Sunday, June 14, 2009

Venezia / Catalunya 2009

The completion of the transformation of the old Customs House, the Punta della Dogana, into a showcase for French billionaire Francois Pinhault's contemporary art collection also means that once again you can walk all the way around the point, which you couldn't do for a very long time. Among other things, we have regained perhaps the perfect view of San GIorgio Maggiore, but it is also exciting to have a new museum by the same team that brought us Palazzo Grassi.

So in need of a walk on a blazingly sunny day, I decided to walk around the Punta della Dogana. I had done it last night in the dark and it was spectacular, with the colored lights of the mega-yachts moored in the Giudecca Canal in the lee of the Dogana casting reflections on the water.

Today, in full sun, it was another sort of pleasure. But more exciting was my stop into the Catalunya/Venezia pavilion, the Catalonian pavillion for the Biennale, located in the Magazzini del Sale, the old salt warehouses behind the Punta della Dogana. The magazzini have become many things of late, including a Vedova Museum and the offices of the Venetian Rowing Club; they are great spaces, almost three stories high, their walls brick and their ceilings beamed as in all Venetian warehouses of the period.

The Biennale is overwhelming. No longer confined to the Gardini and the Arsenale venues, it bursts all over the city. It will take six months to see and digest it, six months of casual visits when the time allows. The pavilions in the Giardini take a day or two, ditto the installations in the Arsenale, and then there is the wonderful serendipity of wandering into a pavilion set up somewhere in the city that you didn't realize was there, which is what happened today on my way to the Dogana.

The content of the Catalonian pavillion could take a couple days to see because, as is now all the rage, art exhibits feature computers packed with interesting information which require that you sit there and spend a lot of time. I am opposed to this. Just give me the URL and I can to that at home. What I want from an exhibit is the immediate and visceral impact of confronting a work of art head on in real time.

That finally happened first with a video piece, entitled "Honor." It works from the visual motif of a US Marines recruiting commercial, the men in polished ceremonial uniforms. Then it segues into a violent computer war game, intercut with young American soldiers, dressing in combat gear and getting ready for action in convincing cinema verite. In one sequence a helicopter driver gets suited up, and then the image shifts again to the computer game of a brutal helicopter attack.

The impact is shocking. It is compounded by the stark anti-American (anti-Bush-American) attitude. The artists and thinkers of the rest of the world, who don't have to listen to the insane ravings of American talk radio and have no nostalgia for Cold War America, look with a savage and critical eye.

Upstairs, in the mezzanine, is an even more powerful exhibit. It is a wall of hundreds of very slick advertising-type posters, but of a kind you don't see in magazines or subway stations or vaporetto stops. You will have to go to the gallery to see a few of them, and where the text may not be clear I have tried to include it in the captions.

I spent a long time with these posters. It was the kind of experience you hope for when you walk into a 21st century art exhibit: it was engaging, provocative, funny, beautiful, bursting with ideas.


Thursday, June 4, 2009

What I Am Thankful For Today

I am thankful for the flowers in the garden in their annual succession, for the white and pink and scarlet hydrangea, for the jasmine covering the walls that perfumes the air, and the heavy white blossoms of the oleander with their own langorous fragrance.

I am thankful that there are people in this world I love and who love me. They give life to my heart the way the flowers please my senses.

I am thankful for this cold glass of water on a hot summer day. It is acqua di rubinetto, from the tap, and I am greatful that here the water tastes like its Alpine sources.

I am thankful for Palestrina, and here is why: because in all of Palestrina's music that I have heard, there is never a bad mood, barely ever a shadow to darken the harmony; Palestrina's music is to my ears what the scent of jasmine is to my nose.

Submarine piece for Biennale
I am thankful for the Biennale which opens this weekend. Venice comes to life in a different way for the Biennale. For the annual Film Festival it is Los Angeles, with movie stars and papparazzi; for Biennale it is New York, the art capital of the moment, the place where the parties and the shows and the people are all about art and the business of art and the world of art. You see it everywhere. You can't miss it. It is to Venice what lilacs are to spring.

I am thankful for Bar Palanca on Giudecca, where Richard and I met a friend for drinks and conversation with one of the best views in the cosmos. I am thankful for the golden light in the early dusk, and the mesmerizing reflections on the water, for fascinating boat traffic and the fun conversation.

I am thankful for the Corner Pub, around the corner from my apartment, where the neighborhood gathers in the evenings. The atmosphere is convivial and the people unfailingly interesting, with an odd mix of international tourists and locals, newbies and old-timers. Tonight I met a gorgeous young Italian woman, a medievalist, who teaches Italian language and culture at the university next door to the Guggenheim. She invited me to visit their palazzo and meet the folks. Her friend, it turns out, lived for four years in my apartment and for the six years before that in my friend Richard's apartment on the top floor. We swapped building stories; and that's a strange tale.

That's a lot to be thankful for in one day, but there is much more which I will not detail. Suffice it to say that every day there are wonderful things to be thankful for if we stop to notice them, to find them, to remember to savor them, and it sometimes helps put things in perspective to enumerate them. Some things on the list change, some never change.

If you have never heard Palestrina, here's a snatch from Youtube so you can hear what I mean:

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Men in Uniform

The Festa della Repubblica (Republic Day, 2 June) celebrates the reconstitution of the Italian Republic after World War 2. The big whoop, a monster military parade, is held in Rome. Here in Venice we got what amounted to an elaborate flag-raising ceremony.

The various armed forces were represented by men in uniform. They marched to canned music. It is hard to imagine that with all the unemployed and barely employed musicians in Venice, a decent band couldn't have been scraped up. Instead, recordings.

The contingents were announced, marched up the Piazzetta, and took their places at the base of the massive flag-poles that played a similar role in all the Ducal processions under the Venetian Republic. Meanwhile, the biggest brass they could muster were gathered on a red-carpeted podium in the lee of the Campanile. The Mayor of Venice was not to be seen among them.

After they contingents marched in and the national anthem was played, the flags were raised: the Italian flag, the flag of the European Union, and the Venetian flag. There was a thin smattering of applause; most of the spectators were tourists who had no idea what was going on.

After the flags were raised, the various contingents, from living heroes to fresh recruits, departed.

It was all about the uniforms. To see a few shots of the men in uniform, visit the gallery, where the story of the day is told in pictures.