Letter from Venice: The Biennale

Dear H,

At the Cini Foundation, on the island of San Giorgio, over-talented Peter Greenaway animates Paolo Veronese’s gigantic painting, The Wedding at Cana, by breaking it up, projecting it on the walls, making it rotate on itself and turning it into a three-dimensional experience by digital means. The canvas—which was perfectly “cloned” two years ago from the original painting now at the Louvre—is dissected, flares up in deflagrations, then floats as if in an amniotic liquid; the sun rises, we have fireworks and movements in the sky. Alternating with sacred music, the one hundred twenty-six wedding guests of the painting are having animated conversations, first in English, then in Venetian dialect, as seems proper at a Renaissance wedding feast, which has nothing to do with Palestine. Against the silence of the picture, there is the mise en scène of the noise of life.

At the non-museum of the Emilio Vedova Foundation, at the Salute, designed by Renzo Piano, enormous iron arms choose, move, display, displace and replace the big canvases for the viewers: they go to them, not vice versa (I am told that nine hundred alternatives are possible). The Biennale, the 53rd International Art Exhibition,[1] also appears as a triumph and a consummation of art in motion, endlessly moving about and restless, far from stationary.

To begin with, the exhibition itself has sprawled out of the Giardini and all over the city, overrunning and invading it in an unprecedented way. Exhibitions are everywhere, in almost every building: seventy-seven countries are represented (half the United Nations), and there are some forty “collateral” events, which merge and mingle with the official ones, and for which almost every available Venetian palace and institution was needed, rented, and handsomely paid. The whole city has become a venue for the exhibition. Huge posters on the walls are indistinguishable from the enormous commercial advertisements covering the façades of buildings under restoration: there is osmosis, rather than opposition.

Hordes of artists, critics, and addetti ai lavori (insiders and “authorized persons”) swarm over the calli, clog and obstruct them: they are different from the perennial shabby tourists, but they also seem in uniform, dressed in mock-bohème fashion, flaunting their press passes or “official” badges, with colorful, massive bags of catalogues and promotional literature picked up everywhere hanging heavily on their shoulders, like vu cumprà—the illegal vendors infesting every part of the city.

Inside the Giardini, and outside, the exposition seems a festival of movement and animation. The new Padiglione Italia at the Arsenale (the exhibition is named “Collaudi,” Tests) looks back to the tenets and dictates of dynamism which had inspired Italian Futurism—now largely recognized as the first European historical avant-garde—and its leader, Filippo Tommaso Martinetti, exactly a century ago. Marinetti was all for the vitality of the present, the mingling of languages and styles, the centrality of the spectator rather than the painting, which was deemed no longer sufficient to accommodate the urge and movement of modern life.

Now, however, installations of all sorts substitute for the Futurist figurations that expressed motion within the painting, and allow for, indeed covet and yearn after, a third- or fourth-dimensional mise en scène. Technological motion and mise en scène, various and variably diversified forms of staging, appear as the underlying figure—or should I say, digit—of the whole exhibition: a revealing phenomenon, though some may turn up their noses.

In the Padiglione Italia, as in other pavilions, we have small stages like those for showings of Sicilian puppets, shadow plays, animated video installations and photo projections, cascades of light, “living,” buzzing, and loop machines, magnetic bands, sculptures of light and luminous sculptures (or a combination of them, including one with scent diffusers), ticking metronomes, knives beating on stones, pools with mechanical copper snakes, views of bustling cities, performances and, needless to say, one crowded parade winding its way through the gardens.

Old sculptures are revisited, lighted, and made to stir, projections and kinetic landscapes vie in the effort of “making worlds” (the title of the whole exhibition). Neon tubes or filaments are used in almost any conceivable way and connection, for “aerial roots” and light installations hanging from the ceiling (golden threads flowing down or striving up, galaxies forming along filaments, to paraphrase some titles), for “incursions” into space or for delineating groups of figures resembling old sculptures. Films of lovely children or shadows of copulating adults surprise you from corners. Zeppelins fly over the city.

You also have silhouettes and showcases of common or choreographic objects, pots and pans, garbage heaps, scaffoldings and advertising carts, steel trees and nylon webs creating luminous constellations, false ceilings made of books, “vulnerable arrangements,” the re-creation of a complete cafeteria by Tobias Rehberger in collaboration with Artek (in fact very beautiful, colorful, and cheerful), which won the Golden Lion for the Best Artist. Even when frozen, movement seems to inspire most of the installations. There is a profusion of interior landscapes, dining rooms with set tables, drawing rooms with chairs in graceful arrangements, lamps incongruously placed on floors, shelves with unexpected combinations of objects, old-fashioned and mysterious chambers revealing dolls in uncanny postures like pseudo-human figures.

Disorientation seems one of the chief aims. Above all, and everywhere, digital and computer-generated effects sway the scene: fire explosions, luminescent spirals, flares and implosions, halfway between a state-of-the-art astronomic observatory and 2001: A Space Odyssey. High-tech apparatuses and an obsession with new materials take your breath away. Marinetti would have been delighted beyond measure. Earth globes partake of this insistence on lightness and light—in one, the continents are marked by neon filaments throbbing like veins. Maps of the world, of countries, and of cities can be perused on floors and walls, together with views of villages and of airports under stormy clouds: they are still but seem ready for and expectant of life.

I believe it would enormously delight my grandchildren, this wandering among congeries of objects, scintillating gadgets, photo quizzes, household appliances with pilot lights flashing in the dark, imaginary libraries, this sorting out of what is displayed on floors in strange arrangements, again standing halfway between enchanting toys and didactic demonstrations. The silent elements become figures of speech. Visitors are drawn into the mysteries of creative processes: installations are indeed “making a world.” Strange monsters suddenly appear as you enter a room or hover from the roof, like mastodons in a Museum of Natural History: are they relics of an ancient past or harbingers of an undeciphered future?

The mise en scène is in the Gardens themselves: a dead body floating head downward in a swimming pool, among general indifference, as did happen more than once at our resort beaches. At the Arsenale, red rubber dinghies float peacefully in a shipyard, with microphones hanging on them, but no sound is heard, and we wait for them to start suddenly. The great postcolonial countries—Canada, Australia—rely on self-representation: films and videos of busy, even rowdy, city life, of deserts, boundless spaces, human misery in the outback, and splendid natural landscapes. The pavilions of the Nordic countries are turned into inhabitable interiors for visitors to stroll through; that of the Czech and SlovakRepublics is, simply, a lovely garden, like so many real ones around the world.

The United Arab Emirates merely present their fabulous cities rising in the deserts of sand and water. Their exhibition, catalogue, and DVDs recall those of any tourist board of some standing, complete with the types of rooms offered by luxury and familial hotels and aim at the assertion of a successful nation building: “The Story of the Poem of the National Anthem,” “Imaging and Building a City from Scratch,” “Multiculturalism and the Creation of a Culture District” (strictly orthodox, as it seems). The New Zealanders resort to their usual Maori dances. Smaller countries like Hong Kong, Singapore, or the Union of the Comoros show snippets of their everyday reality and seem to tell you: just wait, we are coming.

One million postcards of “Venezia,” fit for mailing to friends, were given away—with no pictures of Venice under the inscription, however, portraying instead one hundred landscapes and world sights connected with water: the city, too, is metamorphosed and thus travels worldwide in disguise. In a painting, it is shown looking on an empty ocean: transmutations and transfigurations involve its image, too.

Opposite my university office window, a couple of years ago, an enormous, shining steel skull eyed me from the water level of the Grand Canal: it was far from funereal and macabre. Now under the windows of our department is an old Russian submarine—named SubTiziano, an installation by Aleksandr Ponomarev. It is rundown and rickety but painted with multicolored stripes; it blows up water from four holes, like a beached, dying whale, but it is rather cheerful, not lugubrious, totally different from the old German U-boats, so grim and treacherous. This is again the power of transmutation. The submarine floats and does not move. Yet it seems ready to do so, quite willing to break loose from the moorings which keep it afloat, and to take part in the great mise en scène of the city.

For in the motion that animates the frenzied visitors and the aspirations of an art which does not repudiate, but is in fact quite willing and ready to avail itself of all ancient and new technologies, Venice itself stands still in its own staging and mise en scène—partly technological, too—which the centuries have fixed and glossed over. It seems rather detached in this dynamic, frantic, convulsive confrontation with every new form of art (though “Where is art?” asked Italy’s elder art critic), and repeated assaults. Such shows and spectacles were seen, staged, endured and absorbed before.


Sergio Perosa

[1] At the Giardini and the Arsenale until November 22.