The Venice Biennale Gone Evil

September 15, 2010

In the morning we made our way to Giardini, where the Mostra internazionale di architettura has pitched its tents since the last century.  Incomprehensible slogans in Eurenglish (“contemporary culture’s curatorial bias, an event serving as both a register and an infrastructure”), set in experimental, hallucinogentic typefaces, were everywhere, but we headed past them for the Russian pavilion, built in 1913 by an honest man called Shchusev in the delectable style of a Napoleon pastry. Surely the new capitalist Russia had not had time to scale the heights of Western avant-garde depravity, itself an heir to the Bolshevik revolution?

There was another reason I wanted to see what my compatriots had been up to.  Old Shchusev built well because in the old days there was no call for rubbish. To build to steal money is a modern invention, like concentration camps and bad restaurants. Rather like the mass tourist or the Gulag inmate, the Western taxpayer is a citizen without rights; he is there to be fleeced, after having been thoroughly brainwashed with slogans like those of the Biennale, while his native city becomes a nightmare of alienation. In contemporary Russia, on the other hand, things are done differently; there, people in power steal at the source, without bothering with paradoxes in concrete and glass.  Monumental steel spirals expressive of mankind’s hope, giant dog kennels lined with mauve astroturf, harebrained projections of capitalism’s luminous future—all that is unnecessary. Any post-Soviet apparatchik worth his Swiss bank account knows exactly where to steal, how to steal, and when to steal. Art, for him, is a nuisance.

This is why the exposition on view in the Russian pavilion was so clueless.  The idea was to show how a small provincial town the size of Venice, Vishny Volochek by name, could be rejuvenated and modernized.  Needless to say, this called for the construction of a lot of things like the Constitution Bridge, as well as cinemas, conference centres, art galleries, and the other “spaces” without which, in the West, the life of a thief with cultural affiliations becomes claustrophobic.  But why in Vyshny Volochek, for crying out loud?

There was a projection room in the pavilion, where a grainy film of life in the dreary town was being shown.  It all looked like Italy in the late 1940’s, with boys diving off a bridge into the river, with girls smiling as girls do not permit themselves to smile today, mysteriously and a little sadly, with old men fishing against the background of factory chimneys billowing smoke.

Change all this?  Without even the justification of stealing, as in Venice? Uproot it all, and replace it with cinemas showing Saw 3 and exhibition halls filled with Damien Hirst wannabes? Thank God all the money in Vishny Volochek has long been stolen!

As we were leaving Giardini, we found ourselves wishing a similar fate upon Venice.

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