Comment: Letter from Venice: The Biennale

Article excerpt

Dear H,

At the Cini Foundation, on the island of San Giorgio, over-talented Peter Greenaway animates Paolo Veronese's gigantic painting, The Wedding at Cana, by breaking it up, projecting it on the walls, making it rotate on itself and turning it into a three-dimensional experience by digital means. The canvas - which was perfectly "cloned" two years ago from the original painting now at the Louvre - is dissected, flares up in deflagrations, then floats as if in an amniotic liquid; the sun rises, we have fireworks and movements in the sky. Alternating with sacred music, the one hundred twenty-six wedding guests of the painting are having animated conversations, first in English, then in Venetian dialect, as seems proper at a Renaissance wedding feast, which has nothing to do with Palestine. Against the silence of the picture, there is the mise en scène of the noise of life.

At the non-museum of the Emilio Vedova Foundation, at the Salute, designed by Renzo Piano, enormous iron arms choose, move, display, displace and replace the big canvases for the viewers: they go to them, not vice versa (I am told that nine hundred alternatives are possible) . The Biennale, the 53rd International Art Exhibition,1 also appears as a triumph and a consummation of art in motion, endlessly moving about and restless, far from stationary.

To begin with, the exhibition itself has sprawled out of the Giardini and all over the city, overrunning and invading it in an unprecedented way. Exhibitions are everywhere, in almost every building: seventy-seven countries are represented (half the United Nations), and there are some forty "collateral" events, which merge and mingle with the official ones, and for which almost every available Venetian palace and institution was needed, rented, and handsomely paid. The whole city has become a venue for the exhibition. Huge posters on the walls are indistinguishable from the enormous commercial advertisements covering the façades of buildings under restoration: there is osmosis, rather than opposition.

Hordes of artists, critics, and addetti ai lavori (insiders and "authorized persons") swarm over the calli, clog and obstruct them: they are different from the perennial shabby tourists, but they also seem in uniform, dressed in mock-bohème fashion, flaunting their press passes or "official" badges, with colorful, massive bags of catalogues and promotional literature picked up everywhere hanging heavily on their shoulders, like vu cumprà - the illegal vendors infesting every part of the city.

Inside the Giardini, and outside, the exposition seems a festival of movement and animation. The new Padiglione Italia at the Arsenale (the exhibition is named "Collaudi," Tests) looks back to the tenets and dictates of dynamism which had inspired Italian Futurism - now largely recognized as the first European historical avant-garde - and its leader, Filippo Tommaso Martinetti, exactly a century ago. Marinetti was all for the vitality of the present, the mingling of languages and styles, the centrality of the spectator rather than the painting, which was deemed no longer sufficient to accommodate the urge and movement of modern life.

Now, however, installations of all sorts substitute for the Futurist figurations that expressed motion within the painting, and allow for, indeed covet and yearn after, a third- or fourth-dimensional mise en scène. Technological motion and mise en scène, various and variably diversified forms of staging, appear as the underlying figure - or should I say, digit - of the whole exhibition: a revealing phenomenon, though some may turn up their noses.

In the Padiglione Italia, as in other pavilions, we have small stages like those for showings of Sicilian puppets, shadow plays, animated video installations and photo projections, cascades of light, "living," buzzing, and loop machines, magnetic bands, sculptures of light and luminous sculptures (or a combination of them, including one with scent diffusers) , ticking metronomes, knives beating on stones, pools with mechanical copper snakes, views of bustling cities, performances and, needless to say, one crowded parade winding its way through the gardens. …