Diary

High Water

Laure Prouvost, “Deep see blue surrounding you,” 2019. Installation view, French pavilion, Venice. All photos: Suzanne Hudson.

THE RAINS WERE BIBLICAL, justifiably accusatory. In a remarkable occurrence, the lagoon overtook most of the city, flooding the chamber on the Grand Canal where Veneto’s right-wing regional council had only minutes before rejected measures to fund renewable energy sources and minimize plastic use, among other climate change proposals. Images of waterbuses beached near a drowned Saint Mark’s Square made the rounds, some vessels conspicuously bearing bubblegum-pink ads for the 58th edition of the Venice Bienniale: “May You Live In Interesting Times.” The Peggy Guggenheim Collection closed, as did both Pinault Collection spaces (the Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana). The Biennale vowed to reopen without delay, and they did, an incentivized act of pragmatism a week before the show’s finale. Some of the exhibition was already deinstalled, most poignantly in this context Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Grainytė, and Lina Lapelytė’s Lithuanian pavilion, “Sun & Sea (Marina).” It had ended in October, when the sun literally set on the Golden Lion-winning indoor beach. Before, operatic sunbathers had warned of the final reckoning—“like a pop song on the very last day on Earth” was how the pavilion’s organizers put it—in a canny updating of the apocryphal story of Nero fiddling unconcerned while Rome burned.

For what endured in the Giardini, the horrible sublimity of immanence supplanted allegories of empires lost. In the French pavilion was Laure Prouvost’s “Deep see blue surrounding you”: seemingly random albeit stylishly composed trash piles—obsolete technology, natural effluvia, and in one case, a wide-eyed octopus figurine—arrested in puddles, half-submerged; only now, they were rather more continuous with those brinies of destruction outside. Soggy mattresses and appliances rendered unusable by the acqua alta lay in less considered configurations beside doorsteps. People ambled throughout in disposable ponchos and knee-high shoe covers, dripping umbrellas contained by condom-like slips (all plastic, of course, for now). In the Nordic Countries pavilion, “Weather Report: Forecasting Future,” I watched a woman carefully navigate the slick paths of newly treacherous floor-bound sculptures with trekking poles.

Storm damage outside Dane Mitchell’s “Post Hoc” installation.

Nearby, the waterfront Arsenale Institute for Politics of Representation shuttered “Hey Psycho!,” a joint exhibition with Douglas Gordon and Florian Süssmayr, due to tripped power and water damage. Meanwhile, at the New Zealand pavilion, located at the Palazzina Canonica (the former headquarters of Istituto di Scienze Marine, an oceanographic research institution) facing Riva dei Sette Martiri, Dane Mitchell’s “Post Hoc” remained open. This despite the intrusion of a massive, felled tree whose roots loosened from the saturated ground in the otherwise manicured courtyard. Roped off, it was an apt visual corollary to the intended work, for which Mitchell compiled an ever-growing list of millions of disappeared or lost entities—e.g., fossil algae, destroyed temples, former feudal states, and the full paleontological record of Aotearoa—that he broadcasted daily during the exhibition’s run from speakers in fake cell-tower trees. Enumerated at a rate of over ten thousand items per day, the absence grew. It did so visibly within the Palazzina’s empty library, where paper rolled from a printer in sync with the transmissions of mass extinction, pooling and ultimately filling the space with so much irretrievable data.

In another kind of dispatch, the press office, citing Bienniale president Paolo Baratta, confirmed that overall attendance hit “around 600,000, despite the difficulties experienced in the last weeks.” (The static was followed by some judicious name-dropping, adding specificity, perhaps, to the indication of scale: “It is worth noting that this year’s Exhibition has also been visited by many film or show-business personalities, such as Brad Pitt, Julie Andrews, Atom Egoyan, Tim Robbins, Lucrecia Martel, Rodrigo Prieto, Shin’ya Tsukamoto, Emir Kusturica, Laurie Anderson, Chiara Ferragni, and Fedez, Susanna Nicchiarelli.”) At a concluding conference on November 24, Baratta and curator Ralph Rugoff talked implications of staging the biennial now. Baratta held forth first on the exhibition as a mechanism of political or psychological conditioning, a form that uses the “tools of the supermarket” to solicit feelings and emotions (he likewise invoked didactic wall labels as agents of persuasion). Rugoff disagreed with this, arguing against consumption and for nuanced conversation predicated upon art that is not (or not only, merely) “journalistic” in its avowed politics of criticality regarding “neoliberalism or global capitalism.” For him, art in a time of emergency “bears witness to bring out complex response.”

Paolo Baratta and Ralph Rugoff.

Yet Rugoff also expressed near-populist disdain for art critics, who in his estimation were less “open-minded” about his program and its lack of any cogent, singular proposition than were more general audiences. Rugoff’s case in point was Christoph Büchel’s ghastly Barca Nostra (Our Boat), 2018–19, the ship that left Tripoli and sank in the Mediterranean Sea in 2015, killing more than eight hundred stowed migrants. Here it was docked, rising and falling with the tides across from a café and beside the Armstrong Mitchell Crane. The crane, we are told in giant text panels soliciting support for a two million Euro restoration, is a “masterpiece of nineteenth-century engineering” that long hoisted the Italian Navy. Rugoff commented that the Italian media did not much remark on Barca Nostra, whereas the international chorus asserted moral outrage. He also claimed that Büchel did not grant the punctured, looming death trap the status of an artwork. This is a nonsensical point, and Rugoff’s supposed proof—that the Swiss-Icelandic artist chose not to produce a label for it, but to leave it in this site unmarked (title and date provided elsewhere, notwithstanding, one surmises) and out of context (but for the signs recalling the rampant nationalism of post-unification Italy in its vicinity)—did little to support it.

Waiting for Solange.

As the afternoon wore on and the rain fell, at times torrentially, word spread of a late addition to the program: Solange, who just programmed the performances, films, and talks that comprised “Bridge-s” at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, would offer “Nothing to prove, Nothing to Say,” at the Teatro alle Tese at 5:00 PM, bringing the whole thing to a close. People stood outside queuing, drenched, some in the all-black dress code that the email announcement had requested, though this may well have been coincidental in a population for whom this remains sartorial default. One hundred and twenty were let inside, pressing for some time against a curtained wall that parted to reveal a darkened, high-ceilinged room grounded by a carpet edged by L-shaped benches; these served as the thrones for female performers tightly clad in brown one-shouldered costumes and talon-like manicures. They initially dispersed from a phalanx that recalled Vanessa Beecroft’s model vignettes to take their places, watching the event and serving as its functional boundary. While Solange traveled with her core group of musicians and dancers, who effected so much of the work, these sentinels had come from all over Italy, and met only that day. They remained erect and, like the rest of us, apparently enraptured. Solange came into the enclosure, making what I can only describe as indescribable utterance, then sat and watched, too. Movements, syncopated and otherwise, happened amid chanting and counting, and in a culmination that featured a refrain, “the house can fall at any time,” Solange retook the center. The show must go on, until it can’t.

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