22 September 2009

The tourist as modern artist

The Goddess Serendipity arranged for me to be in Venice during the Biennale, that famous modern art exhibition that takes over the entire city for a few months every, well, two years.

I spent a few hours each day crashing different venues with my walking installation "The Tourist: Transcending and Transgressing Fronteras, Obfuscating and Obliterating Identity: a Work in Postcards, Photos, and Gelato-Stained Khakis." It got rave reviews--the critics didn't understand it at all, so of course they loved it.

On Sunday, I took my show to the main Biennale venue, way down at the southeastern tip of Venice, in the bucolic Giardini section of town. I shelled out an entrance fee of 18 euros--cultural learnin' ain't cheap--and strode in, holding my book prominently but casually at my side, careful to keep the brightly-colored title visible to passersby,

I visited several different countries' pavilions--Israel, Canada, Australia, Denmark, and various others--and learned that the hot new themes in art, the subjects on the cutting edge of cultural commentary, are (brace yourself):
  • the search for meaning in life
  • the futility of same
  • the transience of identity
  • despair
  • contrasts
The artists' techniques were every bit as groundbreaking as their ideas.* The most popular medium? Competing videos.

What you do, see, is have multiple screens in the same room, each one showing something related to but--and this is key--different from the others. For example: show the same scene, but in different languages and with the timing offset by a few seconds (Singapore Pavilion). Or have four stacked screens, each with people spinning in some way--on stilts, on a bike, while holding a large object, breakdancing (Australia Pavilion).

Get it? Life is complex! And nuanced! And full of weird juxtapositions, contrasts that add up to something vibrant and interesting!

The most pretentious and dull of the videos was also the most hyped one. It was at the Great Britain pavilion, where there was a sign out front warning that large crowds were expected and seating was limited.

The filmmaker was one Steve McQueen, whom you may know from his acting roles in such movies as ... no, no, wrong Steve McQueen. This one, alas, is a brash young Brit who won the Camera d'Or at Cannes in 2008. His latest work, the one that we were all so eager to see, is titled "Giardini," which you may recall is the name of the area where the Biennale grounds are located.

The film took up two screens, side-by-side. It opened with several minutes of a close-up of rocks on the right screen and, on the left, a static view down a Giardini street. The only soundtrack was water dripping onto the aforementioned rocks, distorted and amped up for maximum obnoxiousness.

Eventually, the images changed: dogs foraging around the shuttered pavilions, streetlights switching on, leafless trees swaying in a winter wind. That was it. I suppose the effect was supposed to be mesmerizing; instead, it was monotonous and mercilessly mind-numbing. Snickers of disbelief started rippling through the audience.

In most cases, the two screens showed contrasting images that I'm sure were supposed to be Deeply Profound. For example, a brown spider poised on a tree trunk AND a red bug crawling on a leaf. Hidden vs. obvious! Predator vs. prey! Static vs. active! Eight legs vs. six! So much meaning!

The snickers eventually turned into a tidal wave of laughter--and bear in mind, this was a room full of people who had paid a decent amount of money to be there and who presumably had at least a passing interest in modern art.

Within ten minutes, I counted fourteen people walking out, presumably to track down Steve McQueen and throw him into a canal. By the twenty-minute mark, of a thirty-minute movie, another eleven people had given up. I'm sure more followed, but I was that eleventh person, the twenty-fifth total. I've never walked out of a movie before.

Guess what, Steve (et al.)? Idea A plus Idea B does not inherently equal Deep Thought C. Sometimes it just gives one the sensation of being kicked in the face AND the crotch simultaneously.

I can do the contrast thing, too. The Venice Biennale makes you think AND wince! You'll find both the sublime AND the moronic, the French AND the German AND the American AND the Venezuelan AND the Korean! In mediums as varied as sculpture AND video! There are disembodied heads AND crashing motorcycles AND cave paintings AND trying-too-hard-to-be-meta videos of gardens--and not just any gardens, but the very gardens that hold all these postmodern juxtapositions! Golly!

If there's one area of culture that can compete with modern art in contrast-obsession, it is, alas, travel writing. Just as in modern art, it can work. Sometimes. But usually it comes off as pseudo-intellectual hack work--there's no nuanced, analytical thought, just superficial observations paired in hopes that together they will sound insightful. See if these sound at all familiar:

- Nevada has gambling and recreation--vice and virtue!

- France has imposing, overcrowded landmarks and quiet, undiscovered bistros! It's a land of contrasts!

In the foreward to one of the recent Best American Travel Writing anthologies, series editor Jason Wilson offers a fine take-down of the "land of contrasts" trope. Alas, my book is at home, and I can't find the full text online, but I did manage to track down this bit about articles on Iceland:

The original composition of the line “Iceland is a land of fire and ice” has proved to be a seminal moment in the travel literature of Iceland. From that time on, the description has proved irresistible to travel writers — it has found its way into countless articles, guidebooks, and television documentaries.

Wilson was writing primarily about short-length travel writing--magazine and newspaper articles of the variety included in his anthology. But the criticisms can be applied just as well to travel books--not just guidebooks, which Wilson mentions, but travel memoirs as well.

Here, see if this formula sounds familiar: "I left my corporate job in the big city and moved to an idyllic [sun-dappled village/timeless mountain town]. The local people were sometimes charming, sometimes cold, always eccentric, and the whole region was a mesmerizing land of contrasts, both surprisingly modern and refreshingly traditional. The vineyard has a cell phone tower!"

Where did "land of contrasts" start? I don't know. But I can tell you that if you open your copy of E5D to page 291, the start of the Zurich chapter, you will read the following:

Imagine a boulevard lined at one end with banks and squat department stores, which suddenly opens into a lake of the brightest blue, covered with sailboats and swans. Consider a city of enormous commercial fame, where stock markets and brokers' houses stand a five-minute walk from brooding forests and mountain chateaus. ...

Zurich, the locale of these contrasts, is the city I'd choose for a first introduction to the land of contrasts, Switzerland. [Emphasis added.]

Birth of a cliché?


* To be fair, there were some genuinely compelling installations. And one of those multiple-video things, by an Icelandic artist with the delightfully-Viking-sounding name of Ragnar Kjartansson, was one of the most captivating and evocative pieces of art I've ever seen: five screens, each with him and another man playing music in various places in the Canadian Rockies. In each film, they play different instruments; together, it's a cohesive piece of music that sounds like otherworldy bluegrass, what a jam band on Venus might play.

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