An artist’s take on the Venice Biennale, as experienced during Venice’s highest floods in 50 years
Keeley Haftner, November 22, 2019
I found myself a viewer of the Venice Biennale during this year’s epic flood. How does art premised around current political and environmental crises change when experienced in the middle of a declared state of ecological emergency? And does this foretell a new normal to come?
Wednesday, January 23rd, 2019: Purchased Early Bird tickets to the Venice Biennale
Since it was my first time going to the Biennale, in early spring I began filing article after article into a digitally dog-eared folder marked “VB,” which included a range of reviews, articles, and ‘Best Of’s. In spite of having never been, I’m not blind to criticisms around the Biennale, which in previous years have ranged from “too big” and “too corporate” to “too small” and “too obscure.” Still, being an artist whose practice deals with ecological issues, I was eager to see how the world’s alleged cream-of-the-art-crop dealt with Ralph Rugoff’s premise, “May You Live In Interesting Times.” This proved to be a bit too real, since the city was mostly underwater during my stay.
Experiencing a flooded Venice during the Venice Biennale felt like a callous site-specific artwork at the expense of those who live in the reality of crisis, not unlike Christoph Buechel’s “Barca Nostra.” For citizens and business-owners in Venice, this new normal means battening down the hatches, preparing for the worst, and hoping not to lose too much property and income during and after the crisis. Crisis capitalism (and tourism), of course, takes effect. Every tourist shop in Venice was not only full of tchotchkes and striped t-shirts, but also of vinyl, mid-thigh boot coverings, which sold like hot cakes. These, along with broken umbrellas and useless plastic ponchos, floated down the ‘picturesque’ streets and poured out of garbage cans in what was perhaps the most palpable case of conspicuous consumption I’ve ever seen. Gondoliers braced against the trash barges as a sizeable fraction of the waste was cleared, before the rest inevitably began its journey toward the gyre. The opportunistic crisis preparation these shops displayed was more than could be said for Venice’s MOSE flood barrier project, which since its start date in April of 2003 has evaded completion due to corruption. Still, even if it had been in place, since the first recordings taken in 1872 there has never been this level of flooding in Venice twice in one year, let alone three times in a week.
Tuesday, November 12th, 2019: Highest tide, at 1.86 metres (6 feet, 1 inch)
At this time, I was still home in The Netherlands, a country where one third of its land is below sea level and where (for now) flood risk management is artfully done (and rightfully so, after around 2000 years of experience). Our trip was scheduled to begin Thursday evening. My partner and I anxiously followed the tidal predictions, kept in touch with our hotel staff, and tried to assess if our trip was worth the risk. With the then optimistic weather predictions and assurances from locals on the ground, it seemed far too rare of an opportunity to miss. Not only was I remiss to relinquish my investment of the trip itself, but I also felt it important to understand what “Interesting Times” felt like in the midst of ‘interesting times’ (that dark euphemism). We prepped as well as we could with what necessary provisions we could predict, and made our way.
Friday, November 15th, 2019: Tide hit 1.54 metres (5 feet) at peak
This was the day we decided to go to Giardini, as our host deemed it the easiest to get to from where we were staying (which, as it so happened, was not terribly far from St. Mark’s Square where only a few days prior tourists had gone swimming). It was also (theoretically) high enough ground to be unaffected by the rising water. We learned that on this day there would be a four-hour tidal window: two hours prior and two hours after would mark the beginning and end of the water’s highest swell. But nature is unruly. When we set out the water in the streets was already nearing knee-high, lapping over the top of our boot covers if we waded too quickly. We were warned not to go near the Grand Canal where the water would be deepest, yet trying to walk through Venice’s complicated canal streets in the midst of a flood is a fool’s errand, and a dangerous one. We grew nervous that if we took too long we’d be stuck without shelter, but if we turned back after too much walking we’d be in the same predicament. We decided to take our chances with the Canal, and luckily caught a water bus that took us directly to Giardini. We took our chances with tickets, too, as the machine dispensing them was underwater.
At 10:00am we arrived, nearly first in line, but not alone. There were sopping wet reporters, dedicated art viewers, and Venice Biennale staff ready and waiting. We had the whole day ahead of us to see everything that wasn’t so affected by the flood that it had closed.
This is not a review, and I don’t plan to go through works piece by piece. But there were moments that stood out – some in unintentional ways. Zhanna Kadyrova’s “Second Hand,” for example, was created from repurposed ceramic tiles from a hotel in Venice that were then turned into clothing items which hung outside of the gallery. As I viewed them, these works hovered over flooded walkways alongside the overflowing canal. The project, initially intended to engage Ukraine’s transition toward decommunization, reads extremely differently here, and feels poetically (albeit dishearteningly) specific to a city some say is in its dying breaths. Laure Prouvost’s French pavilion “deep see blue surrounding you,” too, ‘stood out,’ but not in a good way. I’d read seemingly nothing but positive things about it, and had high hopes. Yet the frivolity of the video work which played at taking me deeper, the triteness of the seductive francophone narrator attempting (and failing) to seduce me, and plastic water drowning Venetian glass clichés amongst nods and homages to the late great filmmaker Agnès Varda felt utterly and frustratingly empty. Being surrounded by ‘blue’ further thinned the work.
But again, this is not a review.
Saturday, November 16th, 2019: Tide at 1.10 metres (3 feet, 7 inches)
Which, by Venetian crisis standards, is ‘not bad.’ In Venice, high water is a seasonal hazard. Much was taken for granted by the media who covered the story, such as the ready-to-hand platforms allowing tourists to walk the streets in spite of high waters. Equal parts comforting and terrifying is the siren that sounds prior to the rising tide, which sounds like an incoming air raid siren. During the highest possible tides, called acqua alta, it sounds one tone for every 10 centimetres beyond the flood limit of 1 metre (3 feet, 3 inches), up to 1.30 metres (4 feet, 2 inches), followed by a longer tone indicating flooding beyond that, at one second per centimeter. The entire sequence sounds twice, to allow for proper counting. Thus yesterday, at the projected 1.48 metres (4 feet, 9 inches), we heard three tones (each increasingly more shrill), followed by 18 seconds of a long tone. This is extremely unsettling, but practical, especially for those without access to television, radio, or internet. Given the day’s relatively ‘low’ tide, we made our way to Arsenale.
As can be expected, there were works that took Venice’s history of flooding as part of their premise, irrespective of the crisis. These, of course, fell into stark relief against the context of actual historic flooding. Among these was Hito Steyerl’s “This is the Future,” which featured the same elevated walkways dispersed through Venice in the current flood. In the same way as Kadyrova’s Giardini work, Anthony Hernandez’s “Pictures for Rome” and Jesse Darling’s “March of the Valedictorians” felt hauntingly appropriate, albeit unintentionally. Especially the former, which depicted unfinished interiors from derailed projects, one of which was submerged in water.
But the most affecting work in both Arsenale and Giardini, and perhaps the most affecting work in the entire Biennale as I experienced it, was Kahlil Joseph’s “BLKNWS.” I can’t say precisely how many hours my partner and I spent in front of this work, as the time was not felt. I was glued to the work in a way that reminded me of that feeling that you get when your phone sucks you into a whirlwind of news headlines, updates, videos, images, tweets, and status updates, the main difference being that this vortex felt hopeful – perhaps even enlightening. But most importantly, it was both deeply personal and deeply human. The piece quickly and seamlessly transitioned between emotional instances of Black pride alongside moving depictions of Black father- and motherhood, and descriptions of violent systems of injustice and White supremacy affecting Black communities, including how climate change touches real people, such as those in New Orleans who felt the worst ramifications of Katrina. It was specific and universal in a way that only the best artworks are. If I were holed up in a bunker during the future’s worst calamities to come, I would hope for something as important, timely, and culturally relevant to surround myself with. If art is to stand up to what is to come, boldly and honestly, it will have to meet the standard “BLKNWS” has set the standard for.
Sunday, November 17th, 2019: Final and longest lasting tide at 1.5 metres (4 feet, 9 inches)
This was not predicted, but of course climate change is the opposite of predictable. This was meant to be our day to catch any of the remaining pavilions we’d missed, as well as auxiliary events and exhibitions. Instead, we stocked up on provisions the night prior, and spent most of the day in the hotel. I wish I’d had “BLKNWS” with me. Thankfully, our hotel rooms were on the second floor, so even though our hotel lobby had thigh high water, our rooms were dry.
A Venetian man told us a story about a poor young immigrant couple who were finally able to get an apartment in Venice, though could only afford one on the first floor. First floors in Venice are notoriously impossible to insure against floods. Six months into their new living situation, they lost everything. This seems to me to be the perfect metaphor for global warming in general, where the ‘winners’ in affluent countries are the last to be affected by climate change, while the ‘losers’ – the most vulnerable and often least responsible – are the first to suffer.
Notably, on our list of pavilions to see this day was the Republic of Kiribati, a tiny island in the Pacific whose entire existence is threatened by rising waters. The Golden Lion winning work at the Lithuanian pavilion, “Sun & Sea,” a beach opera created by Rugile Barzdžiukaite, Vaiva Grainyte, and Lina Lapelyte, finished its performances on October 31st. I do wish I could have seen it while in Venice, but this is more than just a case of FOMO. The artists speak of the paradox between the form of the warehouse and the content of the beach inside of it, but that paradox would likely have been terribly stark with rising flood waters outside the building. Of course, having not seen the work in person, I can’t say for sure. I do however envision local art lovers watching tourists fall into high tide waters with their selfie sticks, for whom remembering this work musters a bad taste in the mouth (and how utterly apt that would be). The pavilion website tells you to imagine watching a hot, carefree beach from above, while the “slow creaking of an exhausted Earth” gasps below you. That creak might be easily ignored, with enough money. But there will soon come a time when Venice is flooding, when Dubai is scorching, when Iceland runs out of icebergs, and when Hawaii’s garbage piles too high. When even the well-to-do, perhaps even the 1%, can’t ignore climate change any longer. Will the art we make then be brave enough to hold up a mirror to the world, or better yet – around the corner to what lies ahead? Or will we keep our heads in the sizzling sand?
*The Venice Biennale hosts its final events this weekend, November 22-24th. Many of the pavilions and auxiliary exhibitions will remain closed on account of damage from the flooding.