Friday, July 01, 2005

The Toilets of Venice

A couple weeks ago, I was in Venice, Italy at the Biennale art fest extravaganza. Attending the Biennale was the last “class” of my 2nd term of PhD studies in the Philosophy of Media and Communication. The only reporting that we had to do on our art-filled day in Venice was to write a paper on some piece of art that evoked “death” in a “surprising” way. Jesus penis.

Luckily, when one goes looking for death, it is not hard to find.

My first idea was to write about the cat. I saw it in the bushes, next to Uruguay’s exhibition house; a skinny little thing with murder in its eyes. It was pouncing on something in the brush, teeth showing, hair on end, with fierce concentration. At any moment, I expected it to pull its head out of the shrubbery with some bloody carcass in its mouth. There would be my death. Paper finished and my day free for thoughtlessness. Alas, there was no carnage. Whatever the cat was after either got away or the miniscule tiger simply lost its interest in hunting. The cat came over and rubbed on my leg. I picked it up for a while and pet it, sucker that I am for any animal’s affection (an old Snow White fantasy from childhood, my special relationship with wildlife). Failing to deliver me death, I left the cat and went on searching. Thoughts of the always already “death of art” lazily swirled in my mind, as I noted the disproportionate amount of Video Art that dominated the Biennale, and how unmoved I was by most of the work.

An art-goers rule of thumb: Installation art is always good for a cheap thrill. If I can touch it or be touched by it, contribute to it, move it, mess it up or kick it around some childish part of me is engaged. Play ensues. I howled and intoned with the noise of a wind tunnel, compliments of the Russians, I think. I kicked little metal balls around in a huge stone room, creating disruptive echoes in the traditionally silent gallery environment. I was scolded for touching a toy tethered to a wall. What perversion is this, to display a TOY that cannot be TOUCHED?

I had to use the bathroom. A portable toilet provided an odd entertainment. Unlike the “pits of despair” of the United State’s port-o-potty’s (wherein the human refuse falls from the anus to a pile beneath, with nothing to obstruct the view) the Portable Toilets of Venice had an additional bit of technology added: a sheet of metal on a “conveyor belt” of sorts, with a bowl-side handle that one pulled like the arm of a slot machine to dispose of the waste. To speak plainly, when a rectal load is dumped on the conveyor belt, the “dumper” then pulls on the lever and the “deposit” slowly makes its way to the underside (the pit of despair, obstructed from view by the metal slab) whilst a cleaning fluid is sprayed on the conveyor belt. Ingenious portable toilet design! Interactive and fun! Never a more satisfying dump! Shit! The death cast forth from my bowels!

In the French Pavilion I experienced some art. I sat for over 30 minutes, watching the full cycle of the second room of Annette Messager’s 3 room installation, based on the story of Pinocchio. Her installation took me to that place of child-like wonderment to which I love being taken. Slack-jawed awe and eye-candy delight.

Picture an entire room full of red silk pouring in from an open doorway located far away, in the center of the back wall. A fan blows air, with differing force and rhythm, into the silk, causing it to billow and vibrate, oscillations and waveforms, rivers and oceans of blood, uterus walls, heartbeats, desert landscapes, alien lands, chiasmic unity, surges of chaos, primordial ooze, the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end of all things. Lights shone from above, orbs glowed below, pulses and patterns of light.

My favorite part was in the dark. All the lights were out. The eye adjusted to the darkness, and the blowing of the fans was quite low. A room full of liquid silk shivered and rippled. I sat on a bench with my silent companions watching an ocean of blood, pouring out of a doorway to oblivion, to more oceans of blood. I wanted to swim. It was cool and quiet. I heard the fans get stronger. A huge billow of silk built up behind the door and surged into the space. The lights rose, the face of a clock projected in the doorway. Time returned. No swimming in the bloody seas of death today.

My next bathroom adventure came on over at the Armory. James Hussier, my companion for the day, followed the man stick figure and I followed the woman, both the stick figure, and an actual woman in front of me. She and I found ourselves in a HUGE room with one toilet and one sink. After some moments of confusion, she asked me to leave so that she may relieve herself. I waited outside the door. When it was my turn, I entered the giant room. An enormous brick room had been divided by a thin partition, separating the men’s room from the women’s. The partition did not reach all the way to the ceiling, and the acoustics in the room made it so one could hear EVERYTHING happening on the other side. This meant that as I sat on my tiny toilet in this most beautiful yet awkward room, I could hear poor James having a time of it with his irritated bowels. We both took to infectious giggling, as James held his business until I had departed from my side.

Everything in the bathroom was contrary to expectation, and slightly inconvenient. The toilet paper was around the corner and just out of reach of the toilet. The water knob for the sink was out of reach of the sink. People would follow each other into the restroom, expecting stalls, confusion and embarrassment resulting. The experience was humorous and humiliating. I feared that I was being videotaped, and that later in the day I would see myself projecting. To top it all off, neither James nor myself could get the toilets to flush, and we feared that perhaps we weren’t actually supposed to shit in this particular installation.

More art, a couple more trips to the toilets, and then I went home to Los Angeles. The End. To be continued.

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