An Italian Interaction

Our Italian correspondent talks with an Upper East Side ditz about what not to miss on the closing weekend of the Venice Biennale .

The other day at the Giardini café a well preserved woman stopped me and asked, “What’s worth seeing here?” I rattled off a list of my favorites to which she usually had a response along the lines of “They’ve never done a good pavilion, and I should know because I come every year,” or “Last year’s pavilion was so wonderful that they couldn’t possibly repeat their success. But isn’t it all just so wonderful.”

But despite her mix of ignorance and indignation, I continued to explain to this New York socialite what was worth seeing. Here is an excerpt of our conversation:

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Jørn Utzon show at the Instituto Veneto di Scienze Lettere ed Arti

“I saw the Louisiana show yesterday,” she said. “It was fantastic. Have you seen it? You really must.”

“Do you mean the Jørn Utzon show?” I asked.

“No the Louisiana. Oh you don’t know what I’m talking about then. You really must go see it because it is the best exhibition here.”

“Are you talking about the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark that is putting on the Jørn Utzon show?” I asked again.

“Oh I don’t know what it was called or who the architect was but it was a fantastic show. You must not have seen it. Do you really work here?”

“Yes, I know exactly what you’re talking about. He’s the one that did the Sydney Opera House and a whole portfolio of other projects around the world. And it’s set in one of the most beautiful buildings in Venice, right at the Accademia Bridge. Really the building makes it worthwhile even if you don’t like architecture.”

“Oh yes, well that is the best exhibit in this whole Biennale and my time is short here so really what else should I see?”

“Dark City” Taiwanese Exhibit

“Well, while you are wandering around town, ‘Dark City’ by the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts explores different perceptions of Taiwan after hours and the beautiful, serene space provides a calming moment in the hectic day of dodging tour groups on the bridges.

“Oh no, I never go out after dark—it’s so dangerous you know. I just wouldn’t like that.”

“Well maybe the safety of the exhibit would allow you to experience a ‘Dark City’ in a different light. But if you don’t want to go then try the Portuguese Pavilion along the Grand Canal. Take the Traghetto to view the façade that looks like a contemporary building along the canal while reflecting historic palazzos from across the water at the same time. And the mirrored interior is designed so the mirrors present the ‘you’ as seen by the rest of the world rather than the inverted image we are used to looking at in the bathroom mirror. It can be a bit disconcerting but enlightening. I decided I look better in a mirror than how you all see me—its what I’m most used to I suppose.”

Left: Interior mirrors at the Portuguese Pavilion
Right: Portugese Pavilion as seen from the San Toma Traghetto

“No, no, I don’t have time for that stuff and I already know what I look like in a mirror. Tell me what else to see here in the Giardini. I do this every year because this city is just so amazing. It’s not at all like the concrete jungle of New York. To come to this lovely garden and walk among the pavilions is a dream.” (In case you’ve never been to Venice, apart from the Giardini, which is quite small and inaccessible private gardens, Venice has about three actual trees. It used to be four but one died a few years back.)

Above: View of former airport turned farm as reimagined by Kobas Laska
Below Left: In the Polish Pavilion, work by Kobas Laska reimagines a church as a waterslide park (also seen in my previous post)
Below right: Photographs by Nicolas Grospierre and photomontaged alternative visions by Kobas Laska

“Well you really need two days—here’s how I would divide my time to see the highlights. At the Giardini make sure you go see the Polish Pavilion…”

“Poland? What could they have to offer? They’re never any good. Which pavilion is that again? I don’t know where it is.”

“It’s just across the bridge. The presentation is a series of photographs of recently completed buildings and bizarre futuristic imaginations rendered superbly with PhotoShop, projecting 25 years of degradation to these buildings. They reflect the current cultural decline as well as global economic and environmental crisis. The most fabulous one is the church turned into a water slide park as people abandon religious fulfillment for entertainment fulfillment. There’s also the airport overrun by farm animals due to the end of plane travel and cheap food imports with high fuel costs and resultant need to cultivate locally and travel less. And if that’s not enough to convince you, they won the Golden Lion for Best Pavilion.

“Athens by Sound” exhibit at the Greek Pavilion

“While you’re over there take a look at the Greek Pavilion too. They created an auditory map of downtown Athens. The room is nothing but earphones. Unfortunately many of the earphones don’t work as they used to, but a few still provide sound so it is worth checking out.”

She grimaced commenting, “Oh I don’t like that apocalyptic stuff but I just HAVE to see the Golden Lion Pavilion. What about the French? Last year they were simply fantastic. I come every year you know.”

“Well they won the Golden Lion last year but this year they are not really one of my favorites. However, they did make the best model bases I’ve ever seen. They rise, fall, rotate, and tilt—they must have spent a fortune on the installation alone.”

“Oh yes, I’m sure they are the best because they were the best last year. Quick, quick, what else should I see?”

Left: German Pavilion entrance
Right:German Pavilion installation

“While you are over there take a look at the British, German, and Japanese Pavilions. The British dedicated their whole pavilion to housing issues and have some interesting graphically represented statistics in their main room. The Germans curated a great exhibition on environmental issues that goes beyond simple charts and graphs and presents the issues in a more artistic, sculptural way to highlight the precarious balance between goods and their energy consumption. The entrance alone makes you think about, as well as feel, electricity use when you pass beneath the 64kw lights from above.

Above: One of the Japanese Pavilion Greenhouses
Below: Japanese Pavilion walls

“The Japanese is a real surreal pavilion,” I continued. “Outside they’ve created a series of greenhouses while inside the entire pavilion walls are covered with pencil drawings of imagined vegetation filled worlds. Reminiscent of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities there are drawings of Pond City, Small Valleys City, Mountain City, Garden City, Forest City, Plant Buildings, and many others.”

“Oh yes. Italo Calvino. Didn’t he write about Venice? And I’m so over all this environment talk—I recycle you know,” she replied smugly.

“Well yes and no, he wrote about Venice in describing the various magical places he encountered in the world. Describing completely different places and the same place at the same time; a magical world in your own backyard.”

“Yes yes yes. I just love Venice. It is the most amazing place in the world. I think it is just so mystical. I have been coming here for years and I really know this city like a Venetian.” Then amidst her all expert analysis of a place she hardly understands, she asked me. “Do you live here?”

“Yes,” I replied.

British Pavilion

“No I mean do you live in Mestre like a lot of people or on the Giudecca or Lido? Because you don’t know Venice until you really live on the Island. I mean I really LIVE here when I come and I go to Harry’s bar in San Marco and watch all the tourists come and go. I can get a feel for what it’s really like to live here. You really should try living on Venice proper,” she insulted through her perfectly bleached teeth.

“The rumor about Harry’s Bar is that they bring the food over from their other restaurant on Giudecca and then charge more because only tourists go there—although the Bellinis are quite good,” I explained. “Actually I live on the island—right behind San Marco—and its one of the most inconvenient places to live in Venice. Apart from the high water that requires you to carry rain boots for much of November just so you can cross the courtyard to your apartment door, it’s the little things like finding a grocery or book store because they have all converted to glass shops. Or finding a decent restaurant because they don’t have to compete for business or worry about repeat visitors. They develop a ‘screw the tourists’ attitude here. That said, the magic of the Piazza occurs after the tourists go to bed.”

Completely missing the point she commented, “Oh yes I always am so tired from all the walking when I am here and I have always wondered how people buy food. Tell me, have you been to Torcello? The mosaics are incredible. I go every time I am here because the tourists don’t go there much. I think I discovered it before the travel guides. But what else should I see here.”

Ignoring the Torcello questions I continued with my list of places. “The U.S. Pavilion is one of my favorites and it is not because I work there or am an American.”

“Oh the Americans are always so pretentious trying to prove they are perfect. The last one was so awful dealing with issues of Katrina. I can say that you know because I am American too. I don’t want to see any more about environmental technology or how we are saving the world.”

“Actually the pavilion provides a broad range of practice types and really highlights some social issues that exist in the States.”

Lighting another cigarette she responded, “I don’t think its possible for the United States to do anything interesting. They are just not European enough….”

“Ok, well then head over to the Italian Pavilion where there are over 50 different firms represented or go to the Arsenale where there are about 30 firms. There’s really a lot to see here and it will take you some time.”

Chilian Pavilion in the Arsenale

“Well I just don’t have time for it all. So I don’t think I need to see the Italian Pavilion or the Arsenale. And really I’ve seen everything at the Arsenale before. It all just gets boring after a while. I’m sure there’s nothing new to see there.”

Chinese Pavilion in the Arsenale

Stunned, I stuttered, “But the work changes every year. And there’s a lot of it. And most of the superstars of today are there including Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry. And the Chinese pavilion is there, though it is mostly falling apart. And the actual Italian Pavilion is there along with Chile, Argentina, Mexico, and a few other pavilions. Be sure to go all the way to the end for the first ever landscaped garden which winds through the ruins of the Arsenale and has lounge spaces on giant bean bag chairs and a full vegetable garden. Word has it that Betsky had his birthday party there amongst the contoured hills and candle lit walks. Only well, it was fantastic before the cold set in and many of the vegetables died. You can still see about half of it now.

Above and lower left: Bean Bag chairs in the rolling landscape by Gustafson Porter and Gustafson Guthrie Nichol in the Arsenale
Below right: Garden by Gustafson Porter and Gustafson Guthrie Nichol in the Arsenale

Her well stretched face lit up and said, “Oh I just love Zaha, she’s so forward, don’t you think? Now I’m going to have to see the Arsenale”

“Well if you like Zaha then she’s also in the Italian Pavilion and outside of Venice in a Palladian Villa. It’s hard to get to and you can only go on weekends but it may be interesting to you. I’ll leave you with that as I must be getting back to work.”

“Oh yes. You’ve been quite helpful but now I don’t know how I will see it all.”

So I’ll call this, my “greatest hits” list for those that want tell stories at the Upper East Side parties about how they jetted here for the closing weekend and then wax on about the genius of Zaha. Or with our current financial crisis and wall street rollercoaster you can skip the Biennale trip as part of your cost cutting efforts, read my previous posts, and you’ll still know more than this woman I spoke to who saw it all in four hours time.

And for the record, the amazing mosaics are in Ravenna and it is worth it to go. Torcello is a mosquito—infested swampland island that was one of the original Venetian settlements until the malaria from the mosquitoes wiped out much of the population. Now the population hovers around 50 because, and let me repeat, it’s a mosquito infested swampland. I hope you’ve enjoyed you trip through the Biennale. Next year the Biennale of Art will begin in June so start planning your trip.

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