Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Loving Venice to Death

Imagine a parking lot of diesel cars idling outside your apartment on the Riva all day
The monsters have returned in full force.

No, I'm not talking about tourists, but about cruise ships. A recent article in the New York Times lays out some of the serious concerns over the number of cruise ships now passing through the Giudecca Canal and the Basin of San Marco and their potentially disastrous effects on the city, its foundations, and structures. Here is the link:


The massive stern of a cruise ship dwarfs the home (center) of the famous seafaring Cabots.
Additional information on cruise ships in Venice (among many other things) can be found in the excellent publication The Venice Report: Demography, Tourism, Financing, and Change of Use of Buildings (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2009). A must-read, as they say, for anyone interested in the challenges facing the city today. Among the most interesting statistics reported there:

The average stay of a cruise ship in Venice was 22 hours at the time the study was being prepared--but I strongly suspect that that amount of time has decreased to allow for more ships to pass through the ports. In other words, like the vast majority of visitors to Venice, the tourists off cruise ships are day-trippers.

In fact, of the 16.5 million total visitors per year who visit the city, 12.5 million are in town for just a few hours.

And according to the Venice Report, the average total expenditure in Venice of those here for a few hours is 19 euros.

19 euros.

To return specifically to those who visit on cruise ships, just over half of those 1.6 million whom the Times says visited last year bother to disembark at all. 60% according to the Venice Report.

Such statistics, along with information included in the Times piece, makes me wonder who exactly, aside from the infamously irresponsible cruise lines themselves (eg, http://www.foe.org/getting-grip-cruise-ship-pollution), is profiting from this huge and perilous increase in cruise traffic?

As various American cities have been plagued by drive-by shootings, so Venice is plagued by cruise-by tourism.

It's perfectly understandable that so many people around the world would wish to see Venice at least once before they die, but it would be awfully nice if they'd do so in a way that does not contribute to the death of the city itself.
Venetians have much more reason to fear cruise ships than cruise ships have to fear Venetians

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Back Doors to the Biennale

The 54th Venice Biennale opens on June 4 and preparations now seem to be going on almost around the clock--at least in some pavillions. Below are photos (taken this evening) of the back doors of a large pavillion officially considered part of the "Giardini" venue, though it is located not in the public gardens themselves but across a little bridge on the island of Sant' Elena.

In a strange way the old graffiti I walk past nearly every day (& that you see below) seems to have suddenly become, even before the Biennale has opened, an integral part of the exhibition.

Every inch of this large exhibition space is as purple as its back door.

The glow of a painter's lamp seems to promise all the significance of a video installation.

A graffiti plant thrives among real ones; a real shirt hangs among paintings.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Found Still LIfe

Fresh from the Rialto Market
I doubt my wife, Jen, was thinking in terms of composition when she left these on the counter the other morning...

I'd never tasted Costoluto ("ribbed") tomatoes before and bought them only because Sandro and I both just liked the way they looked--but I know now that they're more than just picturesque.

I've seen references to both Costoluto Fiorentino and Costoluto Genovese varieties, but whichever these might be they were grown, I was told, in the south of Italy.

Monday, May 23, 2011

"Boy with Frog" as Installation

Detail from "Boy with Frog" installation
Ever since Marcel Duchamp first displayed a urinal in an exhibition a certain strain of art has asked us to think about how our sense of the "aesthetic qualities" of a work can depend as much upon the context in which we see something as on the object itself. It asks us to pay close attention to context, as in some cases the context is everything.

I don't think context is everything in the case of "Boy with Frog," but I now realize that, actually, it's far more interesting and suggestive than the sculpture alone.

One can say that the "Boy with Frog" subverts, through its subject matter and materials, the tradition of monumental marble public sculpture in Italy. But more simply it subverts this tradition far more thoroughly in another way: it is not a public sculpture.

It is a private sculpture, commissioned by François Pinault, displayed in one of the most prominent public spaces of Venice. It is a part of Pinault's massive and influential collection of contemporary art. Pinault also owns the art auction house of Christie's.

If people can debate the merit of the sculpture itself, there can be little debate about the work's value. That is, market value. We are reminded of that quite literally 24 hours a day. By the armed(!) guard stationed at the "Boy's" side while the Punta della Dogana is open; by the protective case that surrounds it after hours.

In contrast, say, to the Mona Lisa, whose fame (and value) long pre-dated her special security measures, Charles Ray's "Boy with Frog" entered the world with its security apparatus intact. The security insists upon (one could argue creates) the sculpture's worth right from the get-go. Which is what leads me to suggest that "Boy with a Frog" be considered not as sculpture but as installation.

The fact is, that armed guard and that large protective box are as integral to the work as the frog itself. (The boxing of the sculpture each evening and its unboxing each morning are as ceremonial, in their own their own small way, as the Changing of the Guards at Buckingham Palace.) It is impossible to see the work without either the one or the other--and to ignore either guard or protective box is to miss what I now think are the most suggestive aspects of the work.

"Boy with Frog" as installation is an exemplary work of contemporary art precisely because of the way it foregrounds (among other things):

--the privatization of public space, and public works, and public welfare, that is occurring throughout the West. (Venice's Carnevale itself, to cite a fairly innocuous example, is now run by a private company.)

--the way in which the market value of a work of art is manipulated from the very outset by those who have the most to gain (quite literally) from it. 

--the way in which private interests require the constant surveillance of public space. (Imagine the auction house value of a sculpture displayed for years on such a prime Venetian spot.)

I'm generally no fan of graffitti, but in the case of Charles Ray's "Boy with Frog" installation, the first sign that the work has finally become an actual public part of the city in which it resides will appear with the sloppy spray of a paint can or scrawl of a marker.

You can see more on this sculpture here: http://veneziablog.blogspot.com/2011/05/whats-that-boy-doing-here.html

Saturday, May 21, 2011

What's That Boy Doing Here?

Art Appreciation (click for enlargement)
Considering Charles Ray's "Boy with a Frog" was commissioned especially for the site it now occupies at the Punta della Dogana the thing I find most striking about it is how very little it has to do with its place.

For one thing, in a city long committed to its own glorification, to awe-inspiring displays of wealth and power, it is a deflating piece of work. This is in no way a bad thing. In fact it may be just what is needed: a distinctly contemporary gesture in a city that trades on its past.

Except that the great old Italian figural tradition of public monumental sculpture to which it alludes is of very little importance here in Venice. Sure, there are Sansovino's figures of Neptune and Mars in the courtyard of the Palazzo Ducale, but these big guys are far from the first, or second, or even seventh thing most people think of when they think of Venice.

Florence or Rome would provide the appropriate sculptural context in which the subversive intent of Ray's work would be foregrounded. Ray has added one more monumental figure for any tourist following the standard itinerary through Italy to photograph: Trevi Fountain (check), Michelangelo's David (check), and Venice's giant Boy (check). But of course there is nothing heroic about this last work, about the boy's accomplishments. He has the youth of David, and some of his stature, but in contrast to the public civic aim of David's act (and Michelangelo's work), Ray's physically immature boy is wholly absorbed in a conquest of only small, private and rather cruel interest.

In Ray's presentation there is perhaps a healthy skepticism about the public uses and abuses of heroism--but what it's doing in Venice I couldn't really say. As far as the subversion of heroism and certain inflated notions of masculinity goes, I'd suggest that Donatello's "David" in Florence was actually more immediately to the point. True, I suppose Ray's "Boy" in some sense conjures the Venetian sculptor Canova's "Perseus with the Head of Medusa" but that work, in addition to itself being a late and rather unconvincing example of heroic marble sculpture (heroism wasn't exactly Canova's thing), is also nowhere near Venice. I've seen it in NY's Metropolitan Museum--which I think might actually be a better venue for Ray's work as well.

For aside from the fact that while one can still see crabs, for example, in the waters of Venice--and any number of other salt-water creatures--that frog, and the boy who holds it, strikes me as thoroughly American born and bred. One can claim that Ray's large whiter-than-marble-because-it-ain't-marble work is the final step in the moribund tradition of Italian monumental public sculpture (dead boy walking), evoking David. But it's Huck Finn I've always seen when I look at the work and, gratifyingly enough, it was Huck Finn, according to an interview I've just found online with Ray, that the artist says he was actually thinking of as he created this figure.

He may also have had in mind the (rather cloying) work of American sculptor Edward Henry Berge (1876-1924) who crafted his own versions of a boy with a frog for public spaces in the early 20th Century.
Edward Berge's "Boy with Frog" in Baltimore
In any case, none of this is to say that I think it's a bad work. On the contrary, I think it suggests very interesting ideas about humanity's relationship to nature, contemporary notions of the self, of power, heroism, narcissism... Well, I have to stop myself from rambling on about it. It intrigues me to think of it located in New Orleans. Or, more pointedly, on the Mall in Washington DC.

But I don't know exactly what it's doing in Venice. Here it succeeds simply as big budget spectacle, and in the world of contemporary art I suppose that's considered enough.

You can see more on this sculpture here: http://veneziablog.blogspot.com/2011/05/boy-with-frog-as-installation.html

Monday, May 16, 2011

Evening in I Giardini

The air around i giardini pubblici is fragrant with more flowers than I know the name of, so you don't even need to stop in order to smell them--but of course it doesn't hurt to.

Monday, May 9, 2011

What Do Gondoliers Daydream About?

guest photo by Larry Castek
Many of us whose work is done on solid ground (literally if not figuratively) find relief from our labor in daydreaming of languid hours spent in a gondola, being rowed through the quiet back canals of Venice. But what do gondoliers daydream about during their working hours?

Click on the below detail from today's guest photo by Larry Castek for one answer:

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Pope in a Boat

Pope Benedetto's 2-day visit to Venice kicked off this evening with his arrival by helicopter at the Naval Military School Francesco Morosini on Sant' Elena, at the eastern tip of the city. Crowds lined the Riva of Sant' Elena and, I suspect, stretched all the way to Piazzetta San Marco, where he was scheduled to speak at an outdoor stage centered not far in front of the columns topped by the lion of San Marco and San Teodoro (not in between them, where the old Republic was wont to execute people).

He arrived an hour later than scheduled, which was not such a bad thing, as the evening light just kept getting prettier and prettier as I waited with a group of about 200 people atop a wooden bridge near the gate of the school, not far from where he was due to land (behind hedges), and with a view of a pathway where two lines of military types (some students?) awaited him. I've noticed that being in a crowd of Italians awaiting an event can often be as entertaining as the event itself turns out to be. This evening was no exception.

When, ten minutes after scheduled arrival, a large green military helicopter passed over the crowd then began to lower itself behind the academy's tall trees and hedges children called to their mothers to stop talking to friends and come watch with them, fathers picked up their small children, everyone readied their cameras, the military people and MPs all came to attention.

But it wasn't the Pope.

First false alarm: Ready, focus... No Pope.
 "Eh, of course not," was the general response, everyone defaulting to the kind of bemused resignation common to lines of people waiting in Italian post offices, or the office of the town's registrar (ufficio anagrafe).

Then, a short time later, the sound of a second green helicopter. "Eccolo!" ("Here he is!") people declared, amused at themselves for ever thinking the Pope would be arriving on the first helicopter--like some over-eager Nobody.

Again the same jockeying for position on the bridge and military readiness.

Again, no Pope.

He arrived in the third large 'copter--of a pristine white, not some dingy military green--and when it came within sight the bells in the campanile of Sant' Elena began to ring deliriously without cease. A nice touch. 

All of us on the bridge could barely see him when finally he appeared at a distance of some 300 yards, but there was a spontaneous burst of happy relieved applause. In fact, it was hard to tell exactly which glimpse of crimson was the Pope, which the Patriarch of Aquileia, because the color (and whoever was wearing it) vanished immediately behind the black garb of the Church and security retinues.

As it turned out, the Pople was much easier to see as he passed in his boat along the Riva.

This particular security boat directly preceded the Pope's boat. Years of Catholic education gave me a very guilty conscience, but tell me that scary dude in the back ain't staring hard right at me.
Mr. Fashionably Late

Friday, May 6, 2011

Sciopero Generale

                         "Let's be realists, let's dream the impossible"
                                                                           --Che Guevara

As every visitor to Italy knows, scioperi come and scioperi go--almost always before I can even glean what the strike was against, or what for. In fact, few people seem to know the purpose of all the various strikes, which tend to shut down our son's school about once a month, and the vaporetti for most of two Fridays per month. 

But today's strike was different. This one was in favor of 12 concrete and admirable proposals, ranging from issues affecting women, students, immigrants, workers and pensioners to upcoming referendums opposing nuclear power and the privatization of the water supply. Copies of these proposals were well circulated, and simultaneous demonstrations organized in three other towns in the region in addition to Venice. In Venice there was a march from Piazzale Roma to Campo Santo Stefano, where the rally you see above was held.

I'm terrible at estimating the size of a crowd. There were at least 1,500 people. Perhaps 2,000? More than typically attend the games of Venice's Serie D calcio (soccer/football) team--and this was heartening to see. There was a good turnout of students from the university.

One man in the crowd--I kid you not--was smoking Che Guevara brand cigarettes. I saw him take one from a small vivid red box adorned with the face and name of the revolutionary. Don't know if Che would've been in favor of this kind of branding. At least it could have been cigars.