Saturday, 7 November 2015


We sit in the cafe in the Arsenale, and talk about buying a brick. But not just any old brick.

   We've just seen a work by the Argentinian artist Rirkrit Tiravanija. It's a collection of hand-made bricks. 14,086 of them which is, apparently, the number of bricks used in the construction of the average Chinese house. Each one is stamped with Chinese characters which translate as "Do not work." A laudable sentiment to be sure, and one to be encouraged. And for just ten euros you can have a brick of your very own to take away, with the proceeds going towards an organisation for workers' rights in China.

   A limited edition work of art for just ten euros does seem like an unmissable opportunity, even if that limited edition is of 14,086. We're not quite sure exactly what we'd do with it, but Caroline suggests we could use it to wedge the balcony door open to let Mimi come and go.

   There's one problem, however. If we buy it now someone - let's call him "Philip" - is going to have to carry it around all afternoon. If we buy it at the end of the day we'll have to trog back through the entire length of the Arsenale in order to pick it up. And then someone - again, let's call him "Philip" - is going to have to carry it home.

   Caroline thinks it would be easier to buy it now. It'll save us the long walk back.

   I'm not convinced. I fold my arms and do my best to set my jaw in a firm line. I am not carrying a brick around all afternoon. No way. I'm not going to do it. And there is nothing - nothing - that is going to change my mind.

   Thirty minutes later, I find myself walking through the Arsenale. Carrying a brick.


The news of our acquisition starts to spread, and a number of friends express an interest in acquiring a brick of their own. Caroline wonders if she could go back to the Arsenale with a shopping trolley. Why, this might enable us to do all our Christmas shopping in one go!.

And then a week later, Peter and Lou, our Brilliant Australian Friends, come for dinner. We talk about our new work of art. They both agree that it is a very fine brick indeed.

- There's just one thing, says Pete. It's not fired is it?
- Eh?
- It's not fired. It'll slowly dissolve. Although that kind of makes it an interesting work of art in its own right.

We look at it more closely. There is, indeed, a fine layer of brick dust on the floor.

We've bought a brick. But it is not just a brick. It's a very special brick. A dissolving brick.

All in all it's just another brick in our hall...

Sunday, 20 September 2015

La Terra dei Malavoglia

"...di rompersi la braccia e la schiena tutto il giorno, e arrischiare la pelle, e morir di fame e non aver mai un giorno da sdraiarsi al sole....un ladro di mestiere che si mangiava l'anima" ( break your arms and back all day, to risk your skin, to die of hunger, to never have a day to lie in the sun...this thief of a trade, that ate the soul).

- Giovanni Verga, "I Malavoglia"

To English-speaking readers, Verga might be most famous as the author of Cavelleria Rusticana; later, of course, the subject of Mascagni's opera. However, I Malavoglia (in English, 'The House by the Medlar Tree') -  recounting the struggles of a family of fishermen in 19th century Aci Trezza, a small village near Catania in Sicily - is generally reckoned to be his masterpiece,

   Indeed, on entering Aci Trezza one is greeted by a sign stating "La Terra dei Malavoglia" which - given the unrelenting misery of the book - I would have thought akin to the Siberian tourist board deciding to publicise their country as "The Land of the Gulag Archipelago".

   Because there is misery aplenty in I Malavoglia. It's a brilliantly written novel, and - if you have an interest in Italian literature - you should certainly read it, but be aware that even Thomas Hardy would probably have thought it too depressing. And, with its emphasis on the rural landscape (not to mention occasionally making one want to bang the characters heads together), it frequently reminded me of Hardy. The difference being that - unlike Jude Fawley and Sue Bridehead -the Malavoglia  aren't brought down by the constraints of the social, political and class boundaries of the day. They're brought down by the innate capacity of people to be horrible to each other. Visconti filmed a loose (and more overtly political) adaptation, La Terra Trema, in 1948; and he too, is remembered with a piazza and bar (with splendid negronis!) named after him.

Now I may have made Aci Trezza sound rather grim, but that would be unfair. It's a lovely place. So lovely we asked our landlord, upon leaving, if we could make a booking for next year. We were even polite about his dad's home-made almond wine (not actually bad, but we did wonder if perhaps it was supposed to be used as a salad dressing instead of drinking it).

   This was our first visit to Sicily since 2002, and it was good to be back. We did a lot of swimming. We did a lot of lying in the sun. We ate a lot of fish. We ate a lot of granite. We ate a lot of arancini. Actually, now I think about it, we did quite a lot of eating. We also drank quite a few negronis. Indeed, I thought about compiling a list of 'great bars for negronis in Aci Trezza' but maybe that will have to wait.

Anyway, here are some photos.

This is the basalt Norman castle in nearby Aci Castello. Note the beach club in the foreground and the slightly ramshackle wooden scaffolding that is holding it up. There are many such clubs in the area, entrance fees are very reasonable (possibly varying in direct proportion to the solidity of the underlying structure).

Here's a view of Aci Trezza from Aci Castello.

And here's an image from the festival of St John the Baptist, patron saint of Aci Trezza, which took place on our last night.

It was a good week. We'd forgotten how much we loved Sicily. I'd forgotten that I was actually capable of enjoying a holiday on the beach, with the result that it took me the best part of the week to acclimatise; a week that I spent immersed in the miseries of the Malavoglia. 

Until next year! There is still, after all, that list of bars to compile...

Friday, 21 August 2015

Lazzaretto Vecchio

The Dutch Pavilion, hosting the veteran artist herman de vries, (and yes, that is how you write it...he's a lower-case kind of guy) is one of the better ones in this year's Biennale. And beyond the pavilion itself, de vries has also created a number of works on two islands in the lagoon.

Madonna del Monte lies between San Giacomo in Paludo and Mazzorbo and was originally the site of a Benedictine monastery, and, later, a church dedicated to Santa Maria del Rosario. Now in private hands, it seems impossible to visit without the use of a private boat. There may well be some art to be seen there but - passing by on the vaporetto to Torcello - we failed to spot any.

His other works are on Lazzaretto Vecchio. From 1468, it served as a quarantine station. And then, during the great plague of 1576/77, it served as the house of last resort. If you were diagnosed with the plague, you would be brought here in order to isolate you. This island would be the last thing you would ever see; and you would - as likely as not - be dead within a week. Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch'entrate...

Death might be the great leveller, but money could still buy you a few privileges in the run-up. There was an, if you like, executive wing reserved for those with the wherewithal :-

Graffiti still survives from the earliest residents. Here, you can just about make out the figure of an angel.

There are other examples of a less exalted nature, at least one of which is spectacularly rude. No, I'm not posting it, you'll have to go and look yourself.

Over the years, it was used as a leprosarium, gunpowder magazine, military base and stray dogs' home (not all at the same time) and gradually fell into disuse and ruin, until restoration work began in 2004; during which the skeletons of over 1500 plague victims, in individual and mass graves, were recovered.

The island is now being maintained by the Archeoclub di Venezia. Trees and foliage have been cut back, a basic supply of running water has been restored  and there are hopes of making it more easily accessible by linking it to the Lido via a short bridge. The ultimate aim is for the island to become a museum.

de vries' interventions are subtle ones. The fields have been seeded with herbs, a reference to the plague doctors who wore masks stuffed with aromatics in the hope of some protection against the contagion. And a number of text-based pieces have been place throughout the island. No better way, really, than to finish with this...

Monday, 3 August 2015

Burger King

Venice is hot. Too hot. Everyone is saying it's the most brutal July they can remember. Which means it's very hard to motivate yourself to actually do anything. Going outside in the middle of the day would be crazy. Frustratingly, we find ourselves at the beginning of a three month (albeit unpaid) holiday and yet unable to do very much with it.

   Nevertheless, we're starting to make some progress at knocking off Biennale pavilions. Today we've managed to see the Seychelles at Palazzo Mora, along with a retrospective of mad-yet-strangely-brilliant Australian artist Mike Parr. The space, however, is not air-conditioned. We're soaked in sweat by the time we emerge, and the walk back along Strada Nuova is merciless. The temptation is to go straight back home, and turn the fan and aircon unit up to 11. But if we do that, we know we probably won't leave the house again for the rest of the day.

   No, we have to do something. The nearest Biennale event is Jonas Mekas "The Internet Saga" at the Palazzo Foscari Contarini. Or, if you prefer, at Burger King...

   The palazzo was described by the historian Francesco (son of Jacopo) Sansovino as "...a building of beautiful forms and ornamentations." It was once frescoed with scenes from the legend of the Sabine women, but these are now long gone. And it's now a fast-food restaurant. Disgraced former mayor Giorgio Orsoni stated that his administration had no powers to intervene when it came to the use of the building. The consumer, he said, would decide if the venture were to be successful or not. The Market would decide. As ever...

   The courtyard may once have been used as a small theatre, but today, in Mekas' work, it serves as the setting for a sound installation; playing a recording of the ambient noise from the funeral of Andy Warhol. Well, that's the intention. In reality it's impossible to hear anything over the noise of the air-conditioning units working overtime.

   We go inside. There is the familiar smell of fried food. It's not unpleasant (it is, after all, still quite early in the day), but seems out of place. But the main impression is that it is blissfully, blissfully cool.

   The main body of work is on the first floor. There are some video pieces but they don't leave a big impression. Probably because we're distracted by the sheer incongruity of the space. It's a Burger King. And yet it looks like this :-

   The windows are lined with photographic negatives from Mekas' collection, a nice touch that adds to the dignity of the space, and possibly lends a little more shade as well.

   Truth be told, it's not that exciting as an exhibition. But there's no getting away from the fact that this is one of the strangest Burger Kings you're ever likely to see. And it is so wonderfully, wonderfully cool.

   It's approaching lunchtime now, and there's something strangely attractive about the smell of fast-food. I start to think a burger seems like a pretty good idea. Hell, if we had one we'd have to sit inside in the air-conditioning for, what, perhaps another ten minutes? I fight the impulse off. I'm not a food snob, but there's some proper food in the fridge at home. And how good am I going to feel in near 40-degree heat after a burger and chips?

   We head off. The sound installation is still engaged in an unequal battle with the air-conditioning. And then it's back over the Scalzi bridge, and along the fondamenta leading to our block; a short walk but one that - in the blazing heat of the afternoon sun - seems to stretch to infinity; as if one might expect Omar Sharif to ride out of the haze on a camel...

   And so let me sign off with a recommendation I never expected to make. The next time you're in Venice, make a bit of time to go to Burger King. You don't actually have to eat there, after all...

Monday, 29 June 2015

The Capital-ists

It's a beautiful morning. I take the 5.1 vaporetto from Ferrovia to Giardini. It's not too crowded at this time of day, and I even manage to get a seat outside. It's noisy, like all the smaller vaporetti, but, in the early morning sun of a perfect summer's morning, it's the loveliest of journeys.

When I arrive, I take a coffee and brioche at Paradiso. I check my watch. I'm early. Plenty of time yet. I take some time just to stand and look at one of the finest views in all Venice, across the bacino to the church of the Salute and the Grand Canal. Then I head off to the the gardens, and wave my pass at the guards at the entrance. They know me by now, but they still have to check and, in any case, the system doesn't seem as reliable as it might be. But this morning everything is functioning perfectly, and they wave me through.

There's still another thirty minutes until the gardens open to the public. The Central Pavilion itself has a slightly eerie feel to it. The spaces are empty, except for a few staff, but all the video installations have been set in motion, and play to an invisible audience. 

The pavilion is a maze, but I know my way to the Arena by now. There's no-one else to be seen, so I just sit down and take out my script. Gary Moore's Still Got the Blues is playing over the loudspeakers. I wonder, at first, if it's a new installation that I haven't heard about; but then I realise it's just the technical crew relaxing before the start of another long day. Gary isn't here to make art. He's just here to play the blues.

Francesco, my co-reader, arrives. He usually sports a splendid Marxian beard but he's had to trim it back. He's got a part-time job in a bar, he explains, and his boss didn't like it. Besides, it's a bit hot in the summer. We go through our parts together, making sure they're marked up correctly and that we're in agreement as to when one of us passes over to the other.

Giovanni, our technician, places two music stands on stage and then mics us both up. We take our places on the left and the right of the stage, and wait. Giovanni gives us a wave. It's time. We walk on, and place our scripts on the stands. I start to read. "Chapter 2 : The Process of Exchange..."


The email had come out of the blue. Would we be interested in taking part in a project for the Biennale, with the artist Isaac Julien? A 'dramatic reading' of every last page of Karl Marx's Capital.

Marx? For money? In the Central Pavilion? The Biennale was the reason we first came to Venice, in 2005. We had no idea then that, just ten years later, we'd have the chance to actually be a part of it.

We had to get through a few auditions first. Isaac - friendly, smiley and relaxed - has very definite ideas on how the project is to work. It is not just supposed to sound like somebody reading a lecture on Radio 4. No. It has to be acted. Somehow, we have to find a way to make it live, to make it a performance.

And, somehow, we made it through to the final squad of eleven. There will be three half-hour performances a day, by two readers, until the end of the Biennale; a timetable that should allow us to read the entire work perhaps three times.

Volume 1 is actually quite an interesting read. There's some fine writing in there, plenty of righteous anger and even a few jokes. There's also a great sadness there : upon reading it, one is struck by the feeling that - for all the undoubted advances made  - we have not come as far as we should. And when he rages at the unfair distribution of wealth, and of the exploitation of the vulnerable, of the desperate and of children...well, it's easy to bring to life.

At the moment, however, we're making our way through Volume 2,  a much drier tome heavy on economic theory, formulae and tables. It's difficult to find a way to lift this off the page. My way is just to pretend that this really is the most interesting thing in the whole world and hope this carries the audience along.


A certain amount of preparation is necessary before each reading, as the text needs to be divided between two readers. I sit on the sofa, marking my part up. Mimi, obligingly, comes and sits on top of it. She looks up at me, wide-eyed. I don't know what you're doing, but I do love you. I smile and scratch her behind the ears. She purrs, stretches, and picks experimentally at the spiral binding. And again. Then a little bit more. And then suddenly her claws are out and she's scrabbling away furiously at the pages. In a panic, I tip her off before she can shred the entire volume and she stalks off in a huff. I examine the damage. The top pages are in a bit of a state, but, fortunately, not the bits I have to read.

Our cat is not a Marxist. And this saddens me.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

All the First Lady's Men

It's Friday afternoon, and I've had some good news. My only student this afternoon has cancelled, leaving us free to do fun stuff. So we get the boat over to Giudecca in order to knock off a few more Biennale installations. In all honesty, a lot of it isn't really that great, although Francesco Jodice's Weird Tales (and, yes, it is an HP Lovecraft reference) at the Michela Rizzo gallery is worth a look.

   We're on the part of the island nearest to Sacca Fisola, a mainly blue-collar residential area but one dominated by the enormous Molino Stucky Hilton hotel where none other than Michelle Obama is supposed to be staying that night. We're expecting the island to be in lockdown, but there's no sign of anything special.

   I'm going back to Mestre for some end-of-term beers and Caroline is joining us later; so I get off the vaporetto at Piazzale Roma. As I walk along the fondamenta I notice a police boat going past. No surprise, really, as the Questura is near here. But then there's another boat. And another.

   I'm perhaps ten metres from the Ponte della Libertà. I stop walking, to take it all in. A cortege of outriders on jet skis emerges from under the bridge. And then there's a water taxi. The curtains aren't drawn and I can just about make out the figures inside. Bloody hell. It's her. It's Michelle Obama, with her daughters and her mum.

   The taxi is followed by a water ambulance. Then another police boat. Then another group of outriders. Every cop in Venice must be here. And then, yet another boat on which a man in a balaclava and body armour is training a gun on the bridge. Well, I call it a gun. It's actually a piece of field artillery that's bigger than he is.

   There's a really cracking photograph to be taken here and I start to reach for my bag. And then I stop. A man with the biggest gun I have ever seen is less than ten metres away from me. I'm suddenly aware that what I want most in the world, right now, is for him to think well of me. I move my hands away from my body. And then I stop moving until the cortege is out of sight.

   Thirty minutes later, I'm in a bar in Mestre and Michelle, I presume, is in a suite in the Molino Stucky. And I realise that I really don't envy her at all.

Friday, 29 May 2015

The Mosque

There's usually some sort of controversy at the Venice Biennale. Last time it was nothing more serious than the Macedonians being asked to remove the live rats from their installation. But it's rare for a pavilion to actually be closed. The Swiss, enterprisingly, have managed it twice; on both occasions at the church of San Stae (in 2005 they were asked to removed a beautiful video installation by Pipilotti Rist on the grounds that the Church found the lesbian overtones inappropriate- overtones which, I confess, had rather passed me by).

   But all these are nothing compared to the anger that has surrounded The Mosque, the official Icelandic pavilion at the 2015 Biennale, and the work of Swiss-born artist Christoph Buchel who has transformed the church of Santa Maria della Misercordia into, well, a mosque...of sorts.

   Some background is required here : the church is deconsecrated and, indeed, has not been used as a place of Christian worship since 1967. In the intervening years, it has been allowed to decay. 

   Buchel delights in the re-use of space : in 2011, he transformed an art gallery in London into a temporary community centre. Now, throughout its history, Venice has been a city where East meets West - indeed, the first typographic edition of the Koran was printed here in 1538. However, there is no mosque in the city, and so the small Muslim population has to travel to the mainland in order to pray. So what better use of space, reasoned Buchel, could there be? However - and this is important - it would only be an installation resembling a mosque instead of an actual one - The Mosque, if you like, as opposed to "a mosque".

   The whispers started before it had even opened : there were, some claimed, still Christian relics in the church. Christian symbols had been overlaid with Islamic ones. The Comune had given permission only for an artistic installation, not a place of worship, and people had been seen praying. Most seriously, the church had perhaps not been deconsecrated at all. Why, even the plumbing had been installed without permission. People, in short, were queuing up to be outraged.

   Within a few days of opening, the police had been called. A member of the public had spotted a visitor removing his shoes. This, he reasoned, constituted an act of worship and of course, he was only doing his civil duty by reporting it. And on the very day we visit, the police have been called out again.

   They, in turn, call out the curator. She arrives, and walks over to a group of men. There has been a complaint about noise, she says. They shake their heads. No noise, they have just been having a discussion. One of them introduces himself. He is a politician, he says, ex-Lega Nord ('but no longer associated with that fascist party', he adds). He is only here because it is his duty to investigate if the law has been broken. He is, he claims, the first politician to visit the installation. He is polite, but has the puffed-up air of the pompous petty bureaucrat given his moment in the spotlight. Foreigners are causing trouble in his city and, by God, he is going to do something about it. More than that, he is going to be seen to be doing something about it.

   The curator sits down. And they argue. He demands to see all the necessary documentation relating to the installation. She tells him that all this information is in the public domain and that she has no obligation to show him anything at all. And then she gives up and walks off.

   A big Icelandic guy comes over and sits down (I believe he's Ibrahim Sverrir Agnarsson, leader of the small Muslim community in Iceland). There is no doubt that the space is deconsecrated, he says. He takes out his iPad and shows them an image. It shows the document of deconsecration. It is signed by Patriarch Albino Luciani, later Pope John Paul I.

   The ex-Leghista shakes his head. No, no, that's not enough. There needs to be a nulla osta from the Curia as well to certify that the building will not be used for purposes contrary to the wishes of the Church. It's nothing to do with religion, of course not. It's just that the law needs to be respected. His friend, however, suddenly goes off-message. How would you feel, he asks us, if an English church were to be converted into a mosque? He smiles. This is a killer argument, he thinks, they won't have thought about this one. He seems genuinely confused when we tell him that we wouldn't give a damn as long as the space was deconsecrated. 

   But we are here, of course, to actually look at the space instead of just getting into a fight. And the revitalised interior, a mixture of traditional Christian architecture and Islamic decoration, is beautiful.

   We take a long stroll around. Elsewhere, Agnarsson is patiently explaining to the politician that, no, of course Christians don't have to remove crucifixes if they enter a mosque. But he's banging his head against a brick wall here. We speak to the curator before leaving. She seems angry, tired and sad. Many people have been supportive, she says. Unfortunately, it's those who are shouting the loudest who are being listened to. Because, of course, it's nothing to do with laws being broken and it's got everything to do with religion.

   We put our shoes back on, and turn to leave. A little girl is playing hopscotch on the patterned carpet. The sight cheers me up, makes me smile. She doesn't care about deconsecration or nulla oste. For her, it's just a pretty space in which to play.

There probably won't be a sadder or more beautiful work of art to be seen this Biennale. I believe that Buchel genuinely thought the installation could be a neutral space in which people could sit down and talk together, without conflict, in an atmosphere of peace and tolerance. Instead of which, all we were capable of was fighting about it. And so, if the purpose of art is to hold a mirror up to life, the image reflected back at us is a profoundly ugly one.

"The Mosque" was closed by order of the Comune on May 22nd on the grounds of overcrowding, and misuse of the space for religious instead of artistic purposes. The organisers are hopeful of re-opening, albeit with the proviso that the space will have to be treated solely as an artistic installation.