Thursday, June 30, 2011

Venice Biennale: United States Pavilion

A work by American artists Allora & Calzadilla
As the old song says:

Running on, running on empty,
Running on, running blind,
Running on, running into the sun,
But I'm running behind.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Venice Biennale: Ukraine Pavilion Part 1 (San Stae)

Passing in a vaporetto by the Ukraine Pavilion in front of San Stae you could swear you were looking at a detail of a painting depicted on an outdated Jumbotron--that is, one of the massive video screens used in American sports stadiums. An experience that didn't exactly thrill me, until I got off the vaporetto and walked close enough to the three-sided piece by the artist Oksana Mas to discover that what I had taken for some kind of lo-fi electronic video screen was actually a vast wall of hand-painted wood eggs.

Each of the three sides of the pavilion at San Stae, as well as the Ukrainian pavilion near La Fenice, are details, in painted eggs, of the Van Eyck brothers' large Ghent altarpiece. Some of the eggs are covered in decorative motifs, many others with figures, symbols or brand names. According to one source I found online ( different people were asked to paint their idea of sin on the eggs. One egg per person? I don't know. But I suppose that might explain some (but only some) of the images you may find in the more detailed pics below if you click on them and look closely enough. Though if this is the case I'm dismayed by how many people still seem to equate the nude female figure with "sin". Perhaps just wishful thinking on their part?

In any case, this would explain only partly who painted some of the eggs, and with what in mind. Another panel, the one which depicts a detail of Mary's face, is composed of eggs painted in floral motifs and has nothing to do with any notions of sin so far as I can tell. Botanists or gardeners or disciples of John Ruskin may correct me on this.

 There's more to find out about this, and no doubt more that could be written, but better to show you some images--and here is the artist's website:

Detail of Mary's mouth
Detail of the detail of the crown of the Ghent altarpiece

You can see images of the central part of Mas's massive work, as displayed in the Church of San Fantin, here:

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Festa di San Giovanni in Bragora

The Solstice Rites get off to a blazing start
If the Catholic mass had featured a flame-breathing shaman in a peaked wizard's hat when I was a boy I probably would not have dreaded Sunday mornings so much.

Or if they'd kicked off with guided group folk dances, given away hand-tied clusters of wild flowers and herbs with medicinal qualities, and free wine.

Well, I suppose they did have the wine, but not in any quantity, and it certainly wasn't serve yourself.

The opening night of the six-day La Festa di San Giovanni in Bragora last night featured all of the above--and there was not a priest in sight.

In other words, the whole thing seemed at least as pagan as it was Catholic. Or perhaps it just foregrounded the pagan roots of Catholicism (if I can write such a thing without getting in trouble).

For as much fun as the dancing was, the Rito del Solstizio held after darkness fell was the main event, with an opening shamanic invocation accompanied by didgeridoo, and then the reading of history and fables.

An Italian woman I met last night--a Venetian resident, but raised south of Naples--told me that San Giovanni and the Summer solstice were considered one of the calender year's two "doors" (the Winter Solstice and Christ are the other). I'm not exactly sure how to take this, but others may know.

She also told me to sleep with the little cluster of flowers and herbs I was given under my pillow and, basically, make a wish (of, say, good health for me or my family, or success in some endeavor). Along with lavender and sage, the little bunch included iperico, or St. John's wart, which she told me had potent powers.

I'm sorry to say my dreams last night were no more interesting than usual, but I consider this no fault of, nor reflection upon, the flowers and herbs. They smell wonderful.

Putting together the flowers and herbs
The man in the white hat reads by flashlight into a microphone, kids enjoy some flowers

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Venice Biennale: Haiti Pavilion Part 1

Among all the various Biennale sites spread out around Venice and its various islands, I can't decide whether the Haitian Pavilion is the hardest or the easiest exhibition space to miss. On the one hand it's not far from the main exhibition area in the Giardini and situated all alone in the middle of Riva dei Sette Martiri. And yet people walk right past it, completely unaware that it's there. Or, more to the point, that it's a Biennale pavilion at all, as it consists (as you can see below) of two large freight containers, arranged in the shape of a Tau cross, in the red and blue of the Haitian flag.
The Haiti Pavilion
I've only seen a little of the Biennale so far, but among so many expensive spectacles and international art stars (gee whiz, there's Cindy Sherman in costume again, but in a bigger scale than ever!) the Haiti Pavilion acts as something like a counterweight. Entitled "Death and Fertility" it features the work of three artists (Jean Hérard Celeur, André Eugène, Jean Claude Saintilus) from Port-au-Prince who have reinvented Haitian Vodou figures in particularly suggestive contemporary materials: "engine manifolds, computer entrails, TV sets, medical debris, skulls and discarded lumber [which] transform the detritus of a failing economy into deranged post-apocalyptic totems." (Leah Gordon, adjunct curator of the exhibition)

For more information on the exhibition, more images of the work, and an excellent documentary on the artists, check out the Pavilion's website at

Below are two works by Jean Hérard Celeur that in a city filled with countless figures of saints atop buildings, within niches, and upon altars--figures of ceremonial, religious, historical and political import--I found especially striking. In them the history of international commerce, in which Venice played so major a role, is brought up to the present, depicted from the other side of that looking glass in which Westerners have traditionally seen only their own reflection.

A madonna and child unlike any of the many others in Venice
You can see more photos of the Haiti Pavilion at: 

Thursday, June 16, 2011

On Making a Spectacle of Myself at the Regata of the Maritime Republics

 photo credit: Jen
The Doges of Venice and Genova greet each other in Piazza San Marco
Each year for the last 56 years La Regata Storica delle Antiche Repubbliche Marinare Italiane has been held in one of the four old seagoing republics of Italy: Amalfi, Genova, Pisa, or Venice. It consists of a race between four large galleys constructed according to 12th-Century models, each with a crew of eight rowers and one helmsman, over a straight 2 km long course.  Before the race there is a long procession (or corteo) in which 80 representatives from each city are dressed in the late 15th-century costumes of doges, knights, clergy, tradesmen, ladies and noblemen.

After the long decline of the Venetian Republic began--their trade routes superseded and their coffers depleted by a long futile war against the Muslim East--it became possible for rich outsiders to buy their way into the Venetian nobility for a small fortune.

My temporary elevation to Venetian nobility, for the purpose of the corteo, cost me nothing but the embarrassment of being seen in tights. A cost, I'd soon realize, that fell more heavily upon any observers than myself. 

I didn't know a thing about what I was agreeing to do when I said yes. I was at a birthday party in the piano nobile of a palazzo near San Zaccaria. My son Sandro was running maniacally around the frescoed portego with three other pre-schoolers, and I was doing my best to follow conversations being carried on in Italian beneath a large arbor on the terrace. A friend suddenly turned to me and said they needed two men the following week for a parade. I didn't think to wonder why none of the other Venetian men around me offered to do it. One actually begged off because he said he was blind without his glasses, and his glasses wouldn't have gone with the period dress. But why not the heir to the palazzo, who lived there with his two parents, and whose family tree I'd just seen hanging on a wall inside, going back nobly to the 15th Century? Wouldn't that be something?--to see the descendants of actual noble Venetian families in the dress of their forebears!

Well, perhaps there were such descendents among the 80 of us arrayed behind the banner of San Marco, but my roots in Venice stretched back to last November. There were moments in our slow march from just east of Via Garibaldi to Piazza San Marco that I felt more than a little disingenuous as some excited tourist aimed a camera in my direction. I'd remind myself that plenty of outsiders lived in the 15th-century Republic of Venice--but none of them, it's safe to say, were born in California or moved here from Brooklyn. 

Luckily, there were plenty of things to keep me from obsessing overly much on issues of authenticity. The sun, for one, which was quite hot and blinding. And my hat.

I'm sure that among the countless old sayings of at least one of Italy's many dialects there must be something that runs along the lines of:

Don't fret too much about the tights because it's the hat that will kill you.

For the four days since I'd gone to the Lido to try on the velvet doublet and mantle of my costume I'd been worrying about wearing those damn tights. But it turned out my hat was so tight I literally I had no space for any thought other than how much my head hurt.

In the dressing room I'd pondered, hopefully, perhaps it's just supposed to rest precariously upon my head like a Jackie O pillbox. But none of my fellow noblemen rocked their hats that way.

I mentioned it to the man in charge of wardrobe. He assured me in melifluous Italian that the hat would stretch once we got out into the heat of the sun.

It didn't. Or if its circumference expanded at all in the heat, so did my big head.  

But, as I mentioned, there was the sharp lance of the sun in my eyes to occupy me as well, and, in a short time, the slow but steady formation of blisters on my feet.

The noblemen with whom I shared a row also tended to lag too far behind the row of courtiers in front of us, so a very helpful women associated with the Venetian contingent would appear suddenly at my side gesticulating enthusiastically and repeating, "Avanti, avanti!"

I wanted to tell her it really was not my fault. I knew we'd dropped too far behind the guys in front of us, but I was bound not to break ranks with my fellow nobles--they who seemed so relaxed in their properly-fitting caps as to even play to the crowd a bit. Not all of them, but the two nearest to me. They looked good doing it, I thought, regal but friendly. We hadn't had the least bit of dramatic coaching before the march, no guidance of any kind on our particular characters, so this was all improvised as far as I could tell, or born of the experience of previous processions. I thought of doing some of the same kind of thing but I was so absorbed in standing up straight, not tripping, not limping, and not grimacing in pain, that I'm afraid I cut a rather sober figure. A noble with just the slightest hint of a smile, hiding the pain of some great lost love...

And yet through all this discomfort the whole thing was quite fun. I'd never done anything like this before--no Renaissance Faire or Shakespeare plays or plays of any kind. And I had no idea how popular an event it was until someone said, just before the start, that RAI 2 was filming live, and I saw all the people crowded along the parade route, and the large grandstand stretching along the south side of the Palazzo Ducale, its VIP box filled with uniforms and sashes of office.

Next year the regata will move on to Amalfi and I hope I'll have the chance to do it again. And, more immediately, there is the big Venetian Regata Storica in the fall--in which one gets to be rowed down the Grand Canal in historic dress. How nice that would be! No need to worry about being seen in tights or getting blisters. And I'll make sure to try on my hat at the fitting.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Festa di Sant' Antonio at S. Francesco della Vigna

I'm sorry to say that I missed the solemn procession with the wooden statue of Sant' Antonio this evening, but every other part of tonight's festivities was truly marvelous. San Francesco della Vigna is a wonderful church in an extremely interesting part of town, and this festa is worth noting on your calender if you're in town. Proof that not everything in Venice is oriented toward the tourists.

A parish band greeted churchgoers as they left mass
The evening was capped off with a contemporary commedia dell' arte

Sunday, June 12, 2011

3 Views of the Vogalonga

I generally don't mess around with my photos much on the computer but in this case (& also some below), thinking of Thomas Eakins' rowers, I reduced the noise & juiced the saturation a bit to give it a painted look.
The Querini rowing club's famous 18-man disdotona
Along for the ride

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Vogalonga Eve

A group of rowers prepares their equipment for the 30 km "long row" tomorrow. The park on Sant' Elena harbors about three dozen mostly multi-person boats tonight, as well as a dozen Hungarian rowers who are camping out. 1,600 boats are expected to take part in tomorrow's annual festival of the oar.