“The rape of Venice: from Absence to Essence”, critic text by Matteo Bertelé, 2015, eng

“To be sure, everybody has designs on her, on this city. […] The goal of all that is one: rape.”

With these blunt words, the poet, Joseph Brodsky, drew attention to the predation upon, and humiliation of, Venice; dual concerns he observed during his frequent sojourns in the city. His telling words prophetically foreshadow the current art installation by Andrea Morucchio, The Rape of Venice; an exhibition that seeks to ward off the complete disappearance of Venice.

What is more effective than a total, multi-sensorial, and multimedia installation – that makes the risk of loosing Venice a fact that involves all the senses – than to put the viewer in front of, and inside, this impending threat?

The “total installation” was an artistic genre theorised and practised by Ilya Kabakov in the early 1990s as the natural prosecution of the total work of art, the Gesamtkunstwerk “which was dreamt about in the beginning of the century,” a concept embraced by Richard Wagner. In trying to express the utopian potential of an artwork, the artist resorts to techniques from the past: the total installation is generated from a collective sorrow, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the possibility of Real Socialism, and therefore, by extension, the collapse of one of the great utopian ideals of the twentieth century.

That sorrow and collapse correspond, in Kabakov’s case, to his abandonment of his country of origin. His debut in the international scene was in 1993, at the Biennale di Venezia. That particular event will be remembered as the first “expanded” Biennale because, for the first time the exhibition was expanded both at the local level (involving expositions and pavilions throughout the city) and at the international level (with the participation of new countries). The latter was a direct result of the concept of the Global Village, which was generated after the cold war and subsequently embraced by different artistic events. The Red Pavilion by Ilya Kabakov, for instance, was set inside the official pavilion of the Commonwealth of Independent States (a geopolitical phantom). It was conceived as a catalyst to trigger the memory of a geographical, historic, and social space that belonged to the past and yet, that was not totally lost. Counterwise, the pavilion was a “territory of a world that still exists […] it is awaiting its moment to return to its place, from which it was thrown out not so long ago.” In Kabakov’s intention, the spectators entering the total installation were led to feel a sense of familiarity, along with recognising the experiences and moments they had already lived in a previous life and that they now recognised as lost.

The same principle is at the basis of the project, The Rape of Venice: making the viewer a participant in an ongoing loss process, the rape of Venice. Such a loss has been caused partly by global climatic conditions (as the fragmented and flooded-like reproduction of the floor of the San Marco Basilica reminds us) and partly by human factors (such as acoustic and environmental pollution, the depopulation of Venice, and the tourist explosion). All these phenomena are endlessly reported by the international press and in this installation such written reports become a leitmotif reproduced in the form of a video.

The loss is however not irreversible but, certainly, progressive. Morucchio transported this concrete danger into the White Room, inaugurated for this occasion at the Palazzo Mocenigo. This palazzo is a Venetian Museum created to celebrate and preserve the immense heritage of applied arts: textile and perfumery. In its role as a museum, it is a precious cultural heritage that contributes to define what was the daily life in the Venice of the past, and it displays to the contemporary visitor the city as alive and lived in, rather than as a mere object to idolise. In their day, the products on display contributed to the formulation of the iconic worldwide image of the city in popular culture. In more recent times, the same items contributed to undermine this image through serial production and the sale of artistic surrogates in the form of low cost souvenirs and gadgets. Conversely, the Venice Biennale was an important window for the popularisation of the local, artistic, and artisan production, especially after the Venice Pavilion was built in 1932. To this day, the Pavilion still hosts local and regional exemplars of excellence from the different fields of the applied arts: in 2015 it is dedicated to the digital and high-tech world in the Veneto region.

The installation, The Rape of Venice, is also hosted in a dedicated exhibition space, however, it is not meant to be an “Anti-Venice Pavilion” (as the title of the installation might suggest), but rather as a “Venice Anti-Pavilion.” The installation does not display the fragile jewels of the city, but rather the fragility of the city itself.

“But Venice is fragile, but Venice is old.” According to Salvatore Settis, this bipolarity represents, within itself, the entire debate on Venice: on one hand, it is the motive for indiscriminate assaults on its social, cultural, and environmental heritage in the name of a boastful modernisation, which must conform to international standards, albeit with a complete disregard for local specificities; on the other hand, as a sacred axiom of the preservation of the city, in turn, one dictated by an imprudent laxity and an obstinate paralysis, both of which are destined to repress at the very outset any attempt towards any sustainable innovation.

Therefore, “precisely because” (not “but because”) Venice is old, it must embrace specific politics to make it alive and liveable; “precisely because” Venice is fragile it must be protected and respected for the right reasons and values and certainly not immobilised for eternity. Without the visible ruins and historical traces of its past, Venice is always deceptively the carbon copy of itself. According to Aleida Assmann, “myth is a founding story that does not become past through its history, on the contrary, it has a persistent meaning that maintains the past alive in the present of a certain society and confers (on) it a power of orientation towards the future.” In order for Venice to continue to live its own life and to live off its own myth, it needs a long-term perspective. Otherwise it will be sentenced to die from a self-perpetrated death, to be anaesthetised, to be lost in the memory of itself.

In The Rape of Venice, the artist concentrates the sense of an imminent threat, a consenting rape, in an artwork that critically and synaesthically reconstructs the city. This installation is not one of the many copies of Venice, some temporary and some permanent (Las Vegas, Macao, Dubai), created to propagate the myth of the Serenissima around the world, and which now become progressively closer to their original source (see Veniceland, the much-discussed project for a theme park on San Biagio Island, near Giudecca Island). From being a city with imaginative power, capable of inspiring similarities throughout the world (Venice of the North, Venice of the East), now the original Venice is no longer enough to itself. The original has to resort to its own clone, more accessible, attracting, and right next to it. When does the copy stop from being the reproduction of the original and become an object of worship, of immediate fruition, and enter into competition with the original? How many substitutes does Venice still need before it starts to take itself under consideration? Conversely, the installation by Morucchio is not meant to substitute Venice by pretending to be more real than the city itself. Rather, it defines itself through the absence of Venice by conceptualising its progressive sinking, and by expressing the feel and fear of its absence. It draws attention to the essence of its absence.

The initiator of this synaesthetic urban experience, of a kind of wandering without a destination as a cognitive and behavioural instrument, is the modern flâneur, and Walter Benjamin was one of the most famous exponents of it. Flânerie is indissolubly connected with the veneration of the metropolis and new technologies; given this, Venice was inevitably left out of the process. Flânerie was further developed after WWII as a psychogeographical exercise practised by the members of Situationist International under the banner of “You must become extranged and watch everything as if it was for the first time”.

After having experienced their urban dérive (unplanned journeys) in London and Paris, the most active artists in this field, Guy Debord and Ralph Rumney chose Venice as a next destination for their psychogeographic explorations. The choice was dictated by the fact that Venice embodied the inevitable contrast between a contemporary point of view and the “sentimental resonance” generated by its “old aesthetic.” Every era lives out of coexistences and differences: “We love our epoch, as hard as it is. We love this epoch for what one can do in it.”

This potential also nourishes the proteiform artwork by Andrea Morucchio, a Venetian citizen and artist. After all, disorientation is decentralization and, maybe because the whole of Venice is a city centre, these two concepts cannot be separated from the daily life of visitors and Venetians, flâneurs and situationists. These two concepts are also the source for artists’ new points of view and perspectives and force them to see the city with “new eyes.” In this light, the floor of the San Marco Basilica is re-composed by Morucchio through a meticulous work of deconstruction, selection, and re-assembling of tiles that are divided into regular modules. The installation breaks the lines of the decorative patterns of the original floor and shows the infinite possible combinations and composition of this sacred, walkable artwork. The process of recomposing a pre-existing artwork is enacted by fragmenting its central perspective into a plethora of paratactic elements that generate the personal mosaic of the artist.

When observed from a different, orthogonal perspective, the original mosaic of the Basilica already generates a sort of “extrangenment.” Before appearing in the Situationist context, the word “extrangement” was created by the Russian Formalists of the 1920s to describe a series of artifices aiming to unhinge the “fossilization” of words and images. It was a technical support for vanguard artists such as, the urban sights created by
Alexander Rodchenko. In the current age of mechanical reproduction of the works of art, the eye is already accustomed to photographic reproduction and therefore it seems that this art cannot offer new perspectives. It is not by chance that for his, The Rape of Venice, Morucchio – active in photography since the beginning of his career – gives up this medium (which he declines to define as artistic) and focuses instead on other forms of art such as, audio tracks, video projections, mosaic assemblages, and a fragrance.

If, since the era of vanguard endeavours, artists have taught us to see with different eyes, why not also listen with different ears? The soundtrack of the installation involves underwater recordings made in the canals of the city and in the lagoon. It offers to the listener a new auditory perception of the city. The “inattentive spectator” (to quote again Walter Benjamin), one usually defenceless against the bombarding of virtual images, in this installation is invited instead to concentrate and decode the lettering projected on three different levels at different speeds. Can the English language, (even if it is the global language of the news media), still allow a linguistic extrangement for the local spectator? Can reading the screaming alarms in a foreign language enable people, who are submerged in it, to see the phenomenon of the rape of Venice?

“[...] but it has no north, south, east, or west; the only direction it has is sideways. It surrounds you like frozen seaweed, and the more you dart and dash about trying to get your bearings, the more you get lost.”

With these passionate lines, Brodskij brings us to the olfactory traces of Venice, which heralded the initiation of the poet to the city, and which now, as well, inspired Morucchio’s installation. In the maze of calli (streets) and campi (squares) where the poet loved to get lost, the frozen seaweeds and (maybe) what they are reminiscent of, (his city, Saint Petersburg, or the Baltic sea in his childhood), intoxicated and stunned him in a sort of gelid embrace. In the present, pervasive and elusive, total and extrangent, the installation by Morucchio puts into the play the absence of Venice, and in so addressing this absence he counter-poses its essence, its quintessence.

Iosif Brodskij, Watermark, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, 1992
Il’ja Kabakov , O total’noj installijacii, publisshed by Hatie Canz, Ostfildern, 1995
Ilya Kabakov, Red pavilion, Venice, 1993
Salvatore Settis, Se Venezia muore, published by Einaudi, Torino, 2014
Aleida Assmann, Der lange Schatten der Vergangenheit. Erinnerungskultur und Geschichtspolitik, published by Beck, Munich, 2006
Guy Debord, Theory of the Dérive.
Guy Debord, Psychogeographical Venice, September 1957. It is the end part of the introduction by Debord for the book written by Rumney that carries the same name. Because the book was never finished the artist was expelled from the Situationist International.
Iosif Brodskij, Watermark, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, 1992