The International Writers Magazine:Exploring Venice
I WENT AND HOW I REALISED
is a story of slow understanding. It plays out in Venice, but
it starts in Beijing's inner south, in a small youth hostel in
a traditional grey hutong, where I met a twenty-four year old
on my bunk in the early morning of my first day, confronted by
the enormity of the map, uncertain of almost everything, I was
terrified at the thought of braving this cold new world.
When Andrea, a skinny
pale Italian guy, woke up he casually invited me to go see the Forbidden
City. My first day in Beijing was also Andreas. He spoke great
Chinese, mine was getting me nowhere. I was green, but he had spent
months studying in Chinas south, he had traveled the country.
We got on. We toured, ate, drank, met other tourists and lived large
in Beijings alleys and boulevards, parks and restaurants for 12
days. He said to visit when I came through Venice.
That was January. Come July, with a very long overland train journey
behind me, I was rolling across the surface of the Venetian lagoon,
on Trenitalia, under a bold Mediterranean sky. The Venice train station
appeared, high-ceilinged and busy like the classical court scenes I
had seen hanging in serious galleries. Andrea stood on the platform,
smoking a cigarette.
Although he had hoped to take time off work to show me around his adopted
city, he explained as he led me into the blinding sunlight and thronging
effervescence of a Venetian afternoon, he couldnt really. I accepted
his apology and we made, I thought, oddly strained conversation along
the winding way to his apartment.
We ate a red, white and green pasta fredo cooked by Andreas sartorially
impeccable flatmate Fillipo "in the evening", on a rustically
dangerous platform attached to the sloping roof of the apartment building.
It was excellent, and I secretly noted it as my favourite meal of all
time. In the ochre of the rooftops and the way the light seemed to catch
on the clouds I saw a conscious happiness reflected. I knew these experiences
to be those of a lifetime. We drank with the locals at the students
hangouts. We escaped the madding crowd. Andrea melted hash into the
cigarettes he rolled and introduced me to a couple of his friends. There
was a party, but he didnt go.
Alone in the daytime I wandered among the fat, bobbing-headed pigeons
and Americans paying for violinists and cappuccini. Then I meandered
off, heading for the narrowest, furthest alleyway I could find. Narrow
white-brown walls seemed to tip in and close off the sky above my head
and with the yellow cobbles under my feet. I felt like Dick Whittingtons
cat, adrift and excited. I stopped beneath a dripping dead-end archway
and, with slow short lines, sketched the petunias in their window boxes,
the shadows of cheap boats on the green ripples, and the marks on the
After another evening listening to the sounds of Venice from Andreas
tiny home I woke and set my course for art. I knew nothing of contemporary
art but the Venice Biennales main venue Giardino
was my destination. Of course it was closed (being a Wednesdsay) and
I diverted to the second largest venue, Arsenale. Set up in the old
Venetian arsenal, art stretched for hundreds of mystifying, exciting
metres. The exhibition was titled La dittature della spettatore
and it offered bizzareness in three and more dimensions, experiments
in those unexplored corners of the spectrum, excitement in the marrying
of utility and preposterousness, all the fragmented products of focused
insanity. Fatigue wracked my legs as the unexpected wracked my neural
pathways. I stepped out after six hours unable to speak and I knew I
loved this art mere paintings would forever after seem to have
missed opportunities to experiment.
At Andreas home we ate margheritas from a tiny place in Campo
Santa Margherita. They were thin and sweet with tomatoes whose redness
spoke for the energy of the Mediterranean sun. Gelati was carefully
selected from the eighty flavours around the corner. Andrea had to go
to bed early for his job and I watched the Rocky Horror Picture Show
the only English video on the shelf from the couch on
which I would sleep. I wondered whether I was imposing. Andrea seemed
distant. Far less animated than he had been eating in the cheap hutongs
of old Beijing, walking winter ice on Kunming Lake, or riding the bus
out to one of the crumbling, original parts of the Great Wall. I wondered
how we could be friends in one city but not another.
In a back alley, in my last day in Venice, I found a number of national
exhibitions separate from the main areas of the Biennale. Iran, Slovenia,
Luxembourg. The Slovenian exhibit told a story with complex characters,
multiple media, writing, animatronics, paintings, sound and light -
a complex story no mind I knew could have concocted. The Luxembourg
exhibit consisted chiefly of a room filled with foam and a couple of
repetitive video installations. I stood in the foam room and listened
to the silence. Out the front of the exhibition I noticed a small sign.
The Luxembourg exhibit had been awarded best in show. My mind roamed.
This work has no particular meaning. It is considered the best.
La dittature della spettatore! The dictatorship of the spectator. The
spectator has the power to interpret it at will, to take from it what
I would be back in Australia some months before I realized how Andrea
and I could be drawing such different moods from the same city. Traveling
added something to a persons ability to interpret their surroundings.
It opened up angles, added something perspective? I had been
expecting the personality I had seen in Beijing to be there when Andrea
was in his native element, not realizing that I too would be transformed
on the road. Back in my own city I didnt chat with strangers in
bars, or sketch obscure alleyways, or meander open-minded through installations
I didnt understand. At home I was just like Andrea I retreated
back into the self I had been before that first morning in Beijing.
Although I try to hold my travel perspective open at home, it slides
closed under the weight of the familiar. For now the closest I get is
when I get happy emails from Andrea, who is back touring Asia, and my
mind is set free, plotting trips across time zones far away.
© Jason Murphy Oct 24th
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