Venice may not exactly be sinking but its definitely sloshy.
We made our way to Venice for a sneak peek at the incredible Venice Biennale Arte 2022. Our friend Monica Reyes organized some tickets for us to be able to attend what ArtNet called the Art Olympics. What a treat! Venice is already a feast for the eyes, add in some of the most exciting and interesting artists in the world today and its eye candy overload.
But first, Venice is sloshy. You may recall in my Amsterdam post the claim that Amsterdam has more canals than Venice. Sure that may be true, but where Amsterdam is an orderly and tidy concentric collection of canals, Venice is a spider’s web that has withstood the test of time and the elements. We started our experience with a water taxi from the airport, the sleek long canal boats that serve as Venice’s taxi network hauled ass out of the ”boat garage” through a narrow channel that was some of the roughest water I’ve ever been on. The wake from all the many boats speeding through creating a tumultuous mess of water. Clearly an example of why marinas have no wake speed limits. Finally out into the open lagoon, we were amazed at the organized chaos of boats headed in each and every direction. Our captain apologized profusely that he needed to stop for gas, we didn’t care! We were boating!
As the Captain turned onto the Grand Canal, our first glimpse of this incredible city, we ooohed and aaahed at our first gondola sighting. I scrambled to get a picture, disappointed that I’d missed the exact right angle. Little did I realize that there are literally hundreds, if not thousands of gondolas traversing the canals of this city.
Passing under the Rialto Bridge, our captain took a left onto a narrow canal towards our hotel. Navigation is tricky and the plethora of gondolas requires the water taxis to drop down to a crawl. The drivers and gondoliers all yell back and forth to each other as they navigate through the narrow passages. Amazingly, there is no road rage and no one hits anyone else. The gondoliers are a fascinating species, using a single narrow oar they manage to steer these long boats around tight corners and tiny corridors. Like yogis they kick up their legs to push off walls with their feet, crouching at the last minute beneath bridges all the while manually pushing the boat along and singing to boot. What a tradition!
I packed for our 3 short days (which by the way is exactly enough time to visit) in Venice basing it on the mild balmy weather we’re having in Paris. I didn’t take into account that since its sitting on water that in mid-April, Venice is likely to be a bit damp and chilly. Luckily, every designer brand has an outpost on the island and there were plenty of options to buy something new.
We came to Venice for the opening of the 2022 Biennale. Held every two years, this year’s installment, “The Milk of Dreams” was delayed by one year due to Covid so 2022 was a big one for the art world. The Biennale consists of two very big exhibition grounds – the Giardini and the Arsenale – and a collection of many sanctioned and unsanctioned exhibits all around Venice. The Arsenale, originally built in 1104, has served as an armoury and shipyard over the centuries. The main exhibit hall extends for literally hectares as you walk from room after room of works of art from the surreal to the sublime. By the end I was ready for the exit and needed a break from all the sensory overload. We were amazed when we finally found the exit that we were now on the other side of Venice! I preferred the Giardini as it felt more manageable with one large exhibit hall and several small national pavilions.
Simone Leigh’s “Sovereignty” was the Official US presentation for the Biennale. Her work was breathtaking and poignant. It was my favourite. I won’t try to describe it as I won’t do it justice, but I recommend you check her out. We were also excited to see Stan Douglas’ exhibit at the Canadian pavilion. A collection of recreated photographs from 4 different uprisings that occurred in 2011.
There were also some strange pieces including one room where two women sat on the floor and just sang minor notes back and forth at each other in a call and answer. I dug as deep as I could into the esoteric part of my brain to try and understand it but I came up empty.
In addition to the two main exhibition locations, there were several other art shows around the city. We happened upon Anish Kapoor’s show (famous for the Cloud Gate in Chicago – the big reflective bean sculpture) which was interesting and a little disturbing. But I did like the room where he placed Vantablack spheres and orbs on the walls which made them look three dimensional and concave.
We also tried to get in to see Kehinda Wiley’s show (famous for the Presidential portrait of Barack Obama) but we happened to show up exactly when they were doing a press viewing and there was no luck. Canadian sweet-talk will only get you so far in Venice, especially when trying it on an American publicist.
The two non-Biennale highlights were the Peggy Guggenheim Collection and Murano island. Peggy Guggenheim’s former villa situated along the Grand Canal is now a lovely museum housing her Modern Art Collection. Peggy was part of the famous American Guggenheim family. Niece of Solomon Guggenheim, she had an incredible eye and was good at connecting with artists and her collection is vast and impeccable; Jackson Pollock, Warhol, Dali, Rothko you name it. Definitely worth a visit when in Venice.
Our trip to Peggy’s place – I imagine that Peg and I are good friends, who wouldn’t want a bonne vivant of a pal with a fabulous villa on the Grand Canal – became a little adventure. We mapped our way over to the museum and figured it was about a 20 minute walk. Like Monaco, Google Maps in Venice doesn’t always work very well as the streets are so narrow and compact. On our way, we passed a Gondolier Station (Statzione? I don’t actually know what’s called, but its kind of like that show Taxi where all the drivers hang out, except these drivers are all wearing striped shirts and straw hats.) Monica asked Danny DeVito (aka the Gondola Boss) and managed to negotiate a trip for us over to Peggy’s. We piled into a fabulous gondola with Signore Papa Leone our gondolier. He was about 6’5”, 60 years old and sporting a hefty pasta gut. Yet, Papa Leone managed to navigate us around. He only stopped singing to yell out point of interests along the way – Mozart stayed there, Opera House etc. He swiftly steered us across the Grand Canal and straight up to the dock at Peggy’s. We climbed out of the boat and walked straight into the Museum. We had bought tickets, but this was the backdoor. I don’t know how we managed that, but it was a laugh.
Murano island is about 40 minutes from San Marco Square by boat. Our hotel arranged a tour for us. Whats the charge we ask, ”Oh no Signora, its complimentary.” A lovely water taxi picked us up and took us to a dock where a team of greeters were on hand to meet us and help us out of the boat. We were swept inside immediately to the studio where two master glassblowers were hard at work on a special order of glasses. We watched the men in what seemed like a choregraphed dance as they crafted glasses before our eyes. As each glass came out of the fire for the last time, the master would hold it up for us to see and everyone in the room would applaud. When they finished, our guide took us to see ”some of the items that they make here in the studio, with no obligation to purchase of course”. Seven rooms and two (maybe it was three) floors later with a receipt for a set of our own glassware in hand, we were shephered back to our awaiting water taxi and taken back to the dock of our hotel. I couldn’t tell you what there is to see on Murano as we were herded in and out with no chance of further exploration. It felt a little like one of those hotels that gives you an extra special cheap rate as long as you take the Time Share tour. I guess we’ll see if our new glasses make it to Vancouver.
On our last night in Venice, Monsieur and I were very fortunate to attend the Canadian party to celebrate Stan Douglas and the Canada Pavilion. It was our first post-Covid party, and we realized we’re very out of practice. It was a great event, but we’re old and staying out past 9pm is hard work. It was also very strange to be in a room with hundreds of people eating, drinking and chatting. It was a super cool event, but we decided to call it a night around midnight. Kind of glad we did. We left in the rain, taking a shuttle boat back to our neck of the island. The town was preparing for Acqua Alta – high tide and rain meant there was a chance of flooding. A frequent enough occurrence this time of year that there were raised walkways at the ready for our whole stay throughout the city. Tonight, they were set up along the Grand Canal, through San Marco Square and all the way back to our hotel. We didn’t venture further to see how far the network travelled but I’m quite sure they are everywhere. We also noticed the small barricades/ dams in every doorway that can be slid into place to protect the buildings from flooding. We were tucked into bed by the time the tide was highest so we didn’t see it first hand, but walking home the water was very close to breaching.
In Venice for all three days, the lyrics from ”And If Venice is Sinking” by Spirit of the West played in my head. In spite of the constant threat of a too high tide, beauty IS religion here, John Mann hit the nail right on the head. And Marini’s little man left me laughing too.
A friend likened Venice to a postcard and I think this is absolutely true. Venice is home to only about 38,000 residents. The rest of us are all interlopers. Coming and going through the sloshy canals, to spend three to four days experiencing life in this romantic destination. But you see, with the hordes and hordes of transient folks, the truth is Venice is a community designed to cater to tourists. When you’re a traveler and you want to get to know the local culture, you may feel a little disappointed by Venice. Sure, its picture perfect and a piece of living history. But its hard to find great local food when there isn’t a local population to support the scene. I get it. Tourists are a demanding and pushy bunch who take everything they can out of a place and leave a pile of filthy luchre in return. But, I think I prefer a gentler and more natural form of travel. It seems a good idea for Venice to charge an entry fee, after all the whole place is a museum. In the meantime, I’m grateful for the opportunity to have seen such a beautiful place. Do we need to return? I think I’m good.