It’s always sad, upon leaving Venice, to see your first car for however many days. Despite the city’s constant floods of both (fellow) tourists and the sea itself, and the fact that every nook and cranny has been filmed, photographed and fetishised thousands upon thousands of times, every time I step out of the station upon arrival and see the thoroughfare being plied not by cars but by boats, it fills me with joy. Venice encapsulates another way of being.
That opening paragraph has itself probably been written many thousands of times. Henry James wrote of Venice that ‘There is notoriously nothing more to be said on the subject.’ Marco Polo, or at least Italo Calvino’s version of him, described dozens of impossible cities in the attempt to capture something of his hometown*. In his essay ‘Contre Venice’, Regis Debray described it as ‘constructed more by writers than masons, more by painters than architects, more of words than of bricks’. It would be impossible to compete with Jan Morris’ description: ‘Venice is a cheek-by-jowl, back-of-the-hand, under-the-counter, higgledy-piggledy, anecdotal city, and she is rich in piquant wrinkled things, like an assortment of bric-a-brac in the house of a wayward connoisseur, or parasites on an oyster-shell.’
Having nothing new to say about the city where I, my wife Chiara and our nine-month-old baby recently spent a weekend, I’ll just write, solo per un cambiamento, about me instead. Or, at least, refer instead to something I wrote about Mexico City, in which I treated it as a piece of immersive theatre, one with an oversupply of extras. Venice presents a similarly intricate and elaborate set, but for this performance the organisers have sold far too many tickets. There is an excess of spectators but not enough actors: the population of actual ‘Venetians’ has now fallen to 56,000, and the set is falling to pieces. The catering is also famously below par considering the prices**, but you can also sleep on the set, although doing so will cost you – like Punchdrunk itself, the elite tickets, with their special privileged access, don’t come cheap. Our train from Rome pulled in next to the latest iteration of the Orient Express, of which I later read that ‘the service is intended not as an ordinary rail service, but as a leisure event with five-star dining included’. Apparently if you pay an extra special premium there’s a chance your murder will be investigated by Mr. Hercule Poirot himself.
It was not my first visit to Venice. In September 2009 I walked around and visited as much of that year’s Art Biennale as I could without my legs giving way and my brain exploding. I’ve since lost my notes, which were mostly sun-addled reflections on art, cities and the art of getting lost in cities. I stayed in Cannaregio in a hostel with a curfew of 10pm, so my hopes of spending my nights doing coke with Ai Wei Wei ended up in the canal***. Some of the time I hung out in Campo Santa Margarita. I’d read about this slightly-out-of the-way square in this book by Sophie Watson, in which she writes:
‘This is a public space which is irregular, haphazard and ordinary. Its ten entrances/exists invite random paths to be taken, its benches, scattered across the square, lure the old and young to pause for a while, its lack of cars entices kids to play and chase the pigeons, its market stalls bring locals to shop, its calm and bustle, light and shade, mark it as a place to gaze, chat and rub along with others with ease.’
As it happens, the (excellent) hotel I booked online this time turned out to be right in the square, which as Chiara remarked has quite a Spanish (or, erm, Catalan) feel to it. Although gentrification has had its effects in the fifteen or so years since Sophie Watson was there, with little in the way of local shops and an abundance of tourist-oriented cafes, compared to the alleys near Rialto and St Mark’s Square there is a sense of character, one which reminded us of Genoa‘s caruggi****. I don’t know how ‘real’ it is*****, or how many of the fabled 56,000 live nearby, but there’s a supporting cast of rowdy students keeping things lively on Friday and Saturday night. Staying in a hotel with a baby turned out to be once again problematic, but I think I’d feel a bit guilty staying in an Airbnb while walking round all day denouncing gentrification. Between Tripadvisor, Airbnb, Uber and Google, the internet has had a flattening effect on tourists’ experience of place, with so many of our interactions with a city and its people mediated via a screen. At least Venice is resistent to Uber, and Google Maps is not much use when the blue dot which supposedly represents you and your family keeps leaping around the jumble of tiny alleyways with the boundless energy of a nine-month-old baby overexcited by the rare privilege of cosleeping between two utterly exhausted parents.
Although the white sands and turquoise seas of Azumel on the Cancunian coast are some distance away, the huge tourists cruise ships and the tens of thousands they spill out every day have a similarly deleterious environmental impact. Many seem to come not just in pursuit of the cultural capital which the Venice brand affords, but also on the hunt for Louis Vuitton handbags, Jimmy Choo sunglasses, and all the other high-grade symbols of post-modern Konsumterror. Such devotion to the acquistion and spending of ostentatious social capital is in keeping with tradition. Writing about Venice at the turn of the 20th century, Thomas Pynchon described it as a site for European elite pleasures, principally spas and gambling. Nowadays being seen takes the form of uploading one’s instantaneous images and gestures of superconsumption to Instagram. For tourists in the age and image of Trump, as in Calvino’s city of Tamara, things seem to be ‘valuable not in themselves but as signs of other things’.
There have been two referenda recently in Veneto (the region around Venice), and the first was actually useful. In June, locals voted to ban huge cruise ships from docking in the lagoon (although oddly enough, despite the fact that it’s an issue that inspires great anger, we only saw two small no navi flags hanging from windows). The other was over regional autonomy. Paul Mason, displaying the typical excitability of the British Left in the Guardian, optimistically talked it up of it as another laudable example of the desire for popular self-determination. In fact, the cause was promoted by the far-right Lega Nord (Northern League), which has led a long-running campaign of chauvinism against parisitic southerners. On the Sunday, elections took place in Sicily, and Berlusconi’s party took power with the aid of the same far-right party. The ubiquitous term ‘centrodestra‘ (centre-right) often appears to be a euphemism, given how ready its acolytes are to side with the ultradestra, aka the fascists. On the same day, local elections on the coast near Rome, in the area where we often go to the beach in the summer, gave the balance of power to the openly fascist Casapound. The area around Venice is famously traditionally conservative, but fortunately by no means everyone from Veneto is a right-wing stronzetto. We also came across a poster for a show THAT! VERY! NIGHT! by one of my favourite comedians, Natalino Balasso, whose work is so uproariously entertaining and and genuinely daring that it is well worth learning Italian (and the odd word of veneto) for. Unfortunately, before I could get my hopes up too high, Chiara reminded me that trying to find an impromptu babysitter in a city populated almost exclusively by tourists would not be an easy prospect.
Given that this is an odd-numbered year, there’s currently another level on which to experience Venice: the Art Biennale. Like so much else about the Venice experience, it proved too hard to take in much of it, especially with a pushchair in tow. We managed to take a look at the Iraqi pavilion, in which I came across a typically brave piece by one of my favourite artists, the Mexico City-based Francis Alÿs, who presented a video in which he paints and erases on a handheld board images of fluttering flags on Iraqi tanks just a few feet away. Nadime Hattom was showing images from her own family history, captioned photographs capturing landmark moments in the lives of relatives, with the people themselves erased. It was a deeply haunting experience, one later echoed in the pavilion of the Syrian Arab Republic, an eerie space whose ostensive theme is the ruins of Palmyra. Blood red is the predominate colour on collages produced by Syrian and Italian artists. It might make for some awkward reflections, but luckily the baby decided to stage some sort of screaming protest against war and/or in favour of milky-wilky, and we were forced to gratefully abandon the building. She did subsequently show some interest in the joint exhibition at the Prada Foundation by Thomas Demand and two other German artists. Its apocalyptic title (‘The boat is leaking. The captain lied’) comes from the lyrics of Leonard Cohen’s morbid classic ‘Everybody Knows’, and its scope and intensity defy my powers of description. I’ve always found something intriguing and unsettling about Demand’s photographs of cardboard recreations of photographs of bland bureaucratic environments, and here, in the midst of rooms and rooms of material addressing in one way or another global collapse, he presents an enormous photograph of some sort of vast control room which he has also recreated in cardboard and blank paper. The room, on even cursory inception, proves to be a simulation, a mere illusion. No one is in control******.
On the theme of simulation, it turns out that Dubai (like LA, London, etc) is to get its very own Venice. That might ease some of the pressure on the original; or, like roadsigns advertising soon-to-open car parks, it may only increase the tourist traffic. Venice is a simulacrum, an aging Disneyland pastiche of itself, but it’s one that it would be impossible to truly create elsewhere.
* I wrote about my own hometown here.
** Although just for the record, thanks to judicious timing we ate very well in Tripadvisor’s top-recommended restaurant over in Giudecca.
*** This was before the Soros dollars started to roll in.
**** Reminds me and my wife, that is. I’m not sure about the baby.
***** I love the use of the capital letters and the quotation marks here.
****** The exhibition also features a new poem by my old new favourite poet Ben Lerner, but luckily the baby had a total meltdown before I could digest any of its typically brain-aching connotations.