Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Narcissa on the Grand Canal

Selfies are ubiquitous in Venice: there are even three little-noticed instances of the practice in this detail from Veronese's "Martyrdom of San Sebastiano" in the church to which the saint gives his name.

It was early February during a difficult morning at the end of a bad week. But the sun was out, despite the chilly temperature, and there's usually some consolation to be found in a vaporetto ride on the Grand Canal between two points you usually traverse on foot. Well, at least in low season, and in that brief gap between the end of the commuter rush into town from the mainland and the start of the daily tourist invasion.

I boarded the number 2 vaporetto that runs between Piazzale Roma and the Rialto and found all the outdoor fantail seats empty. I chose one with my back to the cabin: protected from the wind, open to the sun.

But just as the boat pulled out of the shadow of the fermata and I felt the sun, gloriously, full on my face, she barged out onto the rear deck, her wheeled suitcase getting stuck behind her, as they always do, in the closing cabin door. A few moments later I glanced at her long enough to see the usual thing: a young tourist immediately turning her smartphone on herself, and turning the famous sights of one of the world's most beautiful cities into so many selfie backdrops. I turned away and shut my eyes against the 10,000 suns glittering off the water.

But try as I might to focus only on the warmth from all that reflected light, I couldn't help but sense her persistent presence just three feet from me, seemingly in constant motion. I reluctantly opened my eyes to a closeup of her glorious head of black corkscrew curls--there they were, springing from the crown of her head and hanging in a long dense curtain. She was in the act of shooting herself bent over at the waist, to showcase, I guess, the luxurious full length of her locks falling across her face before the backdrop of the Grand Canal.

Truly, she had an admirable head of hair. But, alas, I'd soon be seeing it, and her, from every conceivable angle--some of them almost in defiance of gravity, not to mention personal safety--as she engaged in a series of contortions just a yard from me.

Left profile, right profile, full frontal with a simper. Three-quarters from both sides; leaning well out over the deck rail, first forwards, then--arched so much as to risk spinal injury--way backwards. Her torso twisted to one extreme, then the other, hunched this way and that, tilting every which way; her face foreshortened from above, then from below.

Tintoretto had nothing on her when it came to depicting the body in space, though he studied the form of others while her attention never strayed from her own.

Insistent though her presence was, I tried to avert my eyes. I wanted simply to feel the sun on my face, to be aware of nothing else. Surely, this wasn't too much to hope for on a bad morning after a trying week.

But then she asked me, in Italian, if I would use her smart phone to film her. She thrust the thing into my face. So unprepared was I for this request, so stunned, actually, that had I taken any longer to reply I think that, in spite of her ardent self-interest, she would finally have given up on me as being deaf and mute, totally incapable of communication.

When I finally did answer I professed feebleness, saying I had no idea how to use a smartphone.

And this, as my wife can attest, was not even a lie. For the only thing you can be sure of when you hand me your smart phone is that I'll immediately touch some indiscernible part of it which will make the app you wanted to show me shut down, or the image disappear, or the video halt--or be entirely erased. Your long-neglected great aunt in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, or Hong Kong, or Papua, New Guinea (whose number you don't even recall having ever punched into your phone) will suddenly get a call from you, your stock portfolio will abruptly undergo profound (and costly) transformations, and in two days time Amazon will deliver 750 pounds of dog food especially formulated for Siberian Husky sled dogs to your primary place of residence in Miami or Cairo, Buenos Aires or Accra.

But she, having no idea of the very real risks she was running, would not take no for an answer. The more I shook my head--helplessly, beseechingly, finally quite pathetically--the more insistent she became.

And so I found myself with her smart phone (already recording video) in my hands, held gingerly with the tips of my fingers, and begrudgingly trying to keep her in frame as she turned away and took two steps from me toward the fantail railing, then spun back toward the smartphone with a look of utterly delighted astonishment. As if nothing in the world could have surprised her more completely (and thrillingly) than the discovery of this smartphone on the tail end of that vaporetto recording her of all people! Why, however in the world did it get there? Like Doris Day, brighter than the day itself, turning to face an audience of millions in the opening of her own eponymous tv series.

Then she turned away from the camera again, toward the city, and threw both arms out wide, as if to open her great heart to all the splendors of the Grand Canal, to welcome them into her very soul: utterly a-swoon in this experience of ecstatic communion. Or at least at the thought of what she would look like miming this communion on video--with all the affectation and self-consciousness, I might add, of an unemployable silent film actress.

I looked at the seconds passing on the video counter: a mere 30 since this recording had begun. But it felt to me like 5 of the most uncomfortable minutes of social interaction I'd had in a very long time.

She stepped toward me and reclaimed her smartphone. No small expression of gratitude, no remark of any kind. She was too ravenous to gaze upon herself in playback to even think of such things.

Which is when I realized that the discomfort of this particular social interaction came from the fact that there was almost nothing "inter" about it. There had been nothing reciprocal about what had passed not so much "between" myself and the young woman, as beside the both of us--or at least beside one of us.

On my side, of course, I couldn't help but be aware that here was a person asking me to engage with her in a way I didn't want to (ie, record her). I was well aware that I'd been called upon by another person to recognize, if not her per se, at least what she wanted from me at that moment.

But she gave no sign at any point of having a similar basic sense of me, even merely in the way we're typically aware of strangers. That is, of me as an unknown person who might not want to do something she asked me to do for her, and who actually had the right to refuse such a request.

This common (or perhaps once-common) sense of a stranger in all their inherent if unknown person-hood seemed to her not just beside the point, as we say, but beside or beyond or beneath even consideration.

Though she called upon me (or imposed herself upon me) to do something for her, the only interaction of which she seemed truly aware was of herself with her own depicted (or soon-to-be-captured) self. I was merely the means by which she could carry on what appeared to be her obsession with a version of her self she crafted and recorded and presented on social media. To this passionate love affair between her embodied self and her screen self I was merely an anonymous bystander--a watcher of her, at best, a tool for her, at least--even as she directly addressed me.

Now, this didn't offend me. I'd never hoped for anything more from her than to be allowed to sit anonymously and unnoticed with my eyes closed and the sun on my face. And this is what I tried to return to after I returned her phone to her.

But after she'd gazed upon the freshly-captured video of herself to a point of at least temporary satiety, she resumed striking poses, in a fresh, extended paroxysm of selfie-absorption.

One magnificent palace after another slid by on the banks around us, but she had eyes only for herself.

I began to feel dismayed for her, as I might if I found myself seated on the NYC subway beside some unfortunate person locked so tightly in their own private world that they babbled incoherently to themself.

Then I started to feel embarrassed for her. As if the person beside me on that imaginary NYC subway was maniacally swept so far beyond the main current of acceptable public behavior as to have thrust both hands down the front of their trousers in pursuit of some distinctly private pleasure.

But unlike the analogous people I imagined above, readily dismissed by most people as lunatics, this young woman was, in truth, right in the swim of today's mainstream.

By today's standards, set as they are by social media, she might have been considered a little bit excessive, but not much. On the contrary, she's merely an aspiring "influencer," as other ambitious youths with narcissistic inclinations in the backward days of yore (say, a decade ago) might quaintly have aspired to become models or actors or singers or, gasp, even writers.

No pitiful minor Narcissa was she, I realized, but a goddess of the age, far far removed from actual, material, three-dimensional, sentient life. As I suppose all goddesses and gods must by definition be--and as so much of our contemporary life is, and compels us to be.

It made me wonder (much more broadly) if, rather than an aggressively narcissistic celebration of the self, this was in fact an aggressive, preemptive melancholic defense against the inevitable loss of everything humanity has labored long and hard to create: capital cities much larger than Venice submerged by rising tides, cultural treasures pillaged, social bonds devalued to utter worthlessness, always-precarious human ideals blithely destroyed by flag-waving crucifix-kissing charlatans, thieves, and hate-mongers....

If the whole world can be turned into mere simulcra, digital images, stage-sets, properties (in all senses of the word), then there are probably even some last dollars and power to be squeezed out of the performance of the world's destruction--for an audience too intoxicated by the spectacle to realize that its end is also theirs

Down this rabbit hole of despair I found myself sliding... We hadn't yet reached the line's last stop at the Rialto, but I'd seen enough. I got up and left her there on the fantail, still (always) in the throes of capturing herself, a snake with her own tail in her mouth, an unbroken loop of self-regard, and walked through the cabin to the vaporetto's foredeck, open to the chill winter wind--happy to feel it in my face, the movement of the boat beneath my feet. The world is real. 


Sunday, June 9, 2019

13 Views of Two Different Kinds of Demonstrations from Yesterday's Anti-Cruise Ship Rally

The wall of police not only meant that demonstrators couldn't enter Piazza San Marco via the Piazzetta, but that tourists couldn't get out that way either

"Venice is just a series of stage sets!" declares nearly everyone at some point during their first extended visit to Venice, either to themselves, silently, or to their co-travelers, or, often enough, in print.

Yesterday's rally calling for the end of cruise ship traffic anywhere in the already-strained ecosystem of the Venetian lagoon ultimately came down to a question of who would be allowed to act in the city's most famous, and historically significant set: Piazza San Marco.

Thousands of anti-cruise ship activists outfitted themselves for their role, with flags, banners, placards, and printed T-shirts, and Venice's law enforcement (over 200 of them, according to local reports) came dressed for theirs, with helmets, shields, and body armor. Dressed to impress, some might say--or suppress, as others might put it.

It was a lively but peaceful rally; I saw no indication in the lead-up to it that anyone was planning for it to be anything else. There were no reported conflicts or incidents, nor any hint of vandalism. City authorities were obviously determined to demonstrate a certain point by preventing the march from concluding in Piazza San Marco with such a show of force. But in their sheer numbers demonstrators made their own point by filling the space made available to them along the molo at water's edge. 




A nearly 180 degree panorama of the waterfront between the Biblioteca Marciana (at far right) and the Palazzo Ducale (far left)

"Galan, Zaia, Brugnaro: Unworthy,"



















Saturday, June 8, 2019

Police in Full Riot Gear Block an Anti-Cruise Ship Rally from Entering Piazza San Marco, This Afternoon


Given the fact that there have been a few reported instances in the last year or two of a solitary painter (who was only painting, not displaying or trying to sell work) being told by local police to pack up his easel and vacate Piazza San Marco, there was little chance that what turned out to be thousands of demonstrators against the continued presence of cruise ships in the Venetian lagoon would be allowed to conclude their planned procession this afternoon in the city's most famous public space. 

But that didn't stop the immense and very vocal crowd from trying.

Their march began late this afternoon near the San Basilio Cruise Terminal, at the western end of the Zattere, where an out-of-control 60-ton cruise ship rammed into a moored (and much smaller) river boat cruise ship last Sunday. Chanting and singing, the demonstators made their way through the city, then past the Giardini Reali to the molo, where they were met by a line of blue: scores of polizia and carabinieri in full riot gear arrayed shoulder-to-shoulder from the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, to the columns of San Teodoro and San Marco, and on to the Palazzo Ducale.

Prevented from entering Piazza San Marco, the rally calling for an end to all cruise ship traffic in the lagoon took place in front of the Palazzo Ducale, as you can see in the image above.

Venice's Questura (or police) estimated the crowd of demonstrators to be 5,000. Considering there are now less than 53,000 residents in Venice--25% of whom are elderly--that would be in itself a huge number. But I think that photographs and film taken along the path of the march will show that the actual number of participants was much larger. Perhaps much much larger. One news outlet puts the number of demonstrators at 8,000. Another has estimated 10,000.

I'll post more images tomorrow.


Sunday, June 2, 2019

The Wedding Is Off: Cruise Ship Crashes into River Boat and Dock, This Morning

Long-delayed near the mouth of the lagoon while crews addressed this morning's first cruise ship crash, a second cruise ship on its way to dock at Tronchetto passes the wreckage of the riverboat in the Giudecca Canal this afternoon

Today the traditional Festa della Sensa was scheduled to be celebrated: a re-enactment of the ancient annual ceremony in which the Doge, standing aboard his golden barge the Bucintoro and surrounded by dignitaries in other boats, threw a gold ring into the Adriatic, symbolizing Venice's marriage to (and dominion over) the sea.

Of course, Venice ain't what it used to be way back when, and its relationship to the sea has also changed. Long gone are the days when the Republic's fleet of merchant ships and galleys ventured far out to sea and returned from far-flung ports with treasure; gone, too, are the more modest fleets of fishing boats which in much more recent times plied the Adriatic.

These days, Venice is a much more passive recipient of crude oil and, of course, tourists, and it was one of the massive cruise ships carrying the latter which caused the cancellation of today's planned festivities when it plowed into a docked river boat alongside the western reaches of the Zattere, injuring five people.

The Youtube videos of the crash are remarkable, with people screaming and trying to flee the docked riverboat before the immense cruise ship crushes it: BIG SHIP CRASH

There is even one taken from onboard the cruise ship itself as it bears down upon the idle riverboat: VENICE Cruise ship crashing into pier in Venice

For many many years opponents of the ever-increasing number of cruise ships coming into Venice have warned of just such an accident, imagining the damage that could be done to the Palazzo Ducale, for example.

But the cruise industry, and those politicians who do its bidding, have consistently assured worried Venetians that each monster ship is leashed to two stout tug boats as it makes it way along the historic city. With one such tug in front of it, and another following it, they assured us--in spite of instances to the contrary--that a cruise ship could never possibly stray too far toward the fondamente of the city. The mighty tugs would always be there to keep it in line.

The two video links above demonstrate this claim was nothing but a false assurance, a useful fiction; quite simply, a lie. The two tug boats in the video appear completely powerless to alter the course of the cruise ship.

Predictably, the cruise ship industry and those who do its bidding, such as Venice's mayor--in other words, the very same people who assured us that no such accident could ever possibly happen in the first place--have seized upon this accident as proof that the controversial re-dredging of a deep water channel through the lagoon that would allow cruise ships to come to Venice's port via Marghera (rather than through the city center) must start immediately.

Or, in other words, now that the danger and damage of which those opposed to cruise ships in the lagoon have long warned has actually come to pass, Venice has no choice but to immediately begin to dredge a canal whose dangers and damages have also been well-documented by the same people who warned against the possibility of an occurrence like today's.

This rather shocking argument (in which deceit and incompetence are put forth as virtues) is surprisingly common these days in both my native land of America as well as in Italy (not to mention the UK). The basic absurd thrust of which is as follows: Yes, we have lied to you and we have failed you; the things our opponents have warned against have actually come to pass; which is precisely why you should give us full authority to incompetently and greedily pursue our next even more dubious endeavor.


In truth, cruise ships are not only a problem for Venice and its lagoon. Yes, in Venice their 24-hour emissions while they are in port are partly responsible for the city having particularly bad and unhealthy air quality, and the proposed deep water channel to be dredged for them will, among other ill effects, lead to more frequent and more intense acqua alta.

But they are actually a disaster wherever they go, dumping hundreds of millions of gallons of fecal waste into the Mediterranean sea each year, and emitting more black carbon than any other big ships (see graphic below, measured in tons).

from the International Council on Clean Transportation report on black carbon emissions in global shipping, 2015

Indeed, as the short film entitled "Apologia Mediterraneo" by artist Newton Harrison in the current show Artists Need to Create on the Same Scale that Society Has the Capacity to Destroy: Mare Nostrum (Complesso della Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Penitenti, Fondamenta di Cannaregio 910) makes abundantly clear, humankind's own "marriage" to the Mediterranean Sea has become an abusive one, which is quite literally killing it (among the facts cited: total fish population has dropped 65% and is still dropping; in the course of their 9,000 annual trips across its surface, tankers legally release 40 million gallons of oil into it each year in tank washing operations).

As long as Venice's authorities continue to ignore the damage their policies inflict upon not only upon the lagoon but upon the Mediterranean, maybe it's time to entirely discontinue the traditional "marriage to the sea." The marriage was always one-sided anyway, with the Venetian Republic offering neither to love nor cherish its "betrothed," but simply to exploit.

We know the effects of such irresponsible exploitation now, just as we know the damaging effects of cruise ship travel, both in Venice and on the Mediterranean--and those who continue to support such exploitation and such travel might more accurately represent their relationship to the sea, and to Venice itself, with a funeral rather than a wedding.



Saturday, June 1, 2019

Out and About at Noon Today: 5 Views

A gelato in one hand, a GPS app in the other--in Venice only one of these is worth bothering with 



Of the trio of pests which are prone to suddenly swoop down upon a formerly pleasant lunch outdoors in Venice, certain street musicians are every bit as disruptive, and much more persistent, than the hungriest pigeon or seagull



"Discover a new point of view" it says--but I actually preferred the old one, without the huge gaudy advertising billboard in Campo San Salvador obscuring the facade of the Scuola Grande of San Teodoro, not to mention the billboard (not pictured) that has become a permanent fixture of nearby Campo San Bartolomio (ie, the degradation of Venice continues apace under the admirable guidance of its mayor G. Brugnaro)


Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Call It Stormy Wednesday, This Morning

Don't look now, but there's a small detail in the above which may recall Nicolas Roeg's famously spooky 1973 film about Venice, starring Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland

The heading of this post is taken from the title of the old blues song "Call It Stormy Monday (But Tuesday Is Just As Bad)."

Originally written and performed by T-Bone Walker, it's been often on my mind--and playlist--this spring here in Venice as rainy day follows rainy day. Albert King with Stevie Ray Vaughn, The Allman Brothers, and Eva Cassidy all performed bluesy covers of it, if you find yourself looking at similar weather patterns where you are.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

No Laughing Matter, This Afternoon

Considering all the problems that city authorities have allowed (or maybe even encouraged) to spiral out of control in Venice--absurd day-tripper overcrowding, illegal Air BnB rentals, cruise ships, take-away fast food stands, and, most recently, chain candy shops--one might be excused for imagining that anything goes here. But apparently certain transgressions, such as that committed by the two would-be Chaplins above soliciting tourist euros in exchange for a photo op without a license, can still bring law enforcement out in full force.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Local Color: Rio di Santa Maria Formosa



This May has, thus far, seemed as mercurial as a typical Venetian March, teasing you with a soft bright sweet temperate morning or afternoon so lovely as to suggest you've passed out of the world of flux and changing weather and into Eden--only to cloud up and rain for two days straight. Usually Saturday and Sunday.

"Marzo pazzo," is what Venetians say ("crazy March"). This year we've also had maggio pazzo.

But even a string of gray days need not be uniformly so, as the freshly painted topa above attests.


Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Pigeons (And Part of a Winged Lion), This Afternoon

Ca' Da Mosto on the Grand Canal, long under renovation, is the site of the Venice Pavilion during the newly-opened edition of the 58th International Art Biennale and the drab gray sheeting that usually conceals the scaffolding of any facade under renovation has been replaced by a large pale hieroglyph of St Mark's lion (which also evokes the ferro at the front of a gondola) upon a fluorescent highlighter-pen yellow ground. 


Wednesday, May 8, 2019

10 Views of the Second Day of the 58th Venice Art Biennale's Vernissage, Today

Viewers contemplate a work by Martin Puryear in the United States Pavilion


Dancers in Canadian-born, London-based Zadie Xa's processional work Grandmother Mago perform in the Biennale Giardni (above and below)





A view of the Dutch Pavilion in which works by Iris Kensmil and Remy Jungerman are on display

The curator of the Dutch Pavilion, Anne-Claire Schmitz, answers questions about the work of the artist duo Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys on display there

An unidentified man makes a point to a woman wearing a rack of mirrored sunglasses on her head


Thinking Head, a work by Lara Favretto installed atop the roof of the Giardini's Central Pavilion, almost completely obscures its facade and the space before it

When the wind is coming from a certain direction, the cool fine mist produced by Favretto's work creates what looks and feels likes a thickly foggy winter day in Venice--regardless of what the actual weather of the day is

Prague-based artist Stanislav Kolíbal discusses his works on display in the Czech & Slovak Pavilion (above and below)



Tuesday, May 7, 2019

7 Glimpses from the Opening Vernissage Day of the 58th Venice International Art Biennale, Today

The General Director of this edition of the Biennale, Ralph Rugoff (in blue jacket), discusses an installation by Chinese artist Nabuqi as its protagonist, a spotted cow, approaches on its rails


I spent most of this first day of the Vernissage walking among the works of the 79 artists selected by this Biennale's General Director, Ralph Rugoff, the director of London's Hayword Gallery. All 79 are presented in both the Central Pavilion of the Giardinni and the long long exhibition space of the Arsenale. I'm hoping to get to the national pavilions tomorrow.

I haven't the time to say much more right now than if you like painting and sculpture/installations then this appears to be the Biennale you've been waiting for. There is a lot of it in the spaces curated by Mr Rugoff.

Some of these works, like the paintings and screen prints of Njideka Akunyili Crosby (whose work is also now on display at the Victoria Miro Gallery in Venice, a short distance from La Fenice), I really liked. Some of the rest gave me a new appreciation for video art, and an impatience to get to another instance of it in the show. And this perhaps also explains why one of the pieces I was most struck by today was the sound piece "The Ground" by the young Lebanese-born artist Tarek Atoui, well into the long walk that is the Arsenale segment of the exhibition.

But lacking time, I'll post some more images from today below, with not much more than their titles.

The Vernissage is the time for major artists, and curators, to give interviews--a lot of them  



As the large robot of the work "Can't Help Myself," by the Chinese artists Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, loudly and violently went about trying to squeegee up the red liquid that continuously oozed from itself within its windowed cell I found myself reminded of the psychotic killer robot from the old and justly forgotten film Robocop II, as well as of a mechanized slaughterhouse. Alas, according to the placard posted beside the work, I was supposed to be thinking about the "elusiveness of art, its defiant refusal to be pinned down and fixed in one place" (except, obviously, on such explanatory exhibition placards). 

"The Mighty-Mighty Lines," by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye 


Sculptures in glass by Andra Ursuta

Detail from the sound work "The Ground," by Tarek Atoui

The virtual reality work "Endodrome", by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster

With four days until the Biennale opens to the public there were still a few details to be worked out in some pieces today, such as this one by the collective Slavs and Tatars