Thursday, May 25, 2017

Some Reflections on Venetian Reflections

A rare unruffled view of one of the city's famous sites, the church of I Frari

Still waters almost never run deep in Venice. This is not intended as a metaphor about its residents but as a simple, literal statement about its canals.

The canals that are deep here, such the Grand Canal and the Giudecca Canal, are never still; and those side canals (or rii, actually) that are sometimes still, are never deep. But what strikes me lately is how rarely even those side canals are actually still. They're almost always rippled at least a bit by the tide coming in or going out, by a breeze, by a gondola or small motor boat, or battered (along with the ancient foundations of canal-side buildings) by a mototopo (work boat) or water taxi.

On the very rare occasions when the water really is still you get a view of the city that differs as greatly from the ordinary as the city in daylight differs from your perception of it at night, or in winter from summer. On any given day, in any season, you can take up your favorite position in the city and watch your view change with the changing light. This transformation, effected only by light, is one of the most celebrated in the vast literature of Venice.

But, as far as I know, there's no telling when you'll happen upon the perfectly still water in the side canals in which the city is almost perfectly mirrored, with just the slightest changes in detail and color that make the image all the more picturesque, like an old photographic plate. If it's possible to predict such still water by reference to tidal forecasts I'm not aware of how.

And I suppose it's this unpredictability that makes the experience so striking, even when--or especially when--you live here full time. You turn a corner along your usual route and you see something completely different, without even quite knowing what's changed at first. Struck by it, you hope to encounter the same view the next day, and the next, and the next, but the water on those days is rippled, the images wavering or multi-faceted almost beyond recognition--which is nice in itself, but not what you were hoping to find. After a certain point you give up on ever seeing the water just as it was that one time. And perhaps you never do. But in an entirely different part of town, where and when you don't expect it, you happen upon such still water again, and the experience is just a surprising and striking as it was the other time or times. Maybe more so, if you'd given up hope in the mean time.

This, too, is not intended as metaphorical, but feel free to read it however you like.

Monday, May 15, 2017

The End of the Rainbow, This Evening

I suppose it should come as no surprise that it ends at Ca' D'Oro: if not a pot of gold, at least a palazzo of one (which may be even better).   

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Touchy Feely in a Big Way on the Grand Canal

Lorenzo Quinn's piece "Support" was installed Thursday in the Grand Canal in front of the Hotel Ca' Sagredo and is sure to receive a good deal of attention for as long as it's up--not least of all because it functions well as a backdrop for selfies (perhaps the main criterion by which art is judged these days).

The giant hands of this work may remind some readers of Quinn's last work to be seen in Venice. Originally displayed during the 2011 Biennale it had an extended run among the fork lifts and trash bins and grocery pallets alongside the Canale Scomenzera, where it sat, seemingly forgotten, well through 2012 and beyond.

For more about this current work, go to the website of the artist's gallery here, where any questions you may have about its significance are answered.

If you take the above website at its word, Lorenzo Quinn has created a large sculptural emblem. Like the famous anchor and dolphin emblem used by the ground-breaking Venetian printer Aldo Manuzio, for example, or the crossed pair of hands you'll see engraved on the walls around the church of San Francesco della Vigna, these two large hands represent clearly delineated (if broad) meanings. "The hands" we are told, "symbolise tools that can both destroy the world, but also have the capacity to save it." 

Moreover, we are told that "By installing Support in Venice, Quinn draws attention to the delicate existence of humans and society against the force of nature in today’s climate of change. The work generates an instinctive and immediate understanding of the environmental impact for places such as Venice. The hands symbolise the role people must play in supporting Venice’s unique world heritage – it is our duty to save the ‘witnesses of the Past’ who can only survive with our help."

This climate change angle has already been repeated by a number of media outlets, but after looking at the work itself, as I have done every day for the last 4 days since it was installed, I'm still not sure what in the work specifically suggests climate change. Given the emblematic inclination of the work, wouldn't the hands need to appear to be lifting the Ca' Sagredo Hotel above the canal water in order to suggest the "environmental impact for places such as Venice [of climate change]"?

Or perhaps the giant hands should form a barrier between the hotel and the encroaching tide....

But this might call MOSE to mind, the system of flood gates that are supposed to protect the lagoon from the highest tides rushing in from the Adriatic. Well over 6 billion euros have been spent on them (at least 20% of which has been siphoned off by corruption) and, long overdue and way over budget, their operation date has recently been pushed back yet again: this time to 2021.

And perhaps this begins to get at the kinds of things that trouble me about this work.

For as far as I can see, this large piece has nothing to contribute to either the discussion of climate change and its effects on Venice nor the type of support that Venice actually lacks.

On the contrary, as far as I can see, it mystifies both issues.

The billions of euros that Venice has received to help it combat the effects of climate change have been shamefully, criminally and incompetently used and abused.

Meanwhile, funding for the city's vital services--education, health care facilities, senior care, etc--have been cut.

The resident population continues its precipitous decline, while the number of hotels and other types of tourist accommodation skyrocket.

Indeed, my first sight of the giant hands on barges in the Grand Canal made me hope they might be installed in a way that would call attention to how the privatization of palazzi here, their change of use from municipal functions into hotels, had turned Venice's famous waterway into something like a giant Monopoly board.

If anything, one might argue that hotels such as the one toward which Quinn's giant hands extend themselves, have received far too much "support" from local governments, at the expense of support for residents.

Or, again, that "support" for the edifices of Venice has never been lacking, but resident life has been left to collapse. 

Since Ruskin's time, then again since the great flood of 1966, there have been repeated calls of "support" for Venice. It is a cliché, and never more so than when issued in the most general terms. What Venice needs, what it hasn't had for a very long time, and what it still does not have, is sound governance.

But how to represent that crushing lack in a photogenic, selfy-worthy manner, in a way that doesn't bite the hands that feed the artist--well, that's a tough one.    

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Farce and Tragedy

If Venice's leaders have their way you'll see less of the above in Piazza San Marco, and more everywhere else in the city and the lagoon

History repeats itself--Marx famously claimed in his essay "The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon"--"first as tragedy, then as farce."

Well, maybe in the 19th and 20th centuries. But these days it dismays me no end that both Venice, in which I've lived for six years, and America, my native land, seem so determined to invert and abbreviate Marx's old temporal two step. In Venice, and in Trump's America, decisions of great historical import appear first as outright farce, before flowering into full tragedy.

In both places the would-be satirist, no matter how clever and keen his or her sense of the absurd may be, is forever being trumped by policy makers, pursuing their disastrous follies (or crimes) in all earnestness.

In Venice, for example, the novelist, essayist and literary critic Gregory Dowling, author of a number of well-regarded novels (including this new historical one set in Venice on my To-Read list), and a resident of the city for over a quarter of a century, recently posted an account on his blog of "the gleaming new turnstiles installed at the entrances to St Mark's Square", complete with a very convincing photo of these turnstiles in the archway beneath the clock tower.

Though the post appeared on April 1, it was so well done that a number of people took the account and the photo-shopped image to be true.

But, really, an entrance fee into St Mark's? Who would take such a ridiculous idea seriously?

Well, last week, we received an answer: those sagacious folks in charge of governing the city, that's who.

Response to this new plan was swift. With one writer, Jackie Bryant, declaring "Why I'll Boycott Venice If It Charges Entry", and two others coming out in favor of the idea or similar ideas ("Why Venice Needs to Charge Entry" and "Do We Love Italy Too Much?").

Each writer makes interesting points. Each, I think, misses the single most important problem with charging an entrance fee to Piazza San Marco: It is a solution to an imaginary, or at least a secondary, problem.

Are there too many people in Piazza San Marco? Yes, sometimes there are. And on holidays or during special events the overcrowding in and around the Piazza can be so extreme as to be a public health hazard, with a real threat of deadly stampedes in the case of a panic of some kind.

But the cherished response of people like Mayor Brugnaro to such concerns about dangerous overcrowding in the historic center--their fond fantasy of spreading ever-growing crowds into less trafficked areas of town and out into the lagoon--strikes me as disingenuous if not plain cynical.

Studies have been done on the maximum number of people the city can tolerate on any given day without having its very fabric compromised, and these numbers, no more than the city or lagoon itself, are not infinitely elastic (see Chapter 3, for example, of The Venice Report, Cambridge University Press, 2009).

But a belief in such infinite elasticity is exactly what underlies the main "solution" that Brugnaro is trying to fob off on UNESCO as a serious response to that organization's concerns about the physical, environmental, social, and cultural destruction of the city and its lagoon.

An entrance fee to Piazza San Marco strikes me as a diversionary solution. One whose function is to contain the debate, providing a nicely circumscribed little topic to heatedly argue about, while the larger issue, the real issue, about the proposed exploitation of potentially every meter of the city and the lagoon remains in the shadows--where such proposals can be carried forward without international interference, or even awareness.

And, despite the best intentions of the three writers on the entrance fee proposal cited above, this diversionary solution seems, thus far, to be working rather well. Commentators are taking the most impassioned stances in regard to one or two trees--arguing in the terms set out for them by those with clear economic interests in mind--while all around them, unnoticed, the rest of the forest is brought under the ax.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

A Backward Glance

In the image above a gondoliere deftly backs his boat one-handed down Rio de San Barnaba in the direction of the Grand Canal. This area is perhaps most famous these days as the setting for the Katharine Hepburn film Summertime. The little antique shop owned by her love interest in the film is now a toy shop, worth checking out, and Rio de San Barnaba itself is the canal into which she takes a memorable pratfall--from which she emerged in real life with an eye infection that would bother her for the rest of her long life.

As the weather warms and some few tourists begin to treat the historic center as though it's Cabo San Lucas (yesterday I had my first sighting of the season of an undressed couple with two large bottles of beer reclining alongside the Grand Canal on the pavement of Campo San Samuele as if it were a beach), I only wish more of them knew of the possible ill effects of going for a swim in the open sewage system that is the city's canals.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The 57th Venice Biennale Prepares for Launch

I must admit that my first sight of the ongoing installation alongside the Grand Canal in Campo San Vio of what I've since learned is a 66-foot-tall gold tower created by the artist James Lee Byars (1932-1997) made me think not of art at all, but of my first visit to Europe (and Venice) as a teenager in 1982, as then President Ronald Reagan and his Soviet counterpart Leonid Brezhnev tussled over the deployment of nuclear missiles located in, or directed at, Europe.

I couldn't help but think that if the economic and sexual Predator-in-Chief currently occupying the White House reached an agreement with Venice's similarly self-promoting non-resident mayor to deploy an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile or two in the historic center they'd both be inclined for them to have the kind of bling factor evident in the image above.

Once the scaffolding has been removed, however, I trust that Byar's The Golden Tower will come into its own as art, installed in a public space (as per the artist's original hopes) for the first time since its creation in 1990. It's one of the many official "Collateral Events" of this edition of the Venice Biennale.

The 57th Biennale itself opens to the public on 13 May (with previews beginning on the 10th) and runs through 26 November 2017.