Sunday, 21 August 2011


Venice is a city which is hard not to fall in love with. We had a great little room which was thankfully near the railway station, and right near the Grand Canal. The ferry system is as extensive and almost as frequent as an underground train network. Pity about the very long queues for a ticket. The weather was beautiful.

The sight of buildings standing permanently in water, and salt water at that, is a bit alarming at first. Nearly all show signs of damp, and many show signs of having abandoned the lower floor. Structurally however they seem to be much better than the houses in Amsterdam, built well away from the canals. The front doors opening directly onto the water still make me look twice.

Our main aim was to get to the Venice Biennale, a premier world art event which few people in Venice seem to know about. Certainly we saw very little information around the city, and had fair trouble finding where the event was held, even from the festival website.

The major venue was the Arsenal, an old shipbuilding facility dating from the Venice heyday in the 12th-14th centuries. At one time they built 500 ships in 6 months for a war against Turkey for control of the Mediterranean Sea. They are reputed to have built one ship during the course of a banquet to impress a visiting leader.

We found plenty of artwork to satisfy us, even if mixed in with a lot of less interesting stuff. One of the most gripping was a film called Clock, made up of film scenes featuring clocks, watches and time strung together. It was so dramatic, drawn from such a wide range of films, so well researched, and so tightly and creatively edited, that we could not drag ourselves away for an entire hour. The film covers a full 24 hour period, so it is shown in real time.

Giardini, the second venue and the one we’d been unable to find is, we realised later located under the ads on our map, but was no easier to get to following signposts from Arsenal which disappeared in a maze of streets and canals – “just down there you can’t miss it” has become an “Oh Oh” moment for us on this trip. Giardini featured work displayed in permanent pavilions built by other countries, each country nominating one artist to exhibit.

The Australian pavilion was very disappointing with plastic replicas of common objects most likely found in the back of a school sports shed – old pin up boards and broken tables. The US was similarly underwhelming. The Greek exhibition on the other hand was the most dramatic and exquisite, with a timber walkway sitting above a still pool occupying the entire pavilion, lit only by the light of one window. Outside the whole pavilion was enclosed in wood like a packing crate. Christian Boltanski in the French pavilion was another highlight and Israel and Poland were also striking though not really apparent that the work related to the theme of illumination.

The Romanian pavilion had a major rant painted across the entire exterior walls presenting their reasons for and against exhibiting at the Biennale. The French pavilion consisted of a massive tubular frame structure set up like a news paper printing press with endless pictures of newborn babies passing around it. The room on either side had a large digital counter for the world births and the deaths.

The next day we took a ferry to the islands of Murano, the centre of art glass manufacturing in dozens or hundreds of workshops and displayed in just as many stores. Unfortunately the technical section of the glassmaking museum was closed, but we did find one factory doing glassblowing demonstrations. Some of the work was stunning in artistic quality and workmanship.

Our return ferry took us on a circumnavigation of the main islands and back to Piazza San Marco. Our search for a toilet in the vicinity of this packed main square and premier tourist site of Venice was in vain signs pointing to the facilities leading towards each other from both directions – would have been funny in other circumstances – and we eventually found a little cafĂ© several blocks from the square where we could use the WC and buy a stiff drink.

The Cathedral was closed due to water flooding, and we saw water gradually rising from the grates in the main square. Major infrastructure work is underway to prevent water ingress to the area. Personally I would have thought that raising the ground level by 6” would have been cheaper and easier. In the evening we went to a live performance dramatising the history of Venice which we very much enjoyed and filled in a few gaps in our vast lack of knowledge of the city. This was one very rich city-state in its time. This was followed by a shot of melon vodka on the Piazza listening to three live bands competing for airtime and dozens of people launching flashing spinners into the night air.

With a parting look from the bridge over the very busy grand canal the next morning we said our goodbyes to Venice. Then we had another view from the plane, when we realized that all the islands of Venice look very small, sitting within a very much bigger lagoon at the top of the Adriatic sea. I now understand how they intend to stop floods and high tides from drowning the city, by temporarily closing off the three entrances to the lagoon when necessary – the biggest infrastructure project in Italy’s history.

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