6 Sep

Having recently returned from a trip to the art world c(r)apital that is La Biennale di Venezia, I have lots to share: the good art, the baffling art and the things that made me want to do an impromptu re-enactment of Bruce Nauman’s ‘Clown Torture’ videos where somebody just throws themselves around yelling NO NO NO NO NO NO NO in an endless loop.

I’ve been before, in 2005, when I showed some work there. An account of this experience can be found in the book from which this blog derives, also called Career Suicide (duh). The chapter in there covers some other artists behaving like complete tools, commercial galleries acting like the frigging Borgias (trust me, my darlings, you’re not even a third-rate Discovery Channel docudrama about the Borgias) and people who work for Frieze magazine driving themselves nuts with status anxiety and a grossly inflated notion of their own importance.

This lead to them hosting, effectively, a very exclusive party (not exclusive enough to keep me out, thanks to them alienating the staff, the security guards and everyone else with a pulse within a two mile radius) that rapidly degenerated into something more like a catastrophic sixth form disco. It ended with vandalism, somebody pushed into a canal, wanton impugning of Tracey Emin’s virtue (such as it is), armed police, and the art world’s so-called elite being cursed by the local priest. So read about that stuff in my book, please. Sounds exciting, doesn’t it?


Two hours after my arrival in Venice via an invigoratingly inefficient and slow Alilaguna boat and a near collision with a DHL delivery gondola, an Italian asks me for directions. (Aside: I wonder if the delivery gondoliers do that thing where they’ve got the “while you were out” card written out already with a much earlier time than they really came to you, and they only give you ten seconds to reach the door before they drive off?)

As I’ve previously mentioned in my book, this asking for directions or bus timetables or other general information happens to me everywhere I go in the world. It happens in places like Kyoto or in the Chinese outback, in situations where I’m an ethnic minority of one. Foreigners who see me abroad also generally assume I’m not English, without having any specific notions of where I’m from. Often they seem to go away thinking they got really lucky and found a native who speaks great English. Even the Japanese people in Kyoto acted like this. Please take my word for it that I would not be mistaken for a Japanese or Chinese person, at least not by anyone who had ever seen what somebody from east Asia looks like.

Very weird but sort of flattering, I suppose, that utter strangers all over the world take me for a combination of jolly, accessible citizen of the world like Michael Palin in his TV shows and a version of Google Maps with an advanced voice interface. My theory is that I have, in some indefinable way, an archetypal face that speaks of me knowing the location of the nearest cash machine, church, natural history museum or public convenience.

It was insufferably hot, but short of somebody tying me to a stake in the middle of the Sahara, I tend not to sunburn so perhaps that has something to do with it. In the gestalt mind of the world, British=burned pink and inappropriately dressed, I am not burned pink and I am appropriately dressed therefore I am not British.

In fact I saw for the first time ever sunburned Italians, and everyone was going around saying (in Italian, obviously) “it’s too hot” and using that as a pathetic excuse for anything and everything, just like a whinging Brit when they finally get the sun they claim to want. I mean it’s the first time I with my own eyes have seen Italians with sunburn, not that it’s the first time Italians have ever had sunburn in the whole of history. The African handbag farmers who lurk on all the bridges were mopping their brows and abandoning their fake Louis Vuittons to seek shade.


Even without the various art, architecture, theatre and film biennales intermittently flooding the city with an extra helping of wankers, Venice is a strangely constipated place. Venice’s common tourists are much maligned. So they should be: revolting, ignorant and yes, often rather malign shitbags that most of them are. Wherever they go in the world, for example, Chinese tourists have an unerring ability to stow themselves in the shittiest hotels in the most ropy (and in some cities, the most rapey) neighbourhoods. They are usually viciously mean with money even though these people are not poor even by Western standards. They snake through the streets in massive, badly-dressed columns who seem explicitly dedicated to maximum selfishness and solipsism. The multinational shits with more money than sense who pour off their monstrous cruise ships for a photo op are even more obnoxious and thoughtless.

Without those tourists and Biennale scumbags, though, Venice is lovely but still essentially just a Renaissance Disneyland: a Disneyland, moreover, that’s not well supplied with the infrastructure and organisation that a theme park needs. It’s incredibly easy to get away from the tourist hordes, it takes almost no effort because the tourist hordes are so bloody lazy both physically and intellectually. Unfortunately when you do escape from the scrum it becomes clear that Venice is, if not dead, then at least moribund or undead.

Yes, the Venetians are happy to swindle visitors for every cent (or yuan) they’ve got; they’ll gleefully squeeze a foreigner until the pips squeak. Most of them clearly despise tourists, and who can blame them? But there’s no sense that the place or the people would be any happier or better off if everybody suddenly decided to stop coming. Quite the contrary would be the case, so maybe Venetians should tone down the nasty, exploitative attitude a bit despite the extreme provocations they sometimes endure.

Anyway, if you want Venetians to look upon you with a new respect, walk around with a Co-Op carrier bag. The polar opposite of this, in case you’re wondering, is dragging your fucking gigantic wheeled suitcase behind you.

Even as late as August (when I was there), pig-faced British art/media pro types are still very much in evidence, with their premature bingo wings pink from the sun and a grumble in their upper middle class British woman chops that their professional currency is earned and maintained by having been here and done this, and what a drag it all is because they’d rather be hauling their browbeaten, emasculated husbands’ fat arses around the Gucci and Prada ghetto next to the iconic Piazza San Marco.

The Doge’s palace and the famous Bridge of Sighs are also shamefully disfigured by massive and hideous hoardings for designer fashion and makeup brands. Whoever gave them the green light should be shackled in one of the Doge’s prison cells and made to stare at those bloody eyesores all day with their eyelids clamped open like Alex in ‘A Clockwork Orange’.

But if Piazza San Marco were really a theme park (or if the city fathers had any sense whatsoever), there’d be proper places to eat and other basic services. There’d be places for the aforementioned nouveau riche Chinese people to spend whatever fraction of their money could be prized out of their rarely-used wallets. There’d be signs up so people standing thirty feet from San Marco would know where it was instead of asking people like me how to get there. They’d get their shit together and integrate the system for getting visitors into, though and out of the city’s panoply of (great) museums and churches- they could start by getting the prices down instead of blatantly gouging people every time they take a step in any direction. People would in the long run spend more of their money in Venice that way, if money’s all you care about.

Instead the whole of central Venice’s motto seems to be: Let them eat Chanel. Or gelato. Spend more than €500 in one place or GTFO. Or even spend more than €500 in one place and GTFO.


Interestingly, The Art Newspaper did a rather good little guide to the Biennale and Venice, with an atypically blunt introductory plea from Art Newspaper’s founding editor- apparently also a Venice resident- Anna Somers Cocks* that visitors “engage more with the city” instead of doing what they usually do, i.e. use it like a posh Disneyland. Clearly I’m not the first or the only one to notice the issues I’ve mentioned here. She must feel quite strongly about it to break the art world protocol of never saying or doing anything vaguely challenging or oppositional, least of all to its most rich and (they think) powerful members.

While we’re on the subject of guides, Christies also have quite a good free iphone/ipod app with an incredibly useful offline map. I suppose their free app should be good since most of their clientele have got shitloads of money: quality is, in the immortal words of Withnail, “free to those that can afford it, very expensive to those who can’t”. At the Biennale and its ancillary events, this goes double.

The official Biennale app is nominally free, but all the reviews of it were saying that you can’t get anything useful out of it without a paid upgrade, so I didn’t download it because that kind of thing pisses me off. Either say it’s free because it’s really free, or be upfront about the cost. The official paper guidebook to the Biennale is perfectly OK and cheaper than the in-app purchase version, which sounds totally unjustifiable and stupid. The doorstep catalogue is, as catalogues usually are, way overpriced and full of pretentious gibberish from beginning to end.

* I’m sorry, I know this is childish and I don’t know her at all, but this is a highly unfortunate name that sounds like one of Vic and Bob’s sly quiz questions on ‘Shooting Stars’: “True or false- Anna Somers Cocks?”


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