Close encounters in Venice

20, 22 April. For a handful of days, the highly coveted ones of the inauguration, Venice is marked by the footsteps of those who have come from all over the world to visit the new edition of the Biennial of art. As I prepare for the throng of rooms, pavilions and satellite exhibitions, I walk along a tree-lined avenue that connects the Giardini to the rest of the city. In my head I have that echo of decadence with which Giuseppe Berto opens Anonymous Venetian, death everywhere, in the marbles and bricks, in the hollow floors, in the disconnected architraves, in the restlessness with which the rats continue to multiply. Death that clears the escape routes to the mainland. And yet, in the very expensive days of the inauguration of the Biennale, Venice overflows with people and occasions. It overflows with optimism. And while I too, under a sky undecided whether to turn to beauty, I rush to snatch a portion of profit and entertainment, here along this tree-lined avenue I meet a man of about fifty. He is blond, quite tall, square-toed leather shoes. He wears a dark suit and holds a briefcase in his right hand. He walks with long strides, chest out, but his gait has something edgy about it. I stop and he does the same. Three, four meters away. I smile, he remains serious and puts the briefcase to his right. He reaches down, opens it, and pulls out a handful of leaves. Then I get serious too, the paranoia of ending up in a candid camera rises, or worse of facing a deranged person. I only relax when other people stop and watch. Meanwhile, the man retrieves the adhesive tape from his pocket and slowly, starting from the left foot, begins to attach the leaves to the dark suit. He continues like this until he covers the whole of one leg and then the other, and then covers the torso, the arms and even the face and hair. Although his way of acting suggests a certain firmness, even a moral conviction, I seem to read in the performance, which I will later discover is entitled Infraction Venetia, a kind of emptiness, of hesitation. The man of power overwhelmed by nature compensates for a general fragility, fills the air with tenderness. What is the performer doing? What does he want to prove to him? Doesn’t he feel ashamed? Here, this is a typical mistake. Judging things that are unofficial, unrecognized, unparalleled, with compassion or with a predatory gaze. After all, it is precisely the unpredictability, and the risk, that make a work of art something special. While I get lost in the considerations, three carabinieri approach.

The oldest is in his sixties, the middle one should be my age, and a young girl completes the trio. They slow down their pace, exchange a few words in the ear, allow themselves to be absorbed by the onlookers scattered around the performer, who has now become a hedge man. I greet them and state that I am in Venice to write an article on the lesser known aspects of the Biennale. I show the pen and notebook I keep in my pocket and ask them for their opinion.

“Ask him, ask him, the artist”, the older one suggests, referring to his colleague. The girl starts giggling. I turn to the carabiniere in the middle, my age, and I explain again what I do there and then I ask him if he too is an artist.

«But go, I studied restoration».

“Then?”

“Then I practiced with a restorer here in Venice, but nothing, there is no work. So I took part in the competition and they took me in the weapon ».

“Are you still a little familiar with art?”

“I have little time. Obviously there is a lot of art in Venice, and I like it, but it’s not that I start following everything ».

“And what do you think of the Biennale?”

“What to say … it’s fun, come on, I mean, there’s a nice atmosphere.”

“Did you manage to see anything?”

“Little. We are in charge of security, even if everything is quiet. We took a tour of the Gardens. “

“What did you like?”

“My God, not that I remember much. There was that wooden sculpture, right? – she says turning to her colleague – which seems particular to me ».

“Yes,” she confirms, putting her hands behind her back.

“And what do you think of this performance?”

“Nice, come on. That is, I don’t understand her, but she is there. “

“Do you see any differences between what’s in the Biennale and these things outside?”

The carabiniere smiles and looks down.

“They are ugly? Do they bother you? “

He stiffens a little. «No, no, for heaven’s sake, it’s just that, you look – he says, pointing to the performer – you don’t understand what he is doing. Why does he cover himself with the newspaper? “

I trust him that I also happen to not understand contemporary art, but it is difficult to admit it, maybe we allow ourselves something with close colleagues, timidly, a little to laugh, a little out of grudge. I thank them and go back to follow the performance which, unexpectedly, has taken a political turn: on the front of the body the performer is covered by the pages of a newspaper, on the back side the leaves are sprouting. Finished. The audience disperses. Instead, the performer takes off his shoes and fixes them on his face with adhesive tape; then he stands still, like a statue, for a minute. Really finished. Now, as if at the end of a cosmetic treatment, he removes all that stuff from his face, picks up his briefcase and walks through the hedges on either side of the avenue. His escape catches me off guard because I would like to ask him a few questions. So I follow him over the benches, towards the vegetation, but he seems to have evaporated. I am waiting for a signal, for a noise. There is no way to retrace it.

I’m about to leave when I hear swearing in an unknown language. The sound comes from the right. I penetrate the hedges making my way through with my hands. In a small open space, on his back, wet and red, there is the performer in his underwear who cleans himself, throws everything into a black bag. He wipes himself with towels, wipes a towel around his neck, so I retrace my steps so as not to interrupt him or give the impression of spying on him. He emerges a few minutes later. Checked shorts, white T-shirt and shoulder bag, sandals with socks. Wet hair. I introduce myself and he smiles a little surprised. The way he talks (“Hi, my name is Olaf”) seems like a friendly guy. He tells me that he is forty-six and comes from Sweden, “High school teacher” with four children. His English is as shaky as mine or maybe we’re just embarrassed; or maybe, after seeing him transform from hedge man to Olaf, it’s like talking to a superhero just out of the shower. Relaxed, vulnerable, bruised.

Olaf begins by confirming my impressions of him, that is, he refers to the “Fucking art system” as an enemy, who, after seducing you, corrupts your soul. It is a somewhat obvious thesis, but Olaf adds that if you are not on the market you are not an artist. I am struck by the serenity with which he talks about it, also because inclusion in the system – or rather, in systems – is a central problem. It’s Olaf’s problem, it’s Damien Hirst’s problem and company. The system to which you belong determines the economies, the approval ratings, the number of followers, the awards, the press reviews, the visibility… It determines the categories. For example: artist or non-artist. Olaf is not an artist since he does not exhibit in the Biennale. Or he is an artist because he has made a performance with the public – a performance not even so far from some already seen in official spaces; or again, he is an artist like many others, with a good curriculum, with good ideas that they have never exhibited at the Biennale. So what are the parameters? Who has the right to define, to assign categories? Thinking about it is a terrible thing, from universal judgment. This yes, this no. This we will see.

Olaf notices my distraction and then states that his performance, Infraction Venetia, it is out of the market, it cannot be sold or bought. He is here, at his expense, to say that there is room for everyone, that art belongs to everyone, and if professionals don’t care who cares. Then he apologizes, says he’s too upset by the situation, has a hard time talking.

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