Close Encounters in Venice

Apr 20, 22. For a few days, the coveted of the inauguration, Venice is marked by the footsteps of those who have come from all over the world to visit the new edition of the Art Biennale. As I prepare for the throng of rooms, pavilions, and satellite exhibits, I walk along a tree-lined avenue that connects the Giardini to the rest of the city. In my head I have that echo of decadence with which Giuseppe Berto opens Anonymous Venetian, death everywhere, in the marble and bricks, in the hollow floors, in the disconnected architraves, in the restlessness with which the rats continue to multiply. Kill that clears the escape routes to the mainland. On the other hand, in the very expensive days of the inauguration of the Biennale, Venice overflows with people and occasions. It is overflowing with optimism. And while I too, under a sky that doubts whether I will turn to beauty, hasten to get my share of profit and amusement, here along this tree-lined avenue I meet a man of about fifty years old. He is blond, rather tall, leather shoes with square toes. He wears a dark suit and holds a briefcase in his right hand. He walks with big strides, chest out, but his gait has something angular. I stop and he does the same. Three, four meters away. I smile, he remains serious and puts his briefcase to his right. He lowers it, opens it and takes out a handful of leaves. Then I also get serious, the paranoia of ending up in a candid camera, or worse of facing a disturbed person. I don’t relax until other people stop and look. Meanwhile, the man takes the tape from his pocket and slowly, starting at the left foot, begins to attach the leaves to the dark suit. Continue until it covers the whole of one leg and then the other, and then the torso, the arms and even the face and hair. Although his way of acting suggests a certain steadfastness, also a moral conviction, I seem to read in the performance, which I will discover later under the title Venice Violation, a kind of emptiness, of hesitation. The man of power overwhelmed by nature compensates for a general vulnerability, fills the air with tenderness. What does the artist do? What does he want to prove? Aren’t you ashamed? Here, this is a typical error. Judging things that are unofficial, unrecognized, unmatched, with compassion or with a predatory eye. After all, it is precisely the unpredictability and risk that make a work of art something special. As I get lost in the considerations, three carabinieri approach.

The oldest is in her sixties, the middle one should be my age, and a young girl completes the threesome. They slow down, exchange a few words in the ear, become absorbed in the spectators scattered around the performer, who has since become a hedge man. I greet them and say I’m in Venice to write an article on the lesser-known aspects of the Biennale. I show the pen and notebook I have in my pocket and ask them for their opinion.

“Ask him, ask him, the artist,” suggests the elder, referring to his colleague. The girl starts to giggle. I turn to the carabiniere in the middle, my age, and explain again what I’m doing there and then I ask him if he’s an artist too.

“But go, I studied restoration”.

“Than?”

“After that I practiced with a restorer here in Venice, but nothing, there is no work. So I entered the competition and they took me in the gun».

‘Are you still somewhat familiar with art?’

“I’m short on time. Of course there is a lot of art in Venice, and I like it, but it’s not that I’m going to follow everything ».

“And what do you think of the Biennale?”

“What to say… it’s fun, come on, I mean, there’s a fun atmosphere.”

“Did you see anything?”

“Small. We are responsible for security, even when everything is quiet. We took a tour of the gardens.”

“What did you like?”

“My God, not that I remember much. There was that wooden sculpture, right? – he says, turning to his colleague – which seems special to me ».

“Yes,” she confirms, placing her hands behind her back.

“And what do you think of this performance?”

“Great, come on. That is, I don’t understand, but it fits.”

“Do you see any differences between what’s inside the Biennale and what’s outside?”

The carabiner smiles and looks down.

“They’re ugly? Are they bothering you?”

He stiffens a little. “No, no, for heaven’s sake, it’s just you look — he says, pointing at the performer — you don’t understand what he’s doing. Why do you cover yourself with the newspaper?”

I trust I don’t understand contemporary art either, but it’s hard to admit, maybe we treat ourselves with close colleagues, shy, a little out of laughter, a little out of spite. I thank them and go back to follow the performance which has unexpectedly taken a political turn: on the front of the body the performer is covered by the pages of a newspaper, on the back the leaves are sprouting. Finished. The public is spreading. Instead, the performer takes off his shoes and tapes them to his face; then it remains motionless for a minute, like a statue. Really ready. Now, as if at the end of a cosmetic treatment, he wipes all that stuff off his face, packs his briefcase and walks through the hedges on either side of the avenue. His escape hits me because I want to ask him a few questions. So I follow him over the benches, towards the vegetation, but he seems to have evaporated. I wait for a signal, for a sound. There is no way to find it.

I’m about to leave when I hear swearing in an unfamiliar language. The sound is coming from the right. I penetrate the hedges and make my way through with my hands. In a small open space, on his back, wet and red, the performer stands in his underwear cleaning himself, throwing everything into a black bag. He wipes himself with tissues, puts a towel over his neck, so I retrace my steps so as not to interrupt him or give the impression of spying on him. A few minutes later it pops up again. Checkered shorts, white T-shirt and shoulder bag, sandals with socks. Wet hair. I introduce myself and he smiles a little surprised. The way he talks (“Hi, my name is Olaf”) seems like a friendly guy. He tells me he is forty-six and from Sweden, “high school teacher” with four children. Your English is as shaky as mine or maybe we’re just ashamed; or maybe, after watching him transform from hedge-man to Olaf, it’s like talking to a superhero who just got out of the shower. Relaxed, vulnerable, bruised.

Olaf begins by confirming my impression of him, that is, he refers to the “Fucking art system” as an enemy that, after seducing you, corrupts your soul. It’s an obvious statement, but Olaf adds that if you’re not in the market, you’re not an artist. I am struck by the calm with which he talks about it, also because inclusion in the system – or rather in systems – is a central problem. It’s Olaf’s problem, it’s Damien Hirst’s problem and company. The system you belong to determines the economies, the ratings, the number of followers, the awards, the press reviews, the visibility… It determines the categories. For example: artist or non-artist. Olaf is not an artist as he does not exhibit at the Biennale. Or he is an artist because he has made a performance with the audience – a performance not even that far removed from some already seen in official spaces; or again, he is an artist like many others, with a good curriculum, with good ideas that they have never exhibited at the Biennale. So what are the parameters? Who has the right to define, assign categories? Thinking about it is a terrible thing, from a universal judgment. This yes, this no. This we will see.

Olaf notices my distraction and then says that his performance, Venice Violation, it’s off the market, it can’t be sold or bought. He’s here, at his expense, to say there’s a place for everyone, art belongs to everyone, and if the professionals don’t care who cares. Then he apologizes, says he’s too upset about the situation, finds it hard to talk.

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