and cherry and double-cherry, and now the wisteria is slowly being transformed from purple blossoms into green fronds. Random flufflets of cream-colored spores float away from the poplars, and the redbud (called “Judas-tree” here) is making up in color what it lacks in size.
A few days ago I smelled cut grass for the first time this year. It’s a moment that’s almost as enchanting as hearing the blackbirds at dawn. And today I got a bonus: Someone had cut a stretch of herbage which contained chives (here called “sultan’s beard,” or “friar’s beard), and the fragile oniony scent was wafting faintly away. It will be gone by now.
This is one of those perfectly poised moments, when the air is still cool but you can feel the sun’s warmth (if the wind isn’t blowing). At any time of the day the streets are full of people dressed for every possible temperature: There are couples in T-shirts and even tank tops and shorts, and at the same time there are people in trim down jackets or woolen coats. Those with bare arms don’t seem to be cold, and those wrapped in feathers don’t seem to be hot. It’s extraordinary.
Which means that we are approaching one of the tiniest hinges of the season: The moment when everyone ceases to move from the shady to the sunny side of the street, and begins to move from the sunny to the shady side.
When that happens, I declare summer officially open for business.
Down jackets and sunscreen. We’ve got weather that everybody can love.
Spring can be so exhausting. He’s probably dreaming about chasing artichokes.
I’m beginning to think that shadows and reflections are more interesting than the real things that cause them. I wonder if the French have invented a philosophy that would explain that.
There are large and heavy subjects to address, but I’m not going to do it.
I’m not going to talk about the two million euros of fines levied on illegal street vendors over the past year, because all those fines are unpaid and will remain unpaid forever. (Although it costs the city 14 euros each to issue them.) Spending money in order to lose it? Isn’t that what lottery tickets are for? Anyway, there will continue to be more illegal street vendors, and fines, and on and on in the endless cycle of birth and rebirth.
I’m also not going to talk about the political jockeying which has begun as the mayoral election begins to take form on the horizon. Nor is it worth devoting any time to listing the daily perp walk of corrupt politicians and businessmen, a procession which seems to know no end.
Seeing that I do not intend to address these very worthy topics, at least not at the moment, I’ll just share some recent glimpses.
Someone on the next street over has a festive way of giving their garbage to the collector. Either there is not one other piece of string to be found in their house (not even for ready money), or this person has a charming way of brightening up the most mundane tasks and objects. I can almost hear her saying “Here! It’s for you!”
While we’re on the subject of tying things, the owner of this boat (an honors graduate of Gordium State Institute of Technology) has secured his deteriorating vessel with this unique knot. Or knots. He doesn’t realize that in the case of knots, quality beats quantity. You just need one knot — the right one, tied the right way — to keep your boat safe till peace and justice reign on earth. But he evidently is the classic belt-and-suspenders person.
There’s another nodal creation on the other side. He’ll be ready to withstand Typhoon Brunnhilde, but if he needs to untie the boat in a hurry he’s going to discover the true meaning of remorse and recrimination.
Venice is composed almost entirely of buildings and walls which have undergone so many transformations they practically qualify as genealogical charts. I call these “Walls of Second Thoughts,” and this is not the most extreme example I’ve found. It does have a sort of charm, though. I can almost hear the families and the workmen over the centuries, discussing and deciding, then hauling and hammering and just generally slaving and sweating. Sometimes I can just make out the voice of someone muttering, “It was better the way it was.”
Several thoughts — second, third, fourth — have passed over the facade of this palace. The door I can dimly understand, but that they thought it best to suffocate a beautiful ogee-arch window perplexes me.
Speaking of second thoughts, may I modestly say that I can usually, with more or less effort, figure out what I’m looking at. But this sturdy stone barrier has shut down my brain. I understand the complex and perhaps effective barrier across the door which is obviously intended to keep acqua alta at bay, but the additional slab corresponds to nothing I’ve ever seen or experienced. Theories are welcome, but if any reader KNOWS what this is for, I’m considering offering a reward.
And of course no day is complete without its ration of laundry. I wonder if the person who hung all this out had any idea what it looks like. They’re probably more interested in how dry it’s going to be before nightfall.
Is this a shadow or a reflection of Tourists Past? Sadly, no — it’s Tourists Present, tourists dormant, tourists without form, and void. The season has begun.
I’m going back out to the lagoon, where equally crazy things go on every day, but at least I can count on the egrets to know how to behave.