The International Writers Magazine
:Exploring Venice

Jason Murphy

This 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 named Andrea. Cross-legged 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 Andrea’s. He spoke great Chinese, mine was getting me nowhere. I was green, but he had spent months studying in China’s south, he had traveled the country. We got on. We toured, ate, drank, met other tourists and lived large in Beijing’s 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 couldn’t 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 Andrea’s 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 didn’t 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 Whittington’s 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 centuries-old brickwork.

After another evening listening to the sounds of Venice from Andrea’s tiny home I woke and set my course for art. I knew nothing of contemporary art but the Venice Biennale’s 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 Andrea’s 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 they can.

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 person’s 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 didn’t chat with strangers in bars, or sketch obscure alleyways, or meander open-minded through installations I didn’t 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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