I’m in Venice – at last – and, with its subtle mists and roaring crowds, it does not disappoint. I have seen my first ineffable sunset and have had the various parts of my anatomy shoved by an indifferent attendant into an impossibly packed vaporetto. So I’m in Venice and pretty indiscriminately happy, wandering around the ‘back-behind’ of mobbed St. Mark’s Square, escaping from the sun and heat and screaming masses of people, who, as Henry James observed a century ago, should immediately leave and let me properly enjoy all this alone, when I happen on the big red “Biennale” pennant outside an old building, church, whatever, and enter, mostly just to get a rest.
The place is dim, quiet, cool, and a bit of a ruin, stripped to its architectural bones, former function unrecognizable. I climb the stairs to the loft and settle into a room-sized beanbag, and all I want or expect is about 15 minutes of peace. Luckily not to be had.
As I become accustomed to the light, I see around me people transfixed by a large screen cycling into a new showing of Singapore’s ‘The Cloud of Unknowing,’ which turns out to be the trippiest experience one could possibly have without aid of hallucinogen or other radical brain alteration. And no one already present is leaving.
The video cycles through six apartments in a low-rent neglected urban high-rise, showing its largish occupants, 4 men, one woman, and some vegetation, at various mostly ordinary occupations leading up to – what is this? — their envelopment by cloud emanating from various parts of their apartments, from the bookcases, appliances, furnishings.
It’s a wonderful set of contrasts between the ‘nothingness’ of the cloud and the persistent bulkiness of the humans (and possibly the plants as well), the mundanity of their quotidian existences and the magical things that happen to them as they’re being engulfed, the silence of the solitary, monastic modern high rise cells otherwise known as apartments, and the joyous uproar of a drummer exuberantly banging things from a zone somewhere between monastic gongs and pure rock and roll.
As the cloud descends, dreaming man is sucked into white-sheeted bed, drummer is subsumed by torrential rains, and moss-filled apartment just plain luxuriates … I think.
What’s it all about? I’m not sure it’s really necessary to know this but the title of the video refers to a 14th century mystical Christian tract of the same name, and references a whole lot of Renaissance and later cloud imagery, and, now, the amorphousness of the digital universe, adroitly intertwining the twin threads of baroque and minimal that have so dominated contemporary art for the past several years.
Giving away the end – since it’s not likely to be in the local multiplex any time soon – as the screen fills with luminous cloud turning to pure light, the dark-ribbed old wooden loft begins also to fill with all-obscuring cloud.
Spectacle, you say? You bet. And I’d see it again. And, what’s more, it’s stayed with me and resonated this past month as no blockbuster movie has ever been able to do.
One other point, about going to Venice. Getting there cost an obscene amount of money and was a hard thing to decide to do in these times. For anyone who still contemplates the purchase of, say, that big screen TV or latest i-thing, using the logic that these things are tangible and lasting whereas some vacation will be over in a matter of weeks,
my advice is to go for the real lasting thing, the trip.
True, I saw some really bad art, ate some mediocre food, was roasted, stomped on, and drenched by torrential rains, but this show alone (and it wasn’t alone in its wondrousness, ref. Swiss, German, Polish, and British Pavilions) was worth the price of admission. When the electronic objects are nothing but additions to the recycle bin, I’ll still have the Biennale and the aging Disney marvel that is Venice.