Archive for Biennale
I’m giving my brain a small holiday — what the British traveling public knows so charmingly as an “away day” — and not trying to string thoughts together. Or even to have very many thoughts, frankly. Once I start, I usually discover that my brakes are unreliable.
But looking around is always a treat, to one degree or another, and Lord knows we don’t lack for material here.
Here’s the link, in case the clip hasn’t come through: https://youtu.be/6MEwe6XL_ck
My “away day” is over now, leaving room for “back-here day,” which will be tomorrow.
“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.”
My recent silence would typically have been due to the winding down of the summer, the winding down of me, an annual process which usually is distinguished by….nothing. Sloth, heat, tedium, what the doctors might call general malaise. (The tedium, unhappily, is also caused by the endless, predictable procession of homicides, femicides, drownings, drug overdoses, fatal mountain accidents, political did-so-did-not, and miles of traffic backups on the major days of departing and returning from vacation.) It’s practically a tradition.
There are usually some slight variations. Today we read “After he slit his friend’s throat, he went out to drink a beer.” That’s a little different. Or the young man who was accosted by a prostitute on the street in a town out on the mainland who got fined 450 euros for the verbal exchange even though he turned her down. The law says clients are criminals too, and it appears that even telling her no counts as much as hiring her for the weekend. But on the whole, a typical 30 summer days, not so unlike what people experience in many other parts of the world.
By now, though, we all know that August, which is supposed to be the Nothing Month, was very much a Something Month, for the gondoliers, ACTV, and city as a whole. Which also explains my recent silence because (A) I was trying to keep up with the constantly evolving situation and (B) doing so made my brain seize up, therefore (C) we went to the mountains for a few days where my brain wasn’t needed for anything but maintaining basic life functions.
Returning to Venice, we immediately fell into the groove, right where we had left it. There is a traditional sequence of events in this sliver of time, which involves lots of people moving ceaselessly around the city, especially in our neighborhood, not to mention the Lido.
Plenty of visitors are still going to see exhibitions of the Biennale; every evening, when the doors close at 6:00, we sit at our favorite cafe and watch the migration moving sluggishly from the distant Arsenal outposts toward and along via Garibaldi, in search of food, drink, and a place to sit. I’ve seen a lot of really nice dresses this year, if anybody wants to know.
The Venice Film Festival opened three days ago, so although actors and fans aren’t to be seen in our little cranny of the city, there are plenty of badge-and-totebag-and-camera-bearing journalists around (a reported 3,000 have come to cover the festival. How could there be that many outlets in the world that want hourly bulletins about movies and their makers?).
In fact, a number of traditions here are pleasant, even reassuring. I enjoy the eternal cycle of seasonal food; right now the grapes and the warty, gnarly pumpkins (suca baruca, “the veal of Chioggia”) are appearing in the market. And I feel the onset of the Regata Storica, to be fought out tomorrow, and there are the signs in the shop windows selling new backpacks and school supplies. That’s the happy side of tradition.
Then there is the also-traditional way in which events have been unfurling since the death in the Grand Canal. Everything that has happened since two weeks ago today has been as predictable as dusty bookshelves, but they are not positive developments. In fact, they’re not really developments at all.
In the days following the accident, there was a mighty outcry from all sides demanding change. That was predictable.
What is also predictable is that change is now being resisted with every weapon that comes to hand. Life here obeys Newton’s Third Law, the one about equal-and-opposite-reactions. Newton’s Laws are among the few edicts nobody objects to, mainly because Newton isn’t around to argue with.
When I say “laws,” I am referring specifically to the recent regulations that have been proposed to establish order on the traffic in the Grand Canal. Because even if you say you need them and want them, when you get them, you have to fight back.
The mayor and assorted sub-mayors and people who wear uniforms worked mightily and also rapidly to devise a new way of organizing the assorted boatly categories. In record time, a 26-point plan was presented, and published in the Gazzettino.
This plan contained a number of dramatic innovations, such as collecting garbage at night, and requiring the barges to have finished their chores by 10:00 AM.
But this is the point at which the true, fundamental, guiding-more-surely-than-a-compass tradition took over.
The tradition is: I’m not changing anything. Somebody else can change if they’re that dumb, but not me.
I knew the minute I read it that night work wasn’t going to fly. If people hate working by day, which it seems many do, they would hate even more doing it by night. Then the barge drivers said that working those hours would make everything more expensive. And so on.
So the very people who clamored for change in the heat of the moment have shown that they don’t want it. They want somebody else to want it. This is tradition!
I can tell you how things are going to go in the next few months, or perhaps merely weeks: Some tiny tweaks will be made, and everything will return to the way it was. The #2 vaporetto is scheduled to go out of service on November 3, because it’s a high-season traffic-overflow adjunct. The proposal to cut it earlier makes moderate sense, but it’s really window-dressing, because then there would have to be more #1 vaporettos to handle the traffic.
The “Vaporetto dell’Arte,” an enormous, lumbering, amazingly underused and overpriced vehicle, will also stop on November 3. They could stop it now and nobody would notice, but it must be somebody’s pet project because it keeps on going. Empty and big and expensive and pointless. (The “pointless” part is a special ACTV sub-tradition.)
As for what everybody else thinks about revising the way things are done, Grug from “The Croods” put it best: “Change is always bad.” As his son replied: “I get it, Dad! I will never do anything new or different!” Just a cartoon? Maybe not.
By the staircase in the Palazzo Grassi, the original owner, Angelo Grassi, had the following phrase incised in 1749: CONCORDIA RES PARVAE CRESCUNT, DISCORDIA ETIAM MAXIMAE DILABUNTUR.” With harmony the small things grow, but with discord even the greatest things are brought to ruin.