Just back from the Venice with the school trip for biennale exhibition, this year curated by Nigerian born Okwui Enwezor. We visited various venues including the national pavilions of the Giardini, the renovated shipyards of the Arsenale and Corderie and collateral events throughout the city including the Academia to see the collection of historical Venetian painting from the middle ages to the 17th century as well as the Peggy Guggenheim Museum’s collection of modern art and the Thyssen Bornemisza contemporary art collection and exhibition at the restored Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana
The title ‘All the Worlds Futures’ encompassed a vast array of exhibitions, topics and themes many of which were thought provoking, challenging and powerful and gave a deep insight into current global social, cultural and political situations as well as posing timeless existential questions.
What is unique about the Venice Biennale is the way the present is framed by the past. The historical city has been a cradle of world civilisation, a meeting of East and West, in both Byzantine and Ottoman empires and a crucible of mercantile capitalism, at its height with a powerful mediterranean maritime empire and a form of democratic republic governed by an aristocratic oligarchy, that made Venice rich and independent through trade secured through diplomacy and war.
This historical context provided a contrast for contemporary artists to explore current global issues and extrapolate meanings in relation to the present and future. The city’s extraordinary infrastructure and the temporary exhibitions housed in national pavilions specially built for the biennale as well as many historic architectural spaces, explored both by vaporetti along the canals and on foot in the many narrow passageways, thus acts as a sort of labyrinth which can be ‘read’ as a cipher for our own times. Venice is like a giant shiny bauble of both desire and loss that reflects the many contradictory facets of the world, past, present and future in its glittering surface.
Shakespeare’s tragedies, The Merchant of Venice and Othello, help us to see the city and its Black and Jewish identities through the eyes of the 16th century playwright as an early modern melting pot of religious, social, cultural and ethnic differences were prejudice was rife, intrigue and jealousy could thwart ambition and justice could be either harsh or tempered by mercy
We still see the crumbling palazzi that flank the grand canal through the eyes of artists like Canaletto or Pietro Longhi who created souvenirs for the 18th century aristocratic grand tourists or through the hazy sunlit mists of romantic 19th century artists like Turner or writers like Ruskin who, in his ‘Stones of Venice’, helped to create the modern vision of Venice as a threatened artistic heritage needing to be saved for posterity or Thomas Mann, whose Belle Epoch city is doomed and decadent and full of beauty and death.
Venice in myth and reality represents both a giant ‘collective unconscious’ imaginative place as well as a very real ‘momento mori’, challenging our own current culture's complacency about sustaining both built and natural environments in response to apocalyptic scientific climate change predictions. Set amid the rising waters of the lagoon that once guaranteed Venice’s security, keeping both historic enemies and the modern world at a safe distance, it now threatens to drown the sinking city both literally and metaphorically in the vast global currents of popular tourism, on which ironically it depends for survival, as gradually the locals migrate away to the mainland.