Saturday, 23 November 2013

Venice for art's sake

There are plenty of reasons to be in Venice in late autumn, but the Biennale, the grand-daddy of international art shows, is the best of them.

The waterfront at Zattere, in the district of Dorsoduro

A wet walk towards Arsenale from St Mark's square

On shore leave
We got to the 55th Biennale (it's been going since 1905) in its final week. You might think that having been open for nearly six months, the two main sites of the Biennale - the national pavilions in Giardiani and the long line of of exhibition halls in the former shipbuilding yards at Arsenale - would be relatively peaceful. Not a bit of it. A new single-day record attendance was set on November 2 - 7331 people through the gates. The Biennale is massive, and it's exhausting, and it's totally exhilarating.

Alex and I are unlikely art buffs. We're not collectors (in our next life) and we don't paint or draw. But like lots of other people, it seems, we get a buzz out of looking at freshly-made art, art which throws us headfirst into unexpected places, which amazes us, which amuses us, art which hits us from in front and from behind - and is occasionally beautiful. And we like talking about what we see.

The cafe at the Giardini site of the Biennale

Mark Manders work Room with Broken Sentence is shown in the Dutch pavilion

International cooperation - Ai Weiwei is part of the German contribution to the French pavilion 

Roberto Cuoghi's Belinda was produced using a 3 D printer

The entry to Finnish artist Teriki Haapoja's Falling Trees

This conversation between us began quietly, drowned out in our early years together by more insistent and urgent demands on our attention. Lately though it's grown louder, and has become an important driver of our travelling, both on and off the boat. When we put ourselves into a new place, we generally end up following an art trail of sorts, ancient or modern, or somewhere in between.

The Encyclopedic Palace, a model for an imaginary museum of human knowledge, designed by Italian-American eccentric  Marino Auriti in 1955,  gave its name to the 55th Venice Biennale. 

Pawel Althamer's Venetians, plaster faces and hands joined to bodies composed of extruded ribbons of gray plastic - "a herd of lost souls"

Jeremy Deller, in the British pavilion, imagines the English artist William Morris as a giant pitching Roman Abramovich's super-yacht into the sea - the whimsical show is called English Magic

English magic again

The girl from Tasmania - acting for Simryn Gill's work Here art grows on trees  in the Australian pavilion (below)

Phillip Cox retired - his pavilion will be scrapped at the end of the 2013 Biennale

You could stay in Venice six nights (as we did) and be flat out looking at magnificent churches, glorious palazzos and galleries filled with art made before the end of the 18th century (by which time the city was well and truly washed up both as a naval power and as a fabulously decadent party town). We didn't do that. By and large, we skirted around Venetian history. Call it time management.

One of several brilliant tapestries by Senegalese artist Papa Ibra Tall

Soul-searching in the Japanese pavilion - a group of poets attempts to write one poem

Ceramic and paper mache slump over upholstery - Jessica Jackson Hutchins (US sculptor) 

Education fatigue documented in the People's Republic of China pavilion

Lavish embroidery by Argentinian Arthur Bispo de Rosario who saw visions and was locked for 50 years in an asylum

Room 8 of 16 exhibition halls at Arsenale, each showing several artists

Detail of work by Bill Culbert in the NZ pavilion
If we went into a palazzo, it was to see a Biennale exhibition. There were 50 of them around Venice outside the confines of the official sites, and you found them by keeping your eyes peeled for arrows pointing down narrow streets, along canals, over bridges, into dark doorways.

New Zealander Bill Culbert's neon installations  filled several rooms in a building near Santa Maria della Pieta, on the lagoon. A prominent site, actually, but we might have missed it if we hadn't been nearby buying tickets for a concert at Santa Maria della Pieta, "Vivaldi's church".

Alberto Martini (left) led the chamber group I Virtuosi Italiani through Vivaldi's Four Seasons

Angola's pavilion was near where we were staying in a B & B in Dorsoduro. We must have walked past the entrance a dozen times before, on our final night in Venice, we were stopped by a couple asking for directions to Angola - "It won first prize at the Biennale", they told us. We didn't know there were prizes! We followed them, and found ourselves inside a palazzo trying to make sense an idea which seemed too clever by half - a series of photographs of Angolan "wealth" curated around a breathtakingly rich collection of 15th century Italian art put together by an Italian industrialist from the Fascist era.

The Irish avoided such artifice. The Enclave (right) was shot in East Congo on discontinued military reconnaissance film that registers infrared light. What shows up is brutal and tragic. To find the show, you went down an alley no wider than an arm-span. It popped out onto the Grand Canal, bringing you to a discrete public gondola stop. There aren't many. Our friends Mirko and Consuelo took us to one - perhaps this same one, though it's difficult to remember - on a rambling afternoon walk after a couple of glasses of prosecco and fishy snacks at a stand-up wine bar near the Rialto market. The fare to be rowed across the Grand Canal for a Venetian is 0.70c, and two euros for anyone else.

Mirko (right) and Consuelo show us around their Venice

Crossing the Grand Canal by public gondola (and below)

Consuelo - Venice has an "ancient mind" 

That price difference applies across the board in Venice, we understand. It's an expensive city to visit, but I don't find it too offensive as a tourist to be subsidising the cost of living for Venice's 50,000 residents when I know that they jostle with 20 million tourists a year. I think it was in the American journalist John Berendt's wonderful book on Venice called City of Falling Angels that I read that Venice faces danger of deluge from two sources - rising water levels, and tourism.

The Grand Canal

Packed into a water bus (vaporetto)

The high life - a seat in St Mark's square

Sirens sound the alert for aqua alta - high tide floods St Mark's square

Dead umbrellas float outside the Doge's Palace

Gondolier has phone, will paddle

High above St Mark's square, a chef in his restaurant

All aboard all the time

Gondoliers wait for customers near Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari 
St Mark's Square bird life

Buy your padlock from the touts on Accademia bridge and lock your love onto its rails

The milk run on the Grand Canal

The clouds....where else are they so pretty?
It's a bit weird being in a city which is effectively a stage-set, and whose inhabitants are almost invisible. I played a "spot the Venetian" game. One night we found ourselves following a well-dressed woman who most definitely knew where she was going, though we didn't. Her circuitous route brought us out into St Mark's Square. Venetians crisscross the city via a network of tiny byways, called "linings" in the Venetian dialect, Mirko told us. Hiding places. And then they hide behind their masks, those impassive expressions which you meet in restaurants, at ticket offices, in your hotel. Who can blame them?

Who's the Venetian?

These kids have wheels - or their mums do

Service is a profession (and below)

Masks are THE Venetian thing, of course, crowding out every other kind of souvenir. Carnivale is Venice's major annual event, bigger than the Biennale. Do you go to Carnivale?, I asked Mirko. He and his friends used to go 30 years ago, he said. But not now. It's....he left his answer hanging. Do Venetians travel by gondola? I asked. "Never, except for weddings and funerals."


Steps leading down to the Grand Canal from Palazzo Grassi

Gondolas in the making - 12 different types of wood are used in the shell 

Mirko led us past San Trovaso where he was baptised, past Venice's last remaining gondola boatyard (above) and into the excellent cafe on the campus of the University of Ca'Foscari. He rarely looked at a street name. The city's two mazes - the maze of streets and the maze of canals - are imprinted on his mind. He grew up and was educated in Venice. His mother, who died this summer, lived in an apartment off St Mark's Square ("do you want to buy it?"). His career as an airline pilot took him away for many years, and now he and Consuelo have their boat in Turkey.  They keep a home at the Lido, but he can't stay in Venice for more than a month at a time, he said. "I need to get out."

This is what Mirko calls a "lining" - a shortcut for those in the know

Someone went to Pisa, and just had to have a tower

Slow food, and warm service - one of Venice's best, recommended by Mirko and Consuelo

Fireboats - check the poles
Consuelo is from Umbria, which means that even though she's lived in Venice for 30 years, she doesn't call herself Venetian. But she loves the place. "It's fantastic." The people here, she said, have "an ancient mind". It's the only place in Italy where people live in same way they always have. I see what she means. Forget the tourists. They're the white noise. Look at how the people live. They walk everywhere. There are no cars. They live to the rhythm of the lagoon - at high tide, there are several centimetres of water on the floor of her supermarket, but she goes shopping anyway. The garbage is collected by barge, firemen shimmy down poles into motorboats, fruit and vegetables are sold by the side of a canal from a boat. People know how to live like this, still. It's fantastic.

Mainstreet Venice

Service barge

Water taxi

Police boat

Fruit and vege barge

Sitting low in the water, heavy load aboard

Local parking, Venetian-style

Alexander Calder sculpture on Peggy's front porch
How unlikely a place to find such a brilliant explosion of modern art every two years. And not only then. If you are in Venice when the Biennale is dormant, you've got Peggy Guggenheim's  20th century avant-garde collection, housed in her spacious villa on the Grand Canal, but as importantly, I think, the Punta della Dogana. This is a stunning modern art space in the former customs building in front of Santa Maria della Salute, on the tip of Dorsoduro at the entrance to the Grand Canal. It was restored by the Japanese architect Tadao Ando and opened in 2009 to showcase art works collected by the French billionaire Francois Pinault. The building is anchored to the city from its windows, St Mark's Square on one side, Giudecca and St Giorgio Maggiore islands on the other side, and even if there were nothing shown on its walls - and the works there are exceptional  - it would be enough to rest a while in its severe, luminous spaces. A pocket Biennale, in effect.

Punta della Dogana (and photos below)

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