I’m referring to the crumbs of May, a month which becomes more intense every year with boating events, friends flying in and out, and work of various sorts, much of which needs to be done more or less simultaneously.
The word “May” normally conjures up a pretty, flowering little month set to the melodies of those warbling madrigals. My soundtrack is more like the Ride of the Valkyries. And all this is voluntary.
So yes, there has been a lapse in blogification, which I will now attempt to rectify, if only slowly. Energy is still low, and more to the point, I may be reaching my personal Plimsoll line on the overload of bizarreness that this amazing city continues to heave onto my psyche.
I haven’t had much time to read entire stories, but the headlines kept me abreast of a few extraordinary developments.
One was the announcement by (somebody) that the decision had been made by (somebody) to remove all the garbage cans from the Piazza San Marco. Not only does that notion, in itself, make no sense whatever, it gave my memory a little vibration recalling how much municipal effort has gone into trying to keep the Piazza decent, and providing more garbage cans was certainly a positive step in that direction.
The fact that these bins are virtually always crammed with trash leads me to surmise that they are useful. The amount of trash that swirls around the area at the end of a hard tourist day also implies that there might, indeed, usefully be even more.
Some phrase indicated that the Plan was to remove the bins because they’re unsightly. The unsightliness of their contents roaming free wasn’t a factor because evidently the tourists were going to be expected to take their trash with them, you know, like Himalayan mountain climbers always do.
But never fear. For those bits that were somehow to escape the backpacks and pockets of the tourists, two garbagemen would be stationed in the Piazza to titivate its venerable stones from time to time, as or if needed. Two sweepers instead of 60 bins. I think that’s the number; it might even be more.
Then the newspaper fell silent, and I see that the bins are still in place. Whether good sense or sheer sloth deserves credit for this, the tourists can continue to leave cans, bottles, little plastic ice-cream cups, and forests’-worth of random paper all over the place, when the bins are full. But at least the bins are there.
Moving on. A right cross-uppercut were dealt to my staggering brain with a controversy concerning a “work” of “art” for the Biennale perpetrated by a Swiss “artist” named Christoph Buechel representing the noble country of Iceland.
Mr. Buechel’s specialty is political provocation, ideally creating things that offend people. So he asked to borrow the church of Santa Maria della Misericordia, in Cannaregio, which had been closed since 1969, though not deconsecrated.
What he (or Iceland) requested was the use of the church for an “exhibition space.”
He proceeded to turn it into a mosque. Rugs on the floor, shoes outside, a mihrab, a mimbar, Muslims praying on Friday, everything. All this was done with the participation of the Islamic Center of Marghera, the Icelandic Art Center, the Ministry of Education (of what country I don’t know), the Ministry of Instruction and Icelandic Culture and also Ibrahim Sverrir Agnarsson, the president of the Islamic community of Iceland. Though not, as it turned out, with the participation of the diocese of Venice because it was the only entity evidently not aware that the “exhibition” was going to be of quite another sort.
Mr. Alessandro Tamborini, a professor of Religious Science, met provocation with provocation. He walked into the church/mosque/work of art on opening day with his shoes on. Then he called the police, because he said he was being ordered to remove his shoes, which demonstrated that the place was not a work of art, but a place of worship.
If it’s a work of art, then it’s not a mosque, was his reasoning, and he can’t be required to obey a religious restriction if it’s not, in fact, a religious place. He then formally asked the police to inquire about the exact nature of this installation, and whether the necessary permissions had been granted.
They hadn’t. So ten heated days were spent in which issues of religion (freedom of), art (freedom of), city ordinances of every sort (no freedom allowed there) got all mashed up together. Many people were offended on religious grounds, but the art crowd sneered at this reaction because it showed lack of comprehension of art, even though, may I note, if offending people was the primary purpose of the project, being offended demonstrated that people comprehended it all too well.
Then the government of Iceland got into the scrum, with heated objections to perceived prejudice. And everything got all tangled up in the long-running complaints of the Muslim community at being compelled to pray in a mosque in Marghera, and not in the center of Venice, to which they feel they have a right. Drawing attention to this knotty problem, it turns out, was the motive of Mr. Buechel’s project.
But bureaucracy to the rescue! The fact that the paperwork wasn’t in order settled this very disagreeable situation in an extremely simple way. No permits? No mosque. The place is closed.
I’m ready for May to be over now.
“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.”
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.
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:
And second, the liberation itself, as seen in Venice.