Postcard from Venice: Crowds and 59th art biennale return to the city of canals

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Visit Venice, Italy in the spring as the city gears up for the prestigious Venice Biennale art festival

VENICE - Back in Europe for the first time since the pandemic, I am greeted by a familiar phrase.

"Ni hao ma," says an Italian waiter as I walk past his restaurant in Venice, suitcase in tow.

He has reason to be jolly: tourists, at the heart of the Venetian economy, are returning in droves as Covid-19 restrictions ease up.

Venice, the city of canals, is known for many things - its gondoliers and palaces, its biennales, and its history of printing and glassblowing.

When I was there in late April for the Venice Biennale, the city was swelling with tourists and the jet-setting artworld crowd.

The prestigious art festival, also known as the 59th International Art Exhibition, is back after being postponed for a year due to the global pandemic.

On show are national pavilions from about 80 countries including Singapore, as well as a major group exhibition titled The Milk Of Dreams and numerous "collateral events" across the city.

But there is more to Venice - and art in Venice - than the biennale. The city is dotted with many other art shows by big-name artists such as Joseph Beuys. With so much to see, and so little time, the word on the street is the quickest way to sort the brilliant from the duds.

Anselm Kiefer, the great German painter with a show at the Doge's Palace, is a name on many lips.

Less impressive is an exhibition by British artist Anish Kapoor, who in 2016 (in)famously gained exclusive rights to Vantablack, one of the world's darkest colours.

The streets of Venice ring with the voices of Americans, Germans and British tourists.

Things feel like they are returning to normal, aside from the Covid-19-related paperwork that had been involved (generating European Union vaccination certificates, for instance, and booking a pre-departure virtual antigen rapid test, which I ended up not needing).

Only a few people wear their FFP2 masks on the streets. There is no social distancing - water buses are packed.

Venice has tourist traps at every turn, but there are still authentic eateries to be found.

One of these is the Trattoria alla Rivetta, a hole-in-the-wall restaurant tucked behind a bridge in touristy San Marco. It serves hearty Italian meals with fresh bread, and nearly everyone else was a local when I was there.

One of the places I find most disappointing, perhaps only because of how much I had anticipated the visit, is the Libreria Acqua Alta.

The Libreria Acqua Alta. ST PHOTO: TOH WEN LI

This bookshop often appears in listicles of the most beautiful bookstores in the world. And yet, as I join the never-ending stream of tourists entering the store, I feel it to be symptomatic of much that is wrong with Venice.

Hardly anyone stops to browse, and the flow of human traffic seems to lead only to the pretty staircase of books at the back of the building, where people take photos of themselves for Instagram.

The staircase of books at the back of the Libreria Acqua Alta. ST PHOTO: TOH WEN LI

Hell is other tourists, I think, as I shuffle through the crowd.

Or am I part of the problem?

Venice suffers from two kinds of floods - the acqua alta or "high water" in the winter, and the flood of tourists in the summer months who (at least before Covid-19 struck) often arrived on cruise ships.

Overtourism is an issue. Before the pandemic, it had an estimated 20 million tourists a year.

Rents are becoming unaffordable for locals in the historic centre. It now has only about 50,000 residents - a far cry from the 175,000 in the 1950s.

As more locals migrate to the mainland, the historic centre is becoming a giant museum, a tourist's playground.

People walk along the Rialto Bridge in Venice. ST PHOTO: TOH WEN LI

Tourists who are tired of the busier areas (the Rialto Bridge is especially crowded) have other options.

To the north-east are the Venetian islands of Murano and Burano, famous for their glass works and needle lace. Torcello, which is further away, has a seventh-century cathedral.

Venice is a city of ghosts. The weight of history presses down on its inhabitants at every turn: the impressive, centuries-old buildings lining the Grand Canal; the 500-year-old Jewish ghetto (the word "ghetto" originated in Venice, and takes its name from a foundry); the spires of St Mark's Basilica in Piazza San Marco. (Venice, unlike Rome, has just one piazza but many campi - public squares that used to be fields).

I like Venice best in the early hours of the morning, where most of the people you encounter on the streets are deliverymen and not tourists.

Inside a water bus in the early morning in Venice. ST PHOTO: TOH WEN LI

On one of these mornings, I head to the San Samuele water bus stop. A homeless man in the sheltered platform stirs from his sleep.

One water-bus ride and a leisurely stroll later, I wind up at the Peggy Guggenheim museum, home to some gorgeous works by artists such as Max Ernst, Joseph Cornell and Jackson Pollock.

An ongoing show on surrealism and magic chimes nicely with the biennale's Milk Of Dreams main show, which is named after a book by surrealist artist Leonora Carrington.

On my journey back to the airport, via water taxi, I wonder: What is there left to say about a city of which so much has already been said?

Venice, after all, is the home of Marco Polo; it is where William Shakespeare, playwright of The Merchant Of Venice, laid his scene; it is the city at the heart of all the places in Italo Calvino's 1972 book Invisible Cities.

I suppose I am most curious about the chapters that remain unwritten: the future of this beautiful, sinking city's efforts to reinvent itself sustainably.

Till the next trip, ciao.The Venice Biennale runs till Nov 27. Go to this website

Some biennale shows to catch:

British Pavilion

ST PHOTO: TOH WEN LI

Sonia Boyce's Feeling Her Way, which won the biennale's Golden Lion award for best national pavilion, explores the idea of collaborative play with videos of five black female musicians experimenting with their voices.

Where: Giardini

Italian Pavilion

ST PHOTO: TOH WEN LI

Artist Gian Maria Tosatti's sprawling installation, History Of Night And Destiny Of Comets, has two parts - one consisting of reconstructed warehouses tracing the rise and fall of Italy's industrial "miracle", and another pondering the fraught relationship between man and nature.

Where: Arsenale

French Pavilion

PHOTO: AFP

Zineb Sedira's Dreams Have No Titles - which won a special mention at the biennale - is staged in what appears to be a film set. It screens a short film inspired by cinematic works co-produced by Algeria, France, and Italy after Algeria's independence from French rule in 1962.

Where: Giardini

Uganda Pavilion

PHOTO: ANDREA AVEZZU, LA BIENNALE DI VENEZIA

The East African country's first pavilion at the biennale spotlights weavings by Acaye Kerunen and paintings by Collin Sekajugo. Their show, titled Radiance - They Dream In Time, earned a special mention at the biennale awards.

Where: Palazzo Palumbo Fossati

The Milk Of Dreams

Art installation by Precious Okoyomon at The Milk Of Dreams. ST PHOTO: TOH WEN LI

The main show, curated by Cecilia Alemani, features more than 200 artists from about 60 countries - the majority of whom are female or gender non-conforming. Some notable names include American artist Simone Leigh, who has gained plaudits for her monumental sculptures; and Nigerian-American artist Precious Okoyomon, whose sculpted figures appear against a backdrop of streams, kudzu vine and sugar cane in soil.

Where: Giardini and Arsenale

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