Archive for Events
“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.
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.
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 bourgeois nationalist 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.
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.”
If you think the tides are predictable, consider the movie industry and Venice.
Many and varied have been the films made here, from “The Wings of the Dove” to “Death in Venice” to “The Tourist” and on and on. And those are just a few titles in English; plenty of other nations have sent their troupes here to act out among the canals. Has anyone seen Nenu Naa Rakshasi? Les Enfants du Siecle?
But you can’t go wrong with Giacomo Casanova. Sure, we’ve seen Effie Gray‘s life detailed — it’s finally coming out this week — and George Sand and Chopin (all so famous in their day), but these are not marquee names. Casanova, though, is a product with no expiration date; his exploits, real or imagined, have made him film fodder no fewer than eleven times. Sorry, make that twelve, counting the one they were shooting here a few days ago.
Amazon is getting into the streaming-films game (see: Netflix and Marco Polo), and this version of the madcap entrepreneur’s life will focus, I was told, on Casanova after he went into exile. It was a movie-worthy life pretty much up to the end. He was definitely not all show (or as they say here, “Beautiful vineyard but puny grapes”); here is something he wrote about his famous escape from prison which deserves to be read and remembered:
“Thus did God provide me with what I needed for an escape which was to be a wonder if not a miracle. I admit that I am proud of it; but my pride does not come from my having succeeded, for luck had a good deal to do with that; it comes from my having concluded that the thing could be done and having had the courage to undertake it.“
Now back to me and our two days with the boats.
Making a movie, from what I have seen, is like writing “Remembrance of Things Past” on an endless series of postage stamps. Enormous amounts of toil involving equipment, technicians, objects of every sort, humans of every pay grade, and uncounted hours of just loading and unloading things, setting them up and taking them down, are dedicated to putting even the tiniest fragments of story on film.
Last Sunday and Monday the filming was in high gear in Venice; at certain crucial moments Giacomo would need a boat, and Lino and I and several others were there with two vessels: a small mascareta that just sat there and looked boaty, and a gondola, a replica built several years ago of the type used in the 18th century, to aid his escape (or so it appeared). No costumes or makeup for us this time, we were just the boat wranglers.
Which was fine with me. Although I thoroughly enjoy getting paid, even just a few euros, for just standing around doing nothing, doing something is better in most ways. So we had episodes of rowing, and pushing, and pulling, and lifting, and watching mobs of multilingual people doing stuff you are unable to comprehend in any useful way.
Here is something I discovered: When the director yells “Silenzio!!” just before “Action!” you can hear a baby hiccup in the hospital on the mainland. You cannot believe how many noises there are in normal life until it’s imperative that you hear nothing. That was the most entertaining thing of all: What is that tiny little humming behind that building at the end of the street? How can shoes with rubber soles actually make a sound going over the bridge behind you? The canal is blocked by a watch-boat at both ends to block traffic. The waiting boats have to turn off their engines. Total silence falls.
Then the church bells start to ring.
Finally they stop. “Action!” (Action.) “Cut!” (Lunch.)
Then we rowed the boats back home. That was it.
Fred Astaire once stated that he only “did it for the dough and the old applause.” For me, no need to rush on the applause.
The year has started with a spontaneous act of courage which has heartened many people, especially those whose default opinion of humanity is not lovely at all.
It was December 31 — New Year’s Eve, around 3:00 PM. Muhamed Pozhari, a 25-year-old illegal immigrant from Kosovo who kept body and soul connected by day work as a mason, was pushing a handtruck loaded with bags of cement from Piazzale Roma to Rialto.
As he began to horse the heavy load over the bridge spanning the rio dei Tolentini, he heard cries. A man, soon identified as Maurizio Boscolo, 63, had fallen in the canal. Theories were contradictory but it seems that he slipped while attempting to recover his 20-euro banknote which had somehow wafted into the water. Boscolo was (understandably) flailing around, with few or no results. It didn’t look good.
According to reports, various passersby stopped passing by and stood there, looking. I can understand the stopping; I can’t understand the standing there. (One report says that at least one person began to take photographs, but I have completely shut my mind to that, especially if it’s true.)
“I was crossing the bridge when I saw the man who had slipped and fallen in the water,” Pozhari later recounted. “He was looking me in the eyes, desperate. Everybody was standing there looking and I felt like I had to do something. I jumped in to save him.
“The water was very low and he was sinking in the mud. I tried to pull him up but in doing that I was also sinking in the mud. Then two people came to help.”
Muddy, freezing, soaking wet, the two men were hauled ashore. Pozhari no longer had his cell phone or his ID or his money, because he hadn’t stopped to take them out of his pockets before plunging in. Boscolo, however, no longer had his 20 euros or, not long afterwards, his life.
The excitement was now divided between the victim and the savior. Some people offered Pozhari money, which he refused. Staff at the nearby Hotel Papadopoli asked him to come in and have a hot shower, but he refused because he didn’t want to have to start answering awkward questions about his identity and all. However, an architect whose studio was nearby, Pozhari later related, induced him to come inside, where he accepted a shower and a change of clothes, and some pocket money.
Then Pozhari went home, back to the mainland where he was staying with friends. I suppose he intended to just disappear again into his under-the-radar world, complete with post-trauma insomnia, except that that night he began to feel ill. Freezing temperatures and possible mouthfuls of canal water and, I imagine, also emotional stress, were having their effect. So he went to the Emergency Room, where he was kept overnight in observation. He must have been feeling seriously bad, considering how eager he had been hours before to avoid awkward questions, the kind of questions they also ask on hospital intake forms.
When he eventually learned that the man he’d tried to save had died, he began to cry. In any case, he hadn’t been able to sleep “for two nights,” he said. “But if I hadn’t tried to do something, I’d never sleep again.”
Now the story takes a happy turn. He’s been in Italy for five years; three years ago he applied for an immigrant permit (permesso di soggiorno) as a political refugee. His request was denied, and he was marked for expulsion, but he decided to stay anyway, which explains his need to remain invisible to people in uniform.
But now, in the space of not even two weeks, his application for a permesso for “humanitarian reasons” has been granted. Furthermore, a friend and fellow Kosovaro has stated he’s ready to give him a full-time job and stand as guarantor for him in any way that might be necessary.
Many studies have been conducted to analyze heroic actions, why one person will jump into the water fully clothed to rescue someone while another stops to take a picture. But one thing strikes me: Pozhari’s comment that the victim was looking him in the eyes.
I once read of a German fighter pilot during World War II who shot down a number of British planes in an aerial battle, and seriously damaged another. As the German approached to deliver the fatal blow, the two pilots locked eyes. The German flew away.
An article in Scientific American entitled “How the Illusion of Being Observed Can Make You a Better Person” (by Sander van der Linden, May 3, 2011) explains that “Humans (and other animals) have a dedicated neural architecture for detecting facial features, including the presence of eyes. This built-in system, also known as “gaze detection,” served as an important evolutionary tool …. What’s interesting is that this system largely involves brain areas that are not under voluntary control. Experiments have shown that people are unable to inhibit responses to gaze even when instructed to.”
I’m not saying that I think that Pozhari wouldn’t have leaped if Boscolo’s eyes had been closed. After all, it wasn’t the eyes that conveyed the information that he was in danger of drowning — anybody could see that. But they did convey desperation, and Pozhari couldn’t not respond.
So in a strange way, now that I think about it, Boscolo saved Pozhari.
Venice has had its share of noteworthy visitors over the past millennium or so — popes, kings, emperors, and so forth. The usual cast of characters in your usual empire.
This weekend we had George Clooney and his bride, Amal Alamuddin, whose four-day wedding festival was quite the talk of the town. Not all happy talk, but that’s normal for here.
By now my trusty readers must be able to imagine the range of comments.
On the positive side: She’s gorgeous, she’s brilliant, her clothes are amazing. And may I add my own personal drama, my inability to decide which I would rather have, given the choice: Her 7-carat diamond ring, or her hair. I don’t think it’s fair that she gets to have both.
On the negative side: The lavish partying will not have much effect on the local economy (read: Expensive outsiders hired); blocking areas off for security (from whom?) such as the Rialto and even a stretch edging the Grand Canal, will create inconvenience for the indigenous people; all the glamour will not specially improve the image of Venice in the eyes of the world, considering the depressing degradation that continues unabated. The roiling maelstrom of waves caused by the journalist-bearing taxis and assorted motorboats accompanying the espoused pair and their A-list guests created more than the usual madness in the Grand Canal, inspiring yells of anger from gondoliers.
Several people interviewed by the Gazzettino have essentially said “Who cares?” More specifically, one woman opined, “He’s got a big villa on Lake Como. Why couldn’t he go there?”
Many of these remarks go to show, once again, that Venetians are phenomenally hard to impress. But what would be the opposite extreme (assuming that an event of this magnitude could go to an opposite extreme)?
Let’s imagine for a moment that they had decided to get married in Eek, Alaska or Bland, Missouri. In such a case, I think the whole town would have been totally agog, what with housewives bringing homemade coconut cakes to their hotel and draping big streamers and banners over the main street, like on Homecoming Weekend: “WELCOME GEORGE AND AMAL,” and there would be a parade like on the Fourth of July, with baton-twirlers and the big fire truck. And fireworks. And the local paper — say, the Bat Cave, North Carolina “Bat Biz” — would publish a long article, as they used to do in the old days, describing every dish eaten and every frock worn and every wedding present bestowed. We’ll have to wait for People magazine to do that for us.
A few details have sneaked out (despite all the vaunted vows of complete silence).
For example: They (he, she, their wedding planner, whoever) didn’t like the furniture in their five-room nuptial chamber at the Aman Canal Grande hotel. Too modern. So they had it changed. Out with what was there, which was put into a temporary storage tent, and in with a batch of antiques. I have NO DOUBT that their taste is better than the decorators’. I’m just saying. They didn’t complain about the Tiepolo fresco on the ceiling, fortunately. Maybe they didn’t notice it.
Also: The palace on the street behind the hotel was finally undergoing repairs, hence was covered with scaffolding. Ugly! So they paid to have it removed and, I presume, put back when the party was over.
But on the whole, for Venice this is just one more in an infinite procession of fancy guests and inconceivably lavish entertainments. In the Venetian Republic, when high-class people came for long visits, staying for weeks like relatives in the antebellum South, the city literally spared no expense.
When Henry III, King of France and Poland, visited Venice for a week in 1574, some noteworthy events included his attendance at the chanting of the Te Deum on the Lido (I presume at the church of S. Nicolo’, which is the only thing that was there), passing under a triumphal arch designed by Palladio and decorated by Tintoretto and Veronese. Then there was the state banquet, held in the Doge’s Palace in the monster Great Council Room; not only were all the ladies garbed in white and draped with spectacular jewels — the tablecloth, flatware, plates, and bread were all fashioned entirely of sugar. The table was decorated with elaborate sculptures of two lions, a queen on horseback between two tigers, David and San Marco, surrounded by kings, popes, animals, plants and fruits, also made completely of sugar.
Speaking of guests, Venice hosted, among others, Carlo Gonzaga in 1609, the Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1628, Maximilian of Bavaria in 1684, the Duke of Brunswick in 1685, Frederick IV of Denmark in 1708, Prince Frederick Christian of Saxony in 1740, the Duke of York in 1767, the Emperor Joseph II in 1769 and 1775. Pope Pius VI arrived in 1782 and Gustav III of Sweden in 1784. To read the schedule of festivities and what was built from the ground up to entertain Prince Paul Petrovich, the son of Catherine the Great and his wife in January, 1782, is to stagger belief.
You’d have to replace a lot of furniture to come up to the level Venice used to consider normal on these occasions.
So while I invoke for the happy couple “good wishes and male children” (auguri e figli maschi), as the saying goes, I appreciate a general grudging resistance here to make too much of the just-concluded joining in holy — actually, civil — matrimony.
Because, as Ernest Hemingway summed it up in 1950:
“She used to be Queen of the Seas, and the people are very tough and they give less of a good God-damn about things than almost anybody you’ll ever meet. It’s a tougher town than Cheyenne when you really know it, and everybody is very polite.”