Thursday, May 30, 2013

Marc Quinn's "Alison Lapper Pregnant" on San Giorgio Maggiore

"Alison Lapper Pregnant" under the roseate sunset light of May 27
"Non ho parole" ("I'm speechless"), posted one indignant Venetian on Facebook beneath his own cell phone photo of the work you see above when the British artist Marc Quinn's "Alison Lapper Pregnant" first appeared a few days ago beside the church of San Giorgio Maggiore.

As this remark appeared on the anti-Gabbiotto-in-Piazza-San-Marco site, I think it expresses as much about how fed up Venetians are with the appropriation of their city (and its most famous sites) by commercial or outside interests as about the work of art in question. But it seems like an appropriate response to the work itself as well, and one that the artist himself would probably appreciate, as the piece requires us to confront in monumental and heroic scale an image of a human being whose form falls well outside what we usually talk about, much less see.

Under the dark stormy sunset light of the exhibition's opening on May 28 its purple tint is more pronounced
It's hardly a bold new gesture for an artist to foreground what a local newspaper had no qualms yesterday in calling "freaks", and such work is always going to raise questions (as it should) about the artist's motives, and sensationalism, prurience, exploitation. But as much as I sympathize with many Venetians' sense that their city is under attack by malignant forces from without and unscrupulous traitors within, part of me thinks that "Alison Lapper Prenant" really might work as art--that is, something with the potential power to incite thoughts, emotions, ideas, discussion--not just spectacle.

A little background is in order, though, especially for those of us who don't live in England, or London. The model for "Alison Lapper Pregant" is an English artist who was born without arms and with shortened legs. She was institutionalized by her family at an early age and grew up, as they say, "out of sight, out of mind" of both her immediate relations and society as a whole.

The original 3.55 meter (about 11.5 feet) sculpture of "Alison Lapper Pregnant" was made of Carrara marble, weighed 12 tons, and was displayed from September 2005 to late 2007 upon the fourth plinth of Trafalgar Square.

Michelangelo's David is sculpted of Carrara marble, which has been used since the age of Ancient Rome for important public monuments (the Pantheon and Trajan's Column both use it): for the very embodiment of heroism and valor and beauty. To sculpt the figure of Alison Lapper in this material is a bold statement, and perhaps a rather obvious one as well in the way it simply inverts our typical hierarchy of value and moves someone whom society has long been intent on not seeing into the very center of the public gaze. But whatever its obviousness, I'm not aware of any comparable sculpture of such a subject in such material on such scale. The work incites us--or aims to incite us--not only to re-think our notions of what we are in the habit of recognizing as an "acceptable" human form, but what we think of as a life worth living, of heroism, and of motherhood.

Some of what's known as "the beautiful people" arrive in water taxis for the opening of the Marc Quinn exhibition
It makes me think of two books I've recently read: Andrew Solomon's Far from the Tree, with its intelligent and compassionate examination of the challenges and pleasures of raising any child who for one reason or another falls outside society's narrow sense of what is "normal" (deaf, autistic, schizophrenic, or Down Syndrome kids, for example; prodigies or dwarves or children born of rape) and Barbara Taylor's and Adam Phillips's On Kindness. The latter title suggests, among other things, that one of the reasons the very notion of unsentimentalized kindness has fallen into such disrepute in our age of glorified Hobbesian competition is that we live in a culture that is terrified of vulnerability. Kindness, Phillips (a brilliantly literary psychoanalyst) and Taylor (a historian) suggest, rests upon our capacity to acknowledge that even the most robust of us has known helplessness and, if we live long enough, are likely to know it again. That vulnerability is an inescapable fact of human life, and is what unites each of us to the other. "Alison Lapper Pregnant" strikes me as a heroic image of both truly human vulnerability and strength.

Of course, everything I've written above has more to do with the original sculpture of "Alison Lapper Pregnant" than with the inflatable version (12 meters high/39 feet) that now sits beside the church of San Giorgio Maggiore. Does the piece still work as well if the material from which it is made suggests not Michelangelo and Trajan but some huge blow-up Paul Bunyan advertising a lumber yard?

The Patriarch of Venice certainly does not think so. In today's Gazzettino il direttore dell'ufficio Beni culturali del Patriarcato don Gianmatteo Caputo cites "Alison Lapper Pregant" as the prime example of works of art that do not fit into the sacred context in which they are placed and notes, interestingly enough, that the Church was misled into believing that it was the original marble version of the sculpture that would be placed beside San Giorgio Maggiore. The inflatable version he compares to simply a "banner" (his exact word), whose only purpose is to advertise the large exhibition of Marc Quinn's work (more then 50 pieces, 13 never before seen) put on by the Fondazione Giogio Cini on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore.

I think he has a valid point.

So, as I said, I'm of two minds about this work. After all, though I haven't yet seen the exhibition of Marc Quinn's work on the island, much of what I've seen of it online--from the solid 18-karat gold sculpture of Kate Moss (which manages to be both astonishingly crass and dull) to his transgendered Adam and Eve--seem as obvious as his work on Alison Lapper has always been in danger of being.

A second piece by Marc Quinn, a massive sea shell, can be seen at lower left of photo
To invert our culture's notion of beauty, to present a new vision of beauty and heroism, doesn't the piece itself have to be as beautiful as, according to The Guardian's Rachel Cooke, the original Carrara sculpture in Trafalgar Square was ( A painter friend here in Venice exclaimed yesterday after seeing the current work up close that it was just plain ugly: the way the ears were formed (which are supposed to be, after all,"normal" human ears), and especially its purple tint. "Why that purple?" she asked me. "It's like he's trying to make you feel queasy."

I had no response. Carrara marble is white or blue-gray. Perhaps the makers of the blow-up version were aiming for blue-gray but ended up with purple? But the original marble work was, Rachel Cooke notes in her piece cited above, "white and dazzling". So, really, I have no idea, and am not sure, finally, quite what to think about the inflatable piece on San Giorgio Maggiore. Or at least, I can't give a single non-conflicted opinion.

I guess all I can ultimately say is that I suspect that the real work of art--that is, what it actually makes happen or accomplishes--occurs within each of us, and is unpredictable and unquantifiable, and can go forward long after we've left the presence of the piece in question. Some art does something, for some of us, sometimes, and if that's all we can finally say about it, it's still saying a lot. I'll be interested to see and hear and read if the piece on San Giorgio Maggiore works for anyone else.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Venice Biennale 2013: Portugal Pavilion

(photos compressed for page display: click on each for full resolution)
Although the 55th Venice Biennale hasn't yet opened, it's already possible to enjoy (at least partly) the entry from Portugal: a real cacilheiro, or Lisbon ferry, transformed by the artist Joana Vasconcelos with traditional Portuguese azulejos (hand-painted ceramic tiles) and docked at the Riva dei Partigiani near the Biennale's pavilions in the Giardini Pubblicci.

An excellent English-language description of the work (entitled Trafaria Praia) by Miguel Amado, which includes background on the materials used, a short biography of the artist, and a photo of the ferry before its transformation by Vasconcelos can be found here:

I had the chance to take some photos of the floating pavilion/art work yesterday evening (while artist assistants looked to be firming up any tiles that may have come loose in transit) and early this morning when no one was around--except for two passing cruise ships, each spewing a large-parking-lot's-worth of exhaust into the air, the second less than a half hour after the first, slouching toward their berths. Against a backdrop of such mammoth indulgence and destructiveness the Trafaria Praia, humanly-scaled and hand-crafted, seemed very much like a gift, a token of sympathy and connection from one challenged sea-faring city to another. 

Friday, May 24, 2013

A Festa di Primavera & Other Festas Soon to Come

Nothing says Spring like a floral crown (see images below for completed examples)
La Festa di Primavera last Saturday at my son's small Waldorf asilo (or kindergarten) near Sant' Alvise in Cannaregio reminded me that one of the best ways to catch Venice's residents being themselves--rather than playing to tourists--is to attend one of the city's local festivals. They're generally not well-publicized, and even those festivals which set up websites often turn out to be more informative about last year's schedule of events than this year's.

But here is a list of some of the feste and sagre that I've attended in recent years with approximate dates for when they typically run and links to posts I've written on each:

Festa di Sant' Antonio at church of San Francesco della Vigna: June 8 through15, 2013

Festa di San Giovanni in Bragora: 3rd week of June (for about a week)

Festa di San Piero de Casteo (aka S Pietro di Castello): last week of June (about a week)

Festa del Redentore: the famous city-wide festa and most important of them all, but now handled by an official private marketing arm: July 20 & 21, 2013.

Sagra di Santa Marta: last week of July (the 1st in this working-class area of Venice took place last year)

Sagra di San Giacomo dell' Orio: end of July (for about a week)

And here are some more images from this year's Festa di Primavera of the Asilo Pan di Zenzero, which will occur again next year in early to mid-May in the garden of the ex-Ospedale Umberto I at the northwestern edge of Cannaregio.

A mosaic workshop I oversaw with real Murano glass tiles on handmade frames
Just 5 euros would buy you a ticket for a ride in a real gondola with a real gondolier (the father of one of the school's students)

There were no shortage of hand-made items to buy, including some ducks & geese made of felt by my wife Jen
There was a bread-making workshop for kids and...
...a fishing hole full of surprises.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Smurfs and More in a Rainy Vogalonga

(as always, photos have been compressed for page display; click on them for full resolution)
It was the kind of rainy day that one normally would never choose to going rowing on--much less for a distance of 30 km--but some 7,000 rowers did just that, yesterday, for the 39th Vogalonga in the lagoon.

Just after all the rowers had passed by Sant' Elena a Venetian friend we were with recalled a Vogalonga of many years earlier: a morning of bad weather like this one, which only got worse as the hours passed. So that by the time the rowers, wet from rain and already tired from rowing on a rough lagoon, reached Burano and turned back toward Venice they were met by a brutal headwind that proved to be too much for a lot of them and the vigili del fuoco (fire department) had a very busy afternoon rescuing rowers who couldn't finish the course under their own power.

Fortunately, the weather did not get steadily worse yesterday, but ultimately became rather nice, and some of the entrants, tired though they most certainly must have been, may even have been able to finish their long row under a bit of sunshine, unaided.

As kayaks go, it's hard to imagine a bigger party than this one of 4...
and in a Venetian craft sixteen rowers are hard to top...
but both of the above crews seem almost anti-social compared to the 25 people in the above boat (including drummer)

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Love for Sale, Revisited

A carabinieri examines some of the many locks on the Accademia Bridge
It seems Venetian authorities have begun a crackdown of illegal vendors on the Accademia Bridge. Sort of.

I found only two vendors on the bridge the other evening--compared to the half dozen who'd comfortably set up shop on the days I first wrote about the topic in March ( And within a few minutes of my arrival up marched two officers side-by-side and very smartly from the direction of Campo San Vidal--and down the steps of the bridge's other end went the two vendors, toward Rio Terrà Foscarini, with many a backward glance, but in no particular hurry. The vendors certainly didn't run, or even jog, despite the impressive bearing of the officers, nicely turned out in their blue and white uniforms. If were a tourist I probably couldn't have resisted the urge to snap a photo as they approached, to show friends and family back in the States how most American cops look rather slovenly by comparison.

The officers walked to the Accademia Gallery-side of the bridge's crown, briefly scanned the scene below in the direction in which the vendors had disappeared, then turned back the way they'd come. At this point one of the officers broke from the other and made a desultory inspection of some of the locks on the bridge (as you can see in photo above): whether with the lofty impassive air assumed by someone who's actually disgusted by what he sees, or the critical disinterest of a professional examining a crime scene, or just the tepid curiosity of a guy checking out what's new since last time he passed this way, I couldn't really tell you.

Our old friend the indefatigable lock salesman of the Accademia Bridge
In any case, the two vendors seemed less impressed by this show of authority than I, as the officers barely had time to descend the stairs toward Campo San Vidal than the intrepid businessmen were back again, just a few steps below where I stood at the Accademia end of the bridge's crown, pitching their wares to passers-by as if there'd been no interruption at all.

And so it goes, I imagine, all day long. 

Is this a solution? There were fewer vendors on the bridge than when I'd passed by before. But it seems more like a dance: a farcical bit of Sisyphean choreography whose endless futility the police officers themselves seem all too aware of. It can't be good for their morale.

Venice, some people like to claim, is not a real city--but it certainly has real problems, many of which it shares with other indisputably real cities around the world.

A Venetian I recently met during lunch at a friend's house said that he was out one afternoon near Piazza San Marco and observed a vendor of roses approach a group of three locals who'd been chatting.

One of the locals told the vendor in Venetian: "Don't come toward me with those. I'm a racist. I would burn all of you [ie, all the immigrant vendors]."

A second man in the group told the vendor in Italian that he was not interested and to please go away.

The third addressed his two friends in Italian, saying, "Have some pity, these guys are just trying to scrape by."

The Venetian recounting the scene said that there in a nutshell was the full range of local attitudes toward the problem.

Another man at the same lunch, an extremely well-educated well-traveled visitor to Venice, a native of India who'd grown up there and still lived part of the year there (the other part in New York City), said that, ultimately, he couldn't understand how grown men could bear to spend every day of their lives throwing gooey splat! toys onto pieces of plastic or launching lighted plastic projectiles into the night sky of Piazza San Marco. He was talking about the young men from Bangladesh, whose language he could understand, and who whiled away their lives hitting up tourists and their young children and joking among themselves to pass the time.

This man obviously knows immensely more about the region, culture and language of Bangladesh than I will ever know, and yet I thought the answer to his question seemed rather obvious. If the young men are willing to spend their days in Venice in this way, then one can only assume that their employment alternatives in their home country are much worse: as the recent collapse of a clothing factory in Dhaka Bangladesh that killed 1,127 workers clearly suggests.

According to a recent article in The Guardian, Bangladesh has about 5,000 clothing factories employing 3.6 million workers. "Working conditions in the $20 billion industry are grim," the paper reports, "a result of government corruption, desperation for jobs, and industry indifference. Minimum wages for garment workers are among the lowest in the world at 3,000 takas ($38) a month."

Against this background, pitching even the goofiest of cheap toys in the open air of Venice really doesn't seem so bad, does it?

In any case, I hope to find out a little more about these vendors and their lives, first hand, in the coming weeks. 

For more on this same topic:

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Get Me to the Church on Time: La Festa della Sensa, Today

Today was the Festa della Sensa (or Ascension) in which the doge was traditionally rowed to the entrance to the sea in his grand barque of state to undergo a symbolic wedding with the wide watery expanses upon which all of Venice's wealth and power depended.

These days the mayor is rowed to Lido to throw a gold ring into the sea to symbolize Venice's continued relationship with the Mediterranean.

I believe a good number of Venetians would have preferred, as our neighborhood butcher recently suggested, that the mayor himself be symbolically tossed overboard.

You're likely to find yourself beside a fisherman (& his tackle) these days no matter where you are

Friday, May 10, 2013

Una Brutta Sorpresa: An Ugly Surprise in Piazza San Marco

Though Venetians are prone to have all kinds of theories about why a particular work of reconstruction is taking so much longer than planned--who is making money from the delay, what secret benefits are being funneled into the hands of a crafty few--they are of course happier than anyone else when all the scaffolding comes down and the building they'd spent their lives with is finally returned to them.

In the case of the campanile in Piazza San Marco--its base surrounded for years by a full-blown construction site--the end of the long restructuring seemed, really, like an act of liberation.

A liberation, however, that was extremely short-lived.

Before most Venetians could even get a good full view of the campanile again, unobscured by any ugly building materials, a new ugliness was thrust upon them: the tourist gift shop you see above.

In a city in which most residents already feel as though every single decision made is exclusively for the benefit of tourists, the comune and those who (mis)manage it could not have hit upon a gesture more inclined to inspire intense and bitter antipathy.

This is, of course, the same city government which issued outraged proclamations about the sanctity of Venice's single most important historic public site when a few tourists had the stupid idea to slip into bathing suits and treat the piazza like their own private pool during last November's extremely high acqua alta. Where, the politicians fumed, was those barbarians' respect for the civic heart of the city?

Where indeed... The difference, of course, was that the swimmers were foreigners whose disrespectful act lasted less than one hour. Much more troubling is the disrespect of elected officials who like to wrap themselves in the flag of San Marco even as their actions reveal they all march loyally behind a far different banner: the euro.

In any case, we have been without internet connection in our house for the last few days and I type this in a bar, beneath the aegis of free wifi, with some of the most distracting quasi-music blasting I've ever heard. I can barely remember my own name with this kind of noise, much less type it--or a coherent sentence. So for the present I'll refer you to the facebook group site of those dedicated to the removal of the new tourist container store or gabbiotto:

Earlier today I noticed that one woman posted that il gabbiotto made her feel as though she finally had to admit that the city was lost. Others have not been so ready to give in. There are a series of photoshopped images of il gabbiotto in front of other world famous historical sites (Stonehenge, Parthenon, the Taj Mahal, etc), and one video of its emphatic destruction. The headline of one local paper stated that everyone was opposed to it. Local officials are already scrambling to evade responsibility and claiming that it was only intended to be there temporarily. Hopefully it will turn out to be far more temporary than they ever planned. 

Monday, May 6, 2013

Everything I Missed, & One Thing I Didn't (today, Via Garibaldi)

I left our apartment today for the first time since last Wednesday, the fever that had flattened me since that time finally gone. How nice it was to be able to walk to my favorite fruttivendilo on Via Garibaldi in the late afternoon to buy oranges from Sicily (their stems and a few leaves still attached), to be out amid all the activity. There was a thick layer of rather menacing rain clouds above, a humid breeze, but the only truly dark cloud in the scene was (as you can see above) one of the massive man-made sort that will pass alongside the city numerous times per day, on even the sunniest of days, from now until late fall.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Three Views Inside San Nicolò dei Mendicoli, Dorsoduro

I'm afraid that a flu is going to keep me from writing anything today about one of the most interesting churches in Venice, but I'm sure I'd have almost nothing to add to the two very interesting and informative posts you can find below:

Now please excuse me while I slither back into bed.