May 30, 2020
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Venice Diary

People remain indifferent to modern art in a city that organises what is often described as ‘the Olympics of modern art’

Venice Diary

Full Marx

For good or for worse, he has influenced the lives of millions of people across the world. But we have yet to see a proper biopic of the German philosopher and economist Karl Marx. If such a film is ever planned, Jean Blanchaert is bound to walk away with the lead role. He is getting enough practice at the 2015 Venice Biennale. With his bushy beard and imposing brow, the 58-year-old Milanese gallerist was often teased by friends for his resemblance to the German revolutionary. So when Okwui Enwezor, the Nigerian curator of this year’s Biennale, decided to make the non-stop recitation of Das Kapital as the centrepiece of his show ‘All the World’s Futures’, Blanchaert was an automatic choice to play Marx. Enwezor is a regular visitor to India. He was struck by the Sikh tradition of continuously reciting the Gurbani. Why not get actors to narrate the text of the revolutionary bible of the 20th century in a non-stop performance? The trouble though is that even if you don’t understand the words, the recitation of the Gurbani can engage you. As Enwezor himself says, Das Kapital is “a book that nobody has read and yet everyone hates or quotes from”. Once the curiosity wears off, it’s impossible to sit through the performance. Even Thomas Piketty, author of the bestseller Capital in the Twenty-First Century, says he “never really managed to read” Das Kapital. But Blanchaert is clearly enjoying it all. “I’m only playing Marx,” he says. “My son is the real Marxist.” He will be reciting Das Kapital until November 22, when the Biennale closes.

Mohammed Interrupted

From Marx to Mohammed is a big leap of faith. But at another end of the island from where Das Kapital is being recited, the followers of Prophet Mohammed had briefly congregated to claim a deconsecrated church, until the Municipality of Venice cruelly shut down the show. This is not art, this is clearly religion, and you don’t have the permit to practise it, said the authorities. It was officially supposed to be the Iceland Pavilion, conceived by the Swiss artist Christoph Buchel to—what else?—stir the waters of Western Islamophobia. Buchel succeeded. Venice has just 60,000 permanent residents, of whom, it is claimed, 15,000 are Muslims. That’s a startling statistic, in a city that once financed the Crusades. Is it possible? But then I recall my lunch at Gam Gam, the Hassidic Jewish restaurant owned by Rabi Rani Banin. It has excellent kosher food made by—who else?—Bangladeshi cooks. Bangladeshis are now ubiquitous in Venice, even if the claim that they constitute a quarter of the local population appears exaggerated. But one thing’s for sure—they don’t have a single mosque where they can congregate. Until Iceland, of all countries, with a Muslim population of 1,280, momentarily came to their rescue. The zeal of Iceland’s Muslim leader visiting Venice, Ibrahim Sverrir Agnarsson, is touching. As is his account of how he converted to Islam. Travelling as a hippie in the early ’70s, he had a revelatory moment while riding a horse from Peshawar to Swat. “I was convinced then that only Islam could be my religion.”

Art is for Leftists

Francesco Bianchi, a 25-year-old from Rome studying theatre in Venice, is also playing Marx at the Biennale. But unlike Blanchaert, he believes Marxism is still relevant in Italy today. But are ordinary Italians provoked by the predominant focus at the Biennale on Marx and the struggles of Africans, Asians and Latin Americans? What looks like a huge paper boat made out of a newspaper page bobs past in the lagoon. It’s an installation by the Brazilian artist Vik Muniz. The newspaper page details the drowning deaths of migrants near the Italian island of Lampedusa. “Most Italians want the boat people stopped at any cost, even if violence has to be used,” says Bianchi regretfully. “There’s a separation of people from real politics; there’s no politics of ideas anymore. They only want to demonstrate against migrants.” Even Marx fails to provoke. In any case, says Bianchi, in Italy, ordinary people associate high culture with the Left. “It’s a cliche, but if you tell them you’re going to the Biennale they think you must be a Leftist,” he says. They remain indifferent to modern art in a city that organises what is often described as ‘the Olympics of modern art’, with 89 countries participating this year. Only if an artist challenges Christianity, says Bianchi, will Italians react. So the vehement res­ponse to Buchel’s transformation of a 10th-century church dedicated to Virgin Mary into the ‘Masjid Al Rahmat’ for Muslim immigrants. Venice’s Christian roots remain strong.

Hooting it up...

In a crowded bar, an outrageously dressed Venetian bride-to-be organises a ‘bachelorette party’ before her wedding.

Maseeh Rahman reports for The Guardian, London, from Delhi; E-mail your diarist: maseehrahman [AT] gmail [DOT] com

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