by Roderick Conway Morris

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Wim Delvoye
Gothic Towers by Wim Delvoye at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, 2009

Dispatch from Venice

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 13 June 2009


When the Venice Biennale was founded in 1895 it was in many ways a response to the crisis facing the city. No longer an independent republic and marginalised in the newly re-unified Kingdom of Italy, Venice was seeking ways to re-invent itself, attract new types of visitors and boost the local economy.

Most of the great exhibitions during that period were one-offs but the forward-looking poet, playwright and mayor of Venice, Riccardo Selvatico, and his circle could see the benefit of making the exhibition a regular event. This year's edition, which continues until 22 November, is the largest ever, with 77 countries participating and with scores of associated shows.

Most visitors to the Biennale this year — there were 320,000 in 2007 — will come and go unaware that Venice is experiencing a new economic crisis at least as serious as the one faced in the late-19th century. For the city has run out of funds in a spectacular fashion. After the disastrous flood of November 1966, the Italian state enacted a Special Law to repair and restore not only Venice's public monuments, but also to help maintain the whole fabric of a city in which even many of the humblest houses are historical treasures. Contributions reached a high of nearly s269 million in 1997. This year only €4 million is guaranteed, with a further €24 million promised, which may or may not arrive. The municipality reckons that it needs an annual minimum of €70 million to maintain the city.

The most visible signs of this crisis are the enormous advertising hoardings now enveloping some of Venice's most famous monuments. Until a few days ago, visitors arriving at the railway station were confronted across the Grand Canal by a gigantic image publicising a fashion goods company covering the scaffolding on the façade of the San Simeon Piccolo church (the only one where the Tridentine Mass is celebrated every Sunday). Part of the Doge's Palace and Bridge of Sighs are still covered with a massive ad featuring a trio of leggy, scantily clad models. Across the Piazza, Sansovino's Marciana Library has a hoarding with a gigantic wrist-watch. These three sponsorship deals have brought in nearly €4 million for urgent consolidation works on these buildings.

To the vociferous protests of the Venetians at the gaudy vulgarity of these ads, Massimo Cacciari, the city's mayor, has responded saying, 'Find another source of money, and we'll take them down immediately.'

Other initiatives include a concession to put more than 100 food and drink vending machines at boat landings and other spots. This should earn the municipality a further million or more euros annually. However, since the shortfall remains so great, the city's marketing department is also preparing, among many other smaller fund-raising projects, simply to solicit donations. 'There are around 20 million visitors to Venice a year,' Claudio Madricardo, the department's head, told me last week, 'and if every one of them gave just one euro — that would be €20 million extra a year.'

Three years ago the French magnate François Pinault took over the maintenance of Palazzo Grassi on the Grand Canal in exchange for the use of the space to hold temporary shows of his collection of contemporary art and host lavish parties. He also had plans for the Dogana, Venice's ancient Customs' House at the mouth of the Grand Canal, which the Guggenheim had been interested in expanding into for some years. The Dogana was in a parlous state, its quays collapsing into the water, battered by the wash of the anarchic, ever-increasing motor traffic, which routinely breaks the speed limits with impunity, exacerbating the damage.

Pinault won the competition to obtain an extended lease on the building and appointed the Japanese architect Tadao Ando to restore it and remodel the interior to create a permanent museum for the Pinault collection. Just over a year and €20 million later, the new Dogana was unveiled on the eve of the Biennale. Ando has said he felt somewhat intimidated by the prospect of tackling such a landmark historic monument, but the result is impressive. The interior light effects are expertly orchestrated and the views of the surrounding water, seen from different angles are a constant delight. The blending of the traditional Venetian materials of brick, wooden beams and Istrian marble and Ando's Japanese eye — expressed in the subtle simplicity of his lines and colour schemes and in, for example, his discreet, lattice-like iron window grilles — is extraordinarily harmonious.

The actual artworks, of which there is not an overwhelming number, include the usual suspects, from Cy Twombly, Cindy Sherman and Jeff Koons, to Maurizio Cattelan, Rachel Whiteread and the Chapman Brothers. But there are also some striking figurative works by the likes of Marlene Dumas and Luc Tuymans. And the architecture is so pleasing that even those who do not share Pinault's tastes will find a visit rewarding.

Nearby, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection has put on well-timed and varied special shows, contrasting the sculptures of Robert Rauschenberg made of scrap-metal and found objects and the Belgian artist Wim Delvoye's amazingly intricate Gothic spires constructed from laser-cut corten steel. At the same time the Collection is marking the 100th anniversary of Futurism by highlighting the important Gianni Mattioli Collection, which they have on long-term loan, with additional pieces from elsewhere.

The British Pavilion in the Gardens at Castello is presided over yet again by 'Commissioner-for-Life' Andrea Rose (the norm in other national pavilions is to appoint a new commissioner for each event). The sole offering is a half-hour split-screen film of the boarded-up pavilions in Biennale Gardens in winter by Steve McQueen. It would not be spoiling the ending to reveal that this more-sensitive-than-thou exercise draws to an end with a close-up of a snail crawling very, very slowly across a tree trunk.

Infinitely more engaging and creatively composed are Shaun Gladwell's videos at the Australian Pavilion, which include one of the artist 'car-surfing' on the roof of a replica of Mad Max's V8 customised Interceptor as it rolls along a seemingly endless dead-straight road running through a majestically beautiful expanse of the Outback.

Bold and arresting, too, is Peter Greenaway's animation of the replica of Veronese's 'Wedding at Cana' in the Palladian Refectory on the Island of San Giorgio Maggiore (Napoleon carried the original off to the Louvre and it was never returned) with the help of computer graphics and a soundtrack of voices (in English and Venetian) against the electrifying musical backdrop of the Gabrieli Consort.

First published: The Spectator

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023