by Ngaire Blankenberg
After a couple of tiny European mugs of beer, the Venetian cameraman who accompanied me through two frenzied days at the Venice Biennale could barely disguise his contempt. “Tourism is wrong,” he announced unequivocally, ”You come, you don’t learn anything about my city, you fly in with your planes, you use up too much energy, you damage Venice and then you leave”. He says all this with a smile and remarkable charm, showing his perfect white teeth, and then, as he orders me some dishes of a local fish specialty and a glass of wine from the east of Italy which we eat standing up in the street outside the restaurant- he tries to soften the blow. “You’re different though, you’re here for work…”
I had hired him to help document the inaugural Saudi Arabian pavilion for our client in Dhahran, and to capture the sights and sounds of the Biennale, so his comments were also an admission of how he himself had benefited from the evils of tourism. Still, to our discredit- I pointed out that the business travelers were probably, by his criteria, the most offensive- we stay for a shorter period of time, we usually go for a specific reason and don’t event attempt to learn about the city (in as much as leisure tourists at least try to), and we force the city to comply to us and our work demands.
This must have been the case for hundreds and hundreds of people clogging up Venice during the VIP and press pre-opening week before the most significant art world fair in the world opens to the public on June 4th. I hadn’t actually thought of it before- but the billion dollar yachts docked outside the Giardini, the hundreds of brochures and catalogues collected and discarded along the way, the full hotels, the gallons of waters for showers, the glittering parties- were not actually that good for a city literally sinking into the water. Of course- economically- it’s not bad either.
Environmental destruction aside, I found the Biennale exhilarating, stimulating, fascinating. The weather was perfect- hot, sunny, and bright. Venice- incomparable in its romantic beauty- the perfect backdrop for an exhausting amount of art demanding that the viewer think endless deep thoughts.
The outfits bear mentioning. The Europeans trump North Americans at the best of times, but art money mixed with art style is a powerful combination. Flashes of colour quirkily put together (red jeans, turquoise sneakers), pegged pants, flowing tops, lovely dresses, bright lipstick, definite glasses were the uniform du jour. Both men and women do tailored-glamour-casual in an incredible way. And the accompanying attitude of not-caring + caring-more-than-anything is intoxicating.
Here, everyone is someone. The dealers, collectors, museum directors, PR people, media, trustees. Names I only read about parading around in the flesh. What I loved most of all were the glimpses of the artists. I knew they were the artists only when other media made them stand in front of their work and took their picture. After or before this, they would earnestly and seriously talk about their work. And someone would be nodding. They were incredibly vulnerable these artists- far more vulnerable than their bold, nationally representative works would suggest. Here were their pieces of soul on show- exposed as hundreds glanced over them and pronounced them good or not.
Art I liked. Japan pavilion ; Serbian pavilion although apparently he is setting out to reclaim the swastika which I think is ridiculous; Korea- floral military is great; I liked Argentina- big concrete bottom of the ocean pieces titled “The Murderer of Your Heritage” (!). I liked Saudi Arabia- and I’m not just saying that. Their inaugural pavilion (a work called “The Black Arch”) was powerful. Beautiful. I loved the two sisters who created it- Raja and Shadia Alem. I liked South Africa. I liked Future of a Promise. My cameraman almost passed out after we interviewed the beautiful curator, whispering after losing her voice, telling us passionately about a new generation of Arab artists.
The Venice Biennale runs to the 27 November 2011. View more Venice Biennale photographs at the Cultural Change Facebook page:http://fb.me/zJVKSNFJ