VENICE VERNISSAGE – 2003.* a visit to the biennale


OK, millions of words are written about Venice year in year out and especially so in the opening days of Biennale. This year there was something else to write about – ‘the highest recorded temperatures’ according to the local newspapers. Deaths from heat exhaustion and heart attacks were reported. Biennale fever was therefore exacerbated by the high temperatures and humidity levels. Vaparetto Numero Uno, the main workhorse of the Grand Canal was, like all others that headed for the Giardini and the Arsenale, packed to, well, the gunwales. The queues to board were so big and so pressing that two or three came and went before the relief of getting on board and on your way to the biggest and oldest contemporary art exhibition in the world. The Orcadian poet, Edwin Muir, wrote in his autobiography of an experience he had in the 30’s when travelling along Sauchiehall Street in an overcrowded, old, rattling tramcar on a very hot summer’s day. Before his eyes his fellow passengers turned into pigs, sheep and goats. I can’t begin to think what he would have made of Vaparetto Numero Uno in temperatures nudging 40 degrees. All dignity was flown but it did not stop the milling crowds of art aficionados, artists, critics, curators, dealers rushing from one party, to the next reception, to the next opening, getting fed and watered on the way. See a bit of art too. But you can’t spend too much time looking, as there are queues to get into each packed pavilion – there are 21 in the Giardini alone – and the heat, the heat. Knowing where the next reception is and whether you need an invitation, are key to a successful Biennale experience on these opening days, or ‘Vernissage’ to give it its official and anachronistic title. For some ‘vernissagers’ the weeks of planning, emailing and telephoning pays off. For the rest you just take your chances and there are plenty of them.

The Manchester Pavilion, one of the great hits of the last Biennale, opened its doors again only this time the colour of the neon sign was light blue in deference to that other football club. On the night I went the owner had decided to take off to the mountains to get away from the oppressive heat. I’m told that the real reason was, on hearing it was the birthday of one of the artists responsible for this conceptual art work, Pavel Buchler, he wanted to get as far away as he possibly could. An art researcher counted around 2000 people turning up to this small bar for a night’s drinking, the only problem being there was no hope of getting a drink. The troubled owner is now saying, ‘Why did you choose my bar. Couldn’t you have chosen somewhere else?’ And why not. He’s obviously much happier dealing with his handful of regulars each night. Is this the end of the Manchester Pavilion?

The Scottish exhibition, housed in a magnificent rundown palazzo, Ca’ Giustinian-Lolin, on the Grand Canal next to the Accademia Bridge, attracted a lot of critical praise. At a breakfast discussion art critic William Packer was taken by the way the three artists, Claire Barclay, Jim Lambie and Simon Starling, had responded to the building and the different rooms in which their works were housed. Curator Jon Bewley, of Locus +, discerned an intuitive complementarity between the individual installations. Zenomap, the title of the show/project, was lauded for avoiding any overt nationalism and linking Venice and Scotland through the 1398 voyage of Henry Sinclair, the Earl of Orkney, to North America using the map of the North Atlantic drawn by the Venetian Zeno brothers. In fact a number of national pavilions were curated by non-nationals including Scotland’s which had Francis McKee of Ireland and Kay Pallister of England; Scot Patricia Fleming the Welsh and England’s Henry Meyric Hughes the Cypriot. This is a significant and hopeful development. There was much talk of the Biennale sinking, like the city, in the tide of an ever-increasing number of shows and increasing number of visitors. We are the pollution as dangerous to the city as anything else. The sight of a huge, luxury, cruise liner dropping off several thousand people at the Giardini for a couple of hours viewing seems to sum it up. Still, one more person would have been welcome at the opening of the Scottish exhibition. While other countries had presidents, prime ministers, major national figures and even royalty officiating at the opening of their pavilions, no one from the Scottish Executive deigned to be there. More power then to the Welsh culture secretary who gave an intelligent, stimulating and passionate speech when doing the honours for Wales.

And what can one say about Venice that has not been said before. It smells bad in places and you are warned not to cool your feet in the canals for fear of being bitten by a rat. Plastic bottles and other litter gather in shoals along the edges of the canals. Getting around is a nightmare for the elderly and disabled and a much greater problem than that faced by the actor David Niven who, on his first visit, telegrammed to a friend, ‘Streets full of water. Please advise.’ Restaurants are packed and close early. But it is still the most beautiful city on the planet. Inside the church of San Francesco de Vigna, next to Ireland’s exhibition venue, it was dark, cool and refreshing. The organ was being played softly and on the walls Bellini, Veronese and Tieplo along with the most beautiful trompe l’oeil side altar I have ever seen. Opportunities like this abound in Venice. Sit in St. Marks Square (the ballroom of Europe – pace Napoleon) and share the joy of the ritual of the newly married couples as they make their way across the square followed family and friends.

For some, like me, however exhaustion takes over and limited achievement and ambition becomes the aim. In fact on my last evening sitting with friends and at Gelati Nico near the Zattere vaparetto stop, looking across to Giudecca, another reception was in full swing. Luxembourg had just won the prize for the best national pavilion and it was celebrating – a massive array of drinks and delicious, sumptuous food was on offer. Even talk of a large boat to take all the revellers to the Lido for an all-night party. But none of us could be bothered. We’d had enough by then.

David Harding June 2003

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