Thinking Heads and Voyeurs at The Venice Biennale

I’d be derelict if I didn’t share some of the photos from the two days we spent at the Biennale while I was in Venice. On the way there, though, Caro and I had a wonderful time exploring all the different countries’ pavilions. Here are some photos from our first day. If you get a chance to go to the Biennale, go. There’s a mind boggling amount of beautiful art and ideas. Beautiful for people watching. Take the largest frame below for example.

The Biennale is rife with colorful images, shapes and ideas, and could be represented by almost any of the pieces shown there. The Lara Favaretto room, in the main building of the Gardens felt like walking into a curated prop room, with shelves neatly decorated by groups of objects, identified with a descriptive word under each shelf. The most intriguing part of the exhibit was its reference to secret meetings of people in a bunker in Venice to discuss the objects. Wait, a bunker in Venice? The piece suddenly gelled as a metaphor for the whole Biennale.

I asked one of the docents who are there to help you understand what you’re looking at if there had been any meetings. An earnest young art student, he answered, “I believe that the first one was cancelled, but there may be more scheduled.” Given the top secret nature of Favaretto’s description, I figured if we went to any bar that afternoon, it would serve as the bunker for conceptual inquiry into the nature of not just these objects, but any in the various countries’ pavilions.

A wall decoration from within the Venice Arsenale

Our second day at the Biennale, Caro and I were joined by her husband, Alberto, and we explored the even more vast exhibits in the Arsenale. Here are some of the exhibits, including the studies by Lorenzo Quinn of sculptures that are currently able to be seen all over Venice, including in the Arsenale.

Earlier in the year, as I planned for my trip to Venice, I’d read about the Lithuanian Pavilion, and the first prize (Leone d’Or) they’d won for “Sun and Sea.” The exhibit was evocative and sensory, with the spectators looking down from above onto the denizens of a temporary indoor beach. Joshua Barone’s review in the New York Times, along with their photos captures the feeling of the experience. I thought it was a little critical, considering the accomplishment of this trio of artists. Try getting 30 people to commit to spending 8 hours on the sand in their bathing suits over a period of 8 months. Probably in June it’s pretty easy, but consider November, when the cold winds blow off the water whipping through the Military Arsenale into this warehouse with open windows. I have limited experience with wrangling volunteers for theatre projects with our production of “Don’t Go” a few years ago with Sojourn Theatre. It’s harder than it looks. An article in the ArtTribune.com shared the invitation they put out to get people to participate. https://www.artribune.com/arti-visive/arte-contemporanea/2019/05/biennale-di-venezia-2019-padiglione-lituania-cerca-volontari-vacanzieri-per-lopera-performance/

Seeing the performers in their swimsuits, digging in the sand with their children and dogs was pretty wild. Almost every exhibit in the Biennale this year examined in some way the impact of humans on the environment, and this one provided a chance for us to watch ourselves in microcosm. The opera itself, parts of which we saw in our thirty minute stay at the exhibit, had some both haunting and comedic, jaunty tunes. It was fun to identify which of the singers might sing next, the man with the gray chest hair, who scanned the balcony idly as his tween son ran off to play with some other children, or the woman who barked her little portion of the score, a tirade against people who bring their dogs to the beach. There were two visible at the time, well behaved little dogs who also looked like they were enjoying themselves. Periodically, cast members would sprinkle bottled water on the sand to keep the dust from kicking up into people’s faces. I was reminded of the Robert Wilson piece I stage managed in Sicily years ago, staged in a 13th Century Granary building. After a few weeks of rehearsal, they trucked in tons of sand and suddenly it became a different exercise entirely. Sun and Sea was pretty fascinating, though. I didn’t want to leave.

Some other stunning works from the two days at the Biennale.

From the Indian Pavilion (I think?) These were powerful as a group, but even more powerful specific objects.

There was quite a bit of video and theatrical experiences aside from Sun and Sea. The Istralei Pavilion hosted “Field Hospital” where you entered the exhibit, which looked like the waiting room for an urgent care facility. There you were given a number, and you waitied approximately 10 minutes, while watching reassuringly placid videos about the type of care you would receie there. Everything felt very hospital-like. All the staff were wearing white coats, and were very gentle with the visitors. Once your number was called, you went to the registration table, where you were given a paper wrist band, and the opportunity to select which video you would see in the treatment area. The videos ranted in topics from transgender bullying to The Palestinian question. Up the stairs from registration, you were guided into one of three padded rooms where you were told to follow instructions. I did, but after emerging from the booth, I realized they were not soundproof, so everyone in the outside waiting area had heard my primal screams.

On we went into the treatment room, where a large array of reclining chairs held other patients who were watching videos, and then watching additional material (second opinions ) from experts with knowledge of the topics of the videos. Once you finished watching, the “nurse” came and freed you from the chair, giving you a rubber bracelet to replace the paper one, which said “Field Hospital” on it. It was an eerie experience, especially for Caro. whose video was a little more graphic than mine. (I won’t spoil the exhibit for those of you who are going by telling you which videos we watched.) Suffice it to say that once we emerged from the Field Hospital, we were ready to go home and also to get a cold drink before taking the Vaporetto back home.

The Littlest Theatre in the World and Gratitude to the Madonna Dei Bagni

One of the last days I was in Umbria, we visited the Umbrian hilltown of Monte Castello di Vibio, another spot of unspeakable beauty. Our destination was to see Il Teatro Piu Piccolo Del Mondo. As the sign below promises, Civilization isn’t measured in square meters and volume. Built by a consortium of nine families (I’ll spare you the poor historical recall and defer to Wikipedia). But when we visited, the lobby had a fascinating exhibit by a local man who had documented his family’s history in a series of scrapbooks, only seven out of thirty-three of which were on display. There were photos, paintings of weddings on the stage, and other news clippings detailing the historic events that had taken place in the theatre. The frescoes by Luigi Agretti in the second floor lobby were really wonderful, considering he was 14 when he painted them in 1892. Yes, 14!

After relishing the tiny space, complete with playback of a recording of a musical concert so that we could experience the acoustics in the all-wooden theatre, we retired from Monte Castello di Vibio, and made our way to the Madonna Dei Bagni, a church near Deruta, which features approximately 700 votive tiles from the 17th century to the 20th century, all presented in gratitude for acts of salvation by the Madonna. Each tile has the initials P.G.R., which stands for Per Grazie Ricevuto, or For Graces Received.

The Sanctuary itself is not notable, except for these tiles, almost totemic in their iconography. Four Hundred years ago, according to the history, a man found a piece of pottery with the Madonna on it and he nailed it to an oak tree, and prayed for his ill wife’s recovery. When he returned to his home, she had recovered, and thus began the practice of these votive tiles. They represent graces received from the Madonna after accidents throughout the centuries. Did you know that the most perilous thing in Umbria is the tree and the ladder? So many people fell from trees and lived to represent it that there developed an iconography of falling out of the tree.

That and getting trompled by horses.

Or struck by lightning.

You’ll have to believe me when I tell you that just like the tree plates, there were several of the lightning and later, dozens of gnarly car and motorcycle accidents as well as war survivors and leaky rain gutters. I just didn’t take photos of them all. It’s worth going to verify my account.

But my favorite was the tile that told the story about the recovery of 140 of the tiles which had at one time been stolen (rubata) from the sanctuary. Thanks to our guide, Marina, who was able to read the tile to us and translate, we understood that an off-duty cop (Carabinieri) born in Deruta, but assigned to Perugia, had come across one of these plates at a swap meet or whatever the Italian equivalent is. He bought it, then launched an investigation and was able to recover all 140 of the stolen plates. I think the guy carrying the tile is the same one lying down in his carabinieri uniform (Art History 101).

After that, we were exhausted and of course, it was time to go get some lunch. We were very happy there as well for the graces received.

Thirty-six Years Later

I visited Venice after a 36-year hiatus and expected to remember my way around that complicated jewel box of a city. It didn’t seem unreasonable to me. Venice is a walking city and the routines of daily life had enabled me to learn about five ways to get home, how to walk in a narrow street in the rain with an umbrella, and how to choose an alternate route when there was someone too slow in your way. Guess what. I’m the slow one now. Continue reading “Thirty-six Years Later”