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...