Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Venice Biennale: Unofficial Venice Pavilion: "Nude Outside Bath"

I don't mean to slight the official Venice Pavilion in the Biennale but the installation I saw (and posted about) Sunday in the Brazil Pavilion by Artur Barrio reminded me of another, well, exhibition I recently saw on the edges of the Giardini Pubblici.

One of the focal points in Barrio's site specific installation is a scaffold which, with its dirty sheets and two sacks of grain for pillows, its variety of empty bottles and glasses, scraps of building materials and other waste, attests to the process of the work's creation and the former presence of the artist. Messy life, or at least traces of it--some of them still rotting (the fish in the crates of salt near the make-shift cot), some of them just the usual plastic waste of our society--defy and disrupt the pristine order we might expect in an exhibition space.

Does it surprise us and pull us up short? Well, no, in this context it's kind of what one expects.

Unlike the work pictured below. Another site-specific installation, on the edge of the Riva dei Partigiani, right next to Carlo Scarpa's once-floating/now stationary Monument to the Women Partisans.

Like Artur Barrio's most famous works, his "situations", the above installation is constructed of the most modest materials and yet has a disorienting impact upon its surroundings. But the above work is not by Barrio. Nor is it, as far as I can tell, intended as art. 

A man really does seem to live here, at least part of the time. Like most residences, the decor changes periodically. For a time there were two chairs (a visitor was expected?). Before the tricolore appeared last week, there had been a large umbrella. One afternoon I saw the older man whose place it is sitting in a chair beneath the umbrella reading. For a while I thought that perhaps it was just his terrace away from home. It's a great location, with a great view, unmatched even by those with an apartment on the Riva (in Manhattan it would rent as a one bedroom for $2,000 per month). When some people get tired of being indoors they have a favorite park bench they like to sit on. I thought this might be something like that, only expanded and more intensely domesticated.

But I now think this is his only, or at least primary residence. I say this because while I have never passed by in the evening and seen him sleeping there, I did pass by a few weeks ago and see him at his morning bath. He was standing in the middle of his living area--that is, the slightly lower level with the chair--completely naked except for a blue towel draped over one shoulder. A white haired man, probably in his 60s, with a round belly. He had a hand mirror and was shaving, facing in the direction of the Partisan sculpture.

It was about 9:30 in the morning and he seemed entirely at ease, perfectly natural. Nothing insane or squalid or threatening about him. Just another naked guy shaving in what seemed to be the privacy of his own bathroom. As if the walls and roof of what had once been his own little house had suddenly vanished, but he hadn't noticed.

Others did notice. While I stood watching him a crowded vaporetto passed by less than 50 yards away. But while I could see the vaporetto passengers watching him with amusement, he seemed completely unaware of them.

Vaporetto traffic is just one of the facts of life in such a location; live there long enough and I'm sure you reach a point where you don't even notice it anymore.

This is the kind of display that would get you in trouble in the United States--and perhaps in any other Italian city in which homelessness is more visibly a problem than Venice. But the man and his residence remain, undisturbed by the authorities as far as I can tell. I should probably try to find out more about him, what his situation is. But for now I simply hope that his run extends beyond that of the Biennale.  


  1. Well, thank you for the latter, non-Biennale finding. I had seen that earlier this year, and didn't know what to make of it. I hope he doesn't have to live there during the winter months; it is so exposed to the elements. I will definitely go and see if he is OK.

  2. Yes, I'm still puzzled about if he has another place--he must during the winter. Perhaps he does at other times also? I hope. I haven't seen him lately. But of course everyone goes away for August...