Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A New Boy With Frog(s) Takes Up Residence on Punta della Dogana

While Charles Ray's original "Boy with Frog"(below) was monumentally-scaled, towering above viewers, the new "Boy with Frogs" sculpture (above) is life-sized, and much more approachable in the absence of an armed guard

When Charles Ray's nearly 8-foot-tall sculpture of a boy with a frog was removed in early May 2013 from the spot it had occupied "temporarily" on the Punta della Dogana for four years (http://artdaily.com/news/62452/Venice-removes-controversial-Boy) and replaced by a replica of a 19th-century lamp post that had once stood there I never imagined another boy would ever take the former one's place. Ray's sculpture was unpopular with many Venetians, who were widely-condemned by outside art critics as being narrow-minded and retrograde.

It's the kind of condemnation many art critics love to make, as it makes them feel (nostalgically, sentimentally) that they themselves are firebrands at the forefront of the avant-garde, rather than, typically, the free-loading shills of a profoundly cynical and essentially conservative art world ruled far more by market manipulation than aesthetics. (Loitering at the open bar, these revolutionaries never get as far as the barricades.)

I suspected that the animosity many Venetians felt toward the piece had more to do with the fact that here, in a small city in which immensely wealthy (and often outside) private interests too often overwhelm the public good, Ray's sculpture was a private work (commissioned and owned by French billionaire François Pinault) installed in one of the most famous public spaces in Venice and watched over by an armed private security guard.  

The only thing that could have made this set-up more disconcerting to many Venetians was if the guard were clothed in a Napoleonic uniform.

The new boy on the Punta della Dogana, which I just saw for the first time today, subverts both Pinault's multi-million-euro showpiece sculpture and the rather stodgy replica lamp post that replaced it. (That the original lamp post had been "lost" during the course of the Ray boy's 4-year-stay was taken by many to indicate the usual shenanigans with public property: first, theft, then the no-bid contract to some properly-connected interest to provide the replacement). With its modest materials, its human scale, its parodic intent, it reclaims the spot for the public, as the carnivalesque traditionally used to do. Before Carnevale was privatized into solely another tourist attraction.

At least this is what I take to be its intent. Whether it succeeds or not--and what "success" would consist of--is yet to be seen. And in fact, I'm not even sure of who made it and positioned it where it is, though I assume the Ca' Foscari student group Liberi Saperi Critici, whose decal adorns the plywood sculpture's groin, is behind it (https://www.facebook.com/Li.S.C.Venezia?fref=ts)

(Two pieces I wrote in 2011 about Ray's original piece, when it seemed it would always be on Punta della Dogana, can be read here: http://veneziablog.blogspot.it/2011/05/boy-with-frog-as-installation.html and here: http://veneziablog.blogspot.it/2011/05/whats-that-boy-doing-here.html)



When it comes to the amphibious element, what the new piece lacks in realistic detail it makes up for in number--and wind chimes
The new sculpture, above, is yet to attract anything like the interest of the old one, below--but it never requires a protective enclosure

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The End of Romance on the Accademia Bridge?

A worker welds protective metalwork to the handrail supports on the Accademia Bridge
It seems that the problem of "love locks" on the Accademia Bridge has finally and definitively been solved. A world-wide phenomenon, variously blamed on a fairly recent Italian novel or an old tale of lost love from decades ago, these locks adorned with a couple's names are supposed to symoblize eternal attachment.

A handrail support as it was a year ago
There were so many hanging heavily on the Pont Des Art Bridge in Paris that their weight caused part of the railing to collapse last summer (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-27758940). Nothing so dramatic happened here, but Venetians still hated them, and in late August Venetian writer Alberto Toso Fei led a public information campaign against them. Flyers and stickers and ribbons were posted around the city informing visitors that the locks were nothing but vandalism and encouraging them to find less destructive and onerous (to the city) ways to express their love (http://www.theguardian.com/travel/2014/sep/10/love-locks-around-the-world).

But while the pen is supposed to be mightier than the sword, city officials seem to have come to the reasonable conclusion that in this particular case some preventive metalwork might be mightier still.

The same handrail support yesterday with the defensive metalwork
In recent weeks thousands of the locks have been cut off the Accademia Bridge and workers are now just completing the process of welding wide bands of stainless steel onto each of the slender curving rails once so perfectly suited to the locks. The new additions make for a slightly more noticeable handrail support, but they are nowhere near as unsightly as the locks.

Of course some visiting romantics may bewail the new metalwork, but I think it returns the responsibility for a memorable experience back to where it belongs: into the minds (if not literal hands) of the lovers, rather than an enterprising street vendor hawking a ready-made clichè. If, as they stand on one of the most charming vantage points in the city, nothing memorable or charged happens in the shared private space all lovers create between themselves then no outward sign--no matter how conventional or obnoxious or gaudy or public--will matter.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Waterworld


Sometimes a wrought iron railing and the presence of boats is all that distinguishes a canal from pavement--in this case, in one corner of Campo Santo Stefano. We've had about a week of rain and recurrent acqua alta, with another five days of (at least) the former in the forecast: if you're coming to Venice soon, bring high rubber boots.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Of Cappelunghe, Salt, MOSE, and the Lowest Forms of Life

 photo credit: AT
The hole of a cappalungha is recognizable by the lower-case "b" that surrounds it
To be honest, I didn't even know what cappalunghe were, much less that they were caught using salt. In English, I've only just learned, they're called razor clams. But when I saw them stacked or bundled together at the Pescheria di Rialto they registered as little more than sticks of the sea, and nothing I ever thought about eating. I also had no idea that they were local; that they could, in fact, be caught a short distance from where we live.

Like so much of the natural life and culture of the lagoon, our introduction to them came through Sandro. He'd spent last Saturday afternoon with our neighbors and he returned home after eating dinner with them bearing two cooked cappalunghe which, to be honest again, didn't look especially appetizing to me at that particular moment.

But he was thrilled with them. He'd caught them himself just a few hours earlier on the strand of Sant' Erasmo and they had eaten all but these two for dinner at our neighbor's apartment and they were, he told us (bouncing on the balls of his feet with barely-containable enthusiasm and pride), absolutely delicious. He actually licked his lips to underscore this last point, just as a particularly ravenous cat might do in the very old Woody Woodpecker cartoons he likes to watch on Youtube.

There was nothing to be done but eat them. Jen took one, I took the other. The taste and texture didn't exactly go well with the apple I'd just finished eating, and it took me a moment to identify them both, but then I exclaimed, "It's a clam!" Which was a discovery only for myself.

"That's what cappa means," Jen said.

"Ah, yes, 'long clam'..." I murmured, a small dim bulb lighting up for me while the rest of my family already stood in knowing sunshine. Then, in response to Sandro's vivid waiting expression: "It's great!"

And so it was--especially in terms of the adventure he'd had in catching them with his friends.

"Their holes are in the shape of the letter 'b'!" Sandro told us. "That's how you find them!" For a first grader excited about learning to write and spell and read this fact seemed to carry a special significance. As if the natural world were validating, as no teacher or parent ever could, that the alphabet really did have some immediate practical--and fun!--application. Boy, I wanted to say, that alphabet is really something!*

But he was already telling us about how you have to put rock salt on the their hole. Carefully, not letting your shadow fall upon their hole, or else they won't come out.

"Really?" I asked.

"Really. It scares them."

"How long won't they come out?"

He shrugged. "For a while. From the shadow they know not to come out. But then they forget..."

When they do start to rise out of their hole you have to grab them quick, before they retreat--with not too tight and not to loose a grip--and then they spit at you!

"They spit at you?" I asked.

"Yes. It's their defense."

"But it didn't work against you?"

He shook his head, fearless.

(The next day I'd learn from the father of Sandro's friend that took him to catch cappalunghe that while the spitting was no deterrent, the surprising fact that much of the first clam Sandro caught stretched pendulously out the back of the shell as he lifted it from its hole almost made him drop it in disgust. But after that first shock he was the picture of courage.)

"And salt is all it takes to get them out of their holes?" I asked Sandro. "But isn't there plenty of salt in the water of the lagoon? Don't they have enough of it already?"

He shrugged. "They like salt," he said.

Alas, it seems that cappalunghe are not the only things in the lagoon with a fatal susceptibility to salt.

To absolutely no one's surprise except, apparently, those conscienceless crooks civic-minded saviors of Venice who do business under the name Consorzio Venezia Nuova, it seems that the salt of the Adriatic is having a shockingly deleterious effect upon the multi-billion-euro water gates (known by the acronym MOSE) that are supposed to protect this city from extreme acqua alta. (As many people have sarcastically exclaimed, "But how could CVN and its various well-paid experts have ever been expected to know that there was salt in the sea!")

As reported three days ago in the local paper La Nuova di Venezia, architect Fernando De Simone (who specializes in underwater and underground projects) has called attention to the disturbing fact that photographs of the water gates raised out of the sea after just one year in place clearly show far more damage to them from the salty marine environment than was ever projected by Consorzio Venezia Nuova (http://nuovavenezia.gelocal.it/cronaca/2014/11/03/news/le-paratoie-del-mose-gia-aggredite-dal-sale). Which means, he says, that the Consorzio's projected maintenance costs--already, as one might expect, astronomical--will turn out to be only a fraction of what in reality will be needed.

Rather than the projected maintenance cost of between 30 and 40 million euros every five years to deal with damage from salt water forecast by Consorzio Venezia Nuova, De Simone claims that current evidence suggests that between 30 and 40 million euros in maintenance will be required each and every year.

Now, given the fact that the cozy monopoly that is Consorzio Venezia Nuova has exclusive rights to perform maintenance on MOSE unto perpetuity this egregious (but no doubt entirely innocent miscalculation!) is really no problem at all for Consorzio Venezia Nuova. But De Simone, and many others, are encouraging Prime Minster Renzi's new anti-corruption czar--who already has his hands full with the more than 130 people already under investigation or arrest for corruption in connection with the particular "business practices" of the Consorzio Venezia Nuova--might want to take a closer look into this profitable little underestimation.

And so twice in recent days I've been amazed to learn of the kinds of creatures that a little (or a lot) of salt can expose to the light of day: in one instance, a bunch of hapless and innocent bivalves. In the other, an unsavory bunch of much much lower forms of life.

--------------------
*Note: From Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon: "Printed posters go up in the cities, in Samarkand and Pishpek, Verney and Tashkent. On sidewalks and walls the very first printed slogans start to show up, the first Central Asian f--k you signs, the first kill-the-police-commissioner signs (and somebody does! this alphabet is really something!)..."