I borrowed gumboots from the cleaners so I could wade across the foyer to the front door. The water had begun to flow across the fondamenta just half an hour ago, and was rising fast. Inside the hotel it was already ankle deep, but high tide was still three hours away; the women who lent me the boots said it would reach their thighs by noon. Other tourists descended behind us in various states of footwear and confusion. Soft furniture in regulation brocade upholstery was perched on the stairs. The cafe tables out the back stood in a dark pond.
‘What can be done?’ I asked the women.
‘Nothing’, they said. ‘We can do nothing.’ But they were already doing something: providing coffee and croissants, boots and advice. Keeping Venice working.
I waded along the shallow canal that had been a street the day before. In the nearest shop, I bought two pairs of gumboots at an entirely acceptable premium, then returned to the front desk to check out. A woman in a red plastic poncho came in behind me and began to take photographs.
‘This situation is very strange’, I said to the proprietor, who smiled tersely and answered the ringing phone.
‘Yes, we are still open’, he said into it in English. ‘I don’t know. Please, I can’t stay on the line. But we are still open.’ He was a paragon of controlled despair. For the third time that week, he watched the acqua alta climb the walls.
Venetians have become used to the city’s high water levels, but November 2019 was different. The peak that Tuesday was 1.87m, the highest since 1966’s freak 1.94m event. Piazza San Marco is regularly under the waves now; special elevated platforms (passerelle) are provided so that tourists and locals alike can walk across it at high tide. But that Tuesday’s tide was so high that it floated some of those platforms away, along with cafe chairs, tables, gondolas and several vaporetti. On Thursday, when the city was taken less by surprise, the passerelle were removed so that they didn’t become dangerous. Venice is a game of shifting baselines.
My partner and I had booked an overnight trip, wanting to see the Biennale before it closed the following weekend. We’d visited before, and knew the city might make more of an impression on us than the art. Perched improbably in its lagoon, endlessly photographed, Venice dedicates itself to aesthetic value; it’s as much an image as a place.
The city did overwhelm us, but not in the way we expected.
That Friday, I’d woken to reports of a bushfire near my parents’ place in Sydney and quickly messaged family. Mum had the car packed, ready to evacuate. We joked about which of my father’s many photo albums she’d be taking, but I was genuinely worried. For a few days I’d been refreshing the Rural Fire Service website, looking for the red diamonds that showed the location of an uncontrolled fire, checking in with friends. It was only November, too early for fires of this magnitude. It was the beginning of the worst summer of fire in Australia’s history.
Events like these used to feel like warnings. Freak tides, catastrophic fires, once-in-a-century storms. We used to describe them as omens of a time to come. Now they are the times we live in. The new normal, people call it, though it’s worse than that, because unless emissions change drastically and soon, it’s not going to plateau out into anything like predictability. We use this kind of language because accepting a ‘new normal’ is easier than accepting that the window of hospitality that life on earth has enjoyed thus far is being closed.
When we arrived on Saturday, the tide was high but ordinary. Water lapped over the rim of the canal at St Lucia station. The city was using the brief reprieve for cleaning. Barges lifted the accumulated garbage away with cranes. Most people were still wearing gumboots or cheap plastic overboots, some of which had ‘I [heart] Venice’ printed across the heel. A few damaged items – furniture, mattresses – had been piled on higher streets for removal. A few branches lay across a bridge. Boats were gently moored, and the vaporetti, which had been suspended during the week, were running again. The images I’d seen on the news of these water buses lifted onto the pavement, of broken gondolas and flooded theatres, of people in waders entering supermarkets in waist-deep water, already seemed historic.
A resilient Venice was open for business as we walked to the Arsenale in intermittent rain. People swept out their shops and sold their souvenirs. Waiters wearing two-piece suits, bow ties, and gumboots attended to British families seated at outdoor tables. They opened multilingual menus and explained the limitations. Many dishes weren’t available, because everyone was running out of ingredients.
We looked for the high water marks, tried to comprehend the scale, and decided that the worst was over. Emergency workers passed us in safety-yellow rain jackets. Men wandered over bridges in waist-high rubber waders, looking as though a fishing expedition had become lost in the Renaissance. In Piazza San Marco, the passerelle stood on solid, if wet, ground. Several tourists were using the platforms as a catwalk. I stopped to watch a woman striking poses in shorts, singlet, and knee-high white plastic overboots.
I’m just as terrible a person as anybody else. I’d already posted a few photos to Instagram with captions like ‘Greetings from the Anthropocene’. If I’d thought about cancelling the trip, it wasn’t difficult to convince myself that my measly tourism dollars would help the city recover. I knew that two people had died, and the damages to property and livelihoods were enormous. I could feel the ambient stress, rising alongside the water. I didn’t want to get in the way.
The problem was, I still found it intensely beautiful.
I sometimes wonder if images of catastrophe are easier to digest than catastrophe itself, as we live through this disaster movie of our own making. I have argued that art and literature can help make the crisis and the structures that produce it visible, but I worry that making images of the climate emergency also helps to normalise events, to make them bearable.
I wanted some answers from the art.
There was a lot of noise at the Arsenale, both physically and metaphorically. A high proportion of works in the International Exhibition involved sound, but they were also loud in other ways. Raw expressions of emotion abounded, more triggering than challenging. Enchantment gave way to distress. Walking through the space, the anxiety I’d felt outside seemed to multiply at every turn.
‘I want you to panic’, Greta Thunberg’s familiar voice darted out from a screen. ‘I want you to feel the fear I feel every day, to act as if your house was on fire, because it is.’ Kahlil Joseph’s BLKNWS was a highlight for many critics, but its restless video montage resisted my unsteady attention. As Thunberg’s voice was cut off by a sample from the Village People, I checked the news again. My parents’ house was not on fire, but it was uncomfortably close.
The Italian pavilion beckoned, and we entered its gallery-wall maze. The curator’s notes referred to La Sfida al Labarinto, a 1962 essay by Italo Calvino that I hadn’t read, so I made a note of it for later.
‘Calvino described Venice, the unquestioned cartographic centre of the Renaissance, as a place where geographic maps had to be continually modified because the limits between land and water were constantly changing’, read curator Milovan Farronato’s eerily apropos statement. ‘The spaces of the city were dominated by uncertainty and vulnerability.’ The labyrinth recreated some of this vulnerability, but also offered puzzling chances at escape by means of its odd juxtapositions of three artists’ work. An improvised beach scene by Liliana Moro entranced with multiple recorded versions of the antifascist folk song Bella Ciao, offering revolutionary sentiment as a nostalgic vacation. It was an ambivalent reprieve from reality.
Outside, Barca Nostra, certainly the most controversial work of the 58th Biennale, stood by the water’s uncertain edge. Only 28 people survived the wreck of this ship, which killed somewhere between 700 and 1100 asylum seekers when it sank in the Sicilian channel in 2015. It was difficult to imagine so many bodies could fit on it. I wanted to touch the hull, but there was a flimsy barrier around it, for its safety or for ours. Swiss artist Christoph Büchel insisted that the ship stand without description, without accompanying information, perhaps trusting that the media would do this work for him. Without its story, it wasn’t a craft, in either sense of the word. I was told it will be returned to Sicily and reconfigured as a memorial. Here it seemed to speak mostly of the living, and our failure to connect with the emergency: the lives lost were depersonalised, elsewhere, while the ship remained as image, empty as a shell.
Precarity and trauma were invited aboard the International Exhibition by its title, ‘May you Live in Interesting Times’. In his introduction as curator, American Londoner Ralph Rugoff acknowledged that the line was never an ancient Chinese curse but rather the twentieth-century British invention of one. Tellingly, he also stated that ‘art does not exercise its forces in the domain of politics. Art cannot stem the rise of nationalist movements and authoritarian governments in different parts of the world, for instance, nor can it alleviate the tragic fate of displaced peoples.’
The positioning of art outside political reality is also an invented curse. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that defines the work of art as an object in a gallery instead of a participant in a relationship. This is partly pragmatic: Venice and its Biennale remain at the centre of a commercial map. But the acqua alta reminded visitors that there was no dry ground here, no neutral place from which to point a sneering finger at the real. Political reality is made of images, fictions, relationships, the spoken and unspoken things. What is art doing if it is not doing politics already?
These ‘displaced peoples’ are all too often seen in Europe through a nativist lens, as a problem of elsewhere; at its worst moments, Italy has responded to the humanitarian crisis as though to an unwelcome invasion, its criminalisation of asylum seekers and those who help them occasionally rivalling Australia’s. But the Anthropocene will displace us all, to varying degrees; new and compounded forms of displacement are already arriving, forms that may yet upend the way we think about ourselves and where and how and with whom we are able to live. In this context, art that refuses politics is an island in rising seas.
We walked back across the darkening city. The lingering horror of the Arsenale flowed back into the general anxiety as Venice prepared for what lay ahead. By now, we all knew that the next day’s acqua alta was predicted to peak at a disastrous 160cm. Along the Riva degli Schiavoni, cafe chairs had been looped together with wire. People were barricading shop entrances and apartment doors, moving items to higher shelves, squatting to take the motors out of their refrigerators. ATMs stood in odd, elevated positions in courtyards. Barricades were stuck together with builders’ foam or silicone. Some had metal panels that were easy to install and remove, but others had been improvised from plywood boards, and many had extensions ready that would add another 20cm or so in height.
As the damp evening descended, tourists on the Ponte di Rialto anxiously discussed the hour of the next high water. Many people managed to maintain their holiday-snap holidays, despite the damp and dread. A woman stood in a summer dress against the fading light. Church bells rang through the otherwise quiet labyrinth, then transformed into the emergency sirens of a city council boat, which shot its wake against the bars that remained open along the Grand Canal, splashing the boots of people eating whatever €16 pasta was left on the menu. Some restaurants that can afford the cost have already installed backup kitchens on the second floor.
‘These are the effects of climate change’, the Venice mayor, Luigi Brugnaro, had tweeted that Tuesday night, after the first acqua alta of the week forced an emergency declaration.
On my phone, the diamonds were multiplying all over NSW and QLD, fuelled by unusually high temperatures, high winds, and the crisp fuel load of an already traumatic drought. All year, the Federal government had refused to meet with a delegation of former fire chiefs. Now they were telling us it wasn’t the right time to talk about the climate emergency. Emissions reduction was being shoved off the table. Firefighters, under-resourced and exhausted, would have to bear the brunt of the intensifying risk with little increase in resources. Thirty-three people and an estimated 1 billion animals would die in the fires. Ordinary Australians would do everything they could think of to help each other through a massive disaster without much assistance. The lacklustre response from Australia’s Prime Minister would make headlines around the world.
We found a bar with cheap wine and got talking to a young French woman whose date had gone to find an ATM. Most of them were out of order, and a handwritten sign on the bar said ‘cash only’. The beer was warm because, one of the owners explained, ‘the chilling machine was in the canal’.
The French woman had been there for the second flood on Thursday. She didn’t think it was too soon to talk about climate change, but was worried it might be too late. We talked about when and how and why our governments would give up on us, leaving us to this mess. We laughed about it, because there was still wine. In a small room warmed by human bodies and cooking steam, with someone playing ’O Sole Mio on the piano, it was easy to find the whole situation absurd. The power went out in the bar, but the piano player kept going, and the electricity was restored after a moment to great cheer. The boyfriend returned, triumphant, with a handful of Euros. ‘We can eat!’
We all agreed that the apocalypse was more fun than we expected. But it was a strange and fragile joy, like a birthday party in a cancer ward. It was resilience at fever pitch.
It was hard to sleep that night, knowing the tide would rise again. I kept getting up to look outside at the water level. Everything seemed to be slipping at the edges. I was woken by a siren I don’t remember hearing. It must have been midnight. The water was as still as glass, and the reflection of the city lay perfectly composed in it, a lovely reproduction.
‘With cities, it is as with dreams’, wrote Calvino in Invisible Cities: ‘everything imaginable can be dreamed, but even the most unexpected dream is a rebus that conceals a desire or, its reverse, a fear. Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.’
La Serenissima, they used to call the Republic of Venice, when it seemed absolved from mainland troubles.
I heard the morning alarm loud and clear. The new high water alert system was installed in 2007, and it came in two parts. First, a recording of the original WW2 air raid siren, which warned of an acqua alta exceeding a metre. Then, rising electronic tones indicated the height: one chime for each further 10cm. It was a compelling sound, reverberating urgently through the canals, softened by the water. There were four tones, because that’s as high as the warning goes; anything over 1.4m qualifies as alta marea eccezionale.
There have been twenty such exceptional tides in the last 60 years. This would be the third in a week.
As we set off for the Giardini in our gumboots, racing the tide, many shops were closed already, handwritten signs taped to the door: Chiusa per causa acqua alta. The barricades we’d watched people putting up the previous evening were already working, but it was difficult to see how this solution could be anything but temporary. Here, as elsewhere, the future was upon us before we were ready.
Venice is sinking, but it is also being drowned. The city was built on shifting sandbanks. It is subsiding, but that only accounts for about half of its submersion. The other half can largely be attributed to sea level rise, the technical term for which is eustasy.
According to the European Environment Agency, eustasy in the northern Adriatic is happening at a rate of 3-4mm/year, faster than the European average. Most of this change is due to melting polar ice caps. The acqua alta is an Anthropocene problem, a wicked problem. The spring tides are a complicated combination of astronomy, the sirocco that blows up the Adriatic, the weather and the season. Aside from the astronomy, all of those factors are affected by climate change, and the compounded effects are chaotic, unpredictable.
A bushfire is like this too: it might be sparked by lightning, arson or accident, but the severity of a fire will be increased by wind, heat, fuel load, and the resources available to hold it back. One of the issues with the climate emergency is the way that this causal complexity is quickly compressed by the scale of public conversation, which likes simple images and neatly apportioned blame. We live in an era where the optics are everything, the simpler fix the better. Catastrophes are emergencies for politicians too: they demand urgent PR strategies, talking points, a message. They demand a convincing story.
The Mose (it stands for Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico, and the acronym is Italian for Moses) is a system of hinged gates at the lagoon’s three inlets, intended to hold back the water when it’s predicted to rise beyond 110cm. It was designed in the 1990s, and was supposed to be finished in 2018. The project has been dogged by cost blowouts, delays, and corruption scandals. A previous mayor, Giorgio Orsoni, was arrested in 2014 for siphoning funds from the project into his election campaign (allegedly, of course – he is out after a plea bargain). There are still questions as to the system’s functionality, but construction has begun at all three sites; it is now projected to be finished in 2022. Mayor Brugnaro has now declared the project will be fast-tracked, but many in Venice are angry that so much money has been spent without results. A week after these floods, a few thousand protesters were out in the streets, calling for the Mose to be scrapped.
Venice is already a place with its own spatial logic. Some of the city’s 118 little islands sit lower than others, and all are precarious, set as they are onto wooden stilts that were hammered long ago into underwater dunes. This fact might have been charming at low tide, but in the acqua alta, a low street became a deep one.
We waded in increasing depth, guessing the best route, afraid to hesitate too long over decisions. We crossed a bridge, then turned along a route where several other people were already wading calf-deep. A parent held the hand of a child who walked along the top of the wall that normally divided the street from the canal, and now divided two canals. We stopped to chat with a gentleman at his door, watching like a horse from a stall as the water rose against his barricade. It was near the tops of our boots already. We discussed the practicalities first: the predicted height, the hour of the peak. He had prepared a line of silicone and a plank, in case he needed to add another level to the barrier.
I asked him what he thought of what was happening, and he said: ‘The earth is coming against us now, all over the world. It is the fault of all of us. It’s a terrible thing.’ He had lived here all his life. The Mose had failed, the government had failed Venice. ‘But what about Australia?’ the man asked. ‘It’s on fire. What are you doing about it?’
I didn’t know it then, but I’d have a version of this conversation over and over again, with a wide variety of Italians. Any time Australia was mentioned, heads were shaken. ‘It’s all on fire. Something has to change.’ For months, it would fill me with shame.
The child let go of her mother’s hand and ran along the top of the wall behind me in her gumboots. The man leaned out of his stable and clicked his tongue. ‘That’s very dangerous’, he said. ‘If you fall in the canal with gumboots on, they fill with water and become heavy, so you can’t swim out again.’ He pulled at his own boots to show us what he meant. We all sent our troubled gazes after the family, and didn’t intervene.
I have written elsewhere of the struggle to make this crisis visible, make it present. In Dyschronia, I had the chorus ask itself: ‘How do we see what we can’t imagine?’ But in Venice, I began to see the problem in another way. It is not only the suddenness of such events that confuses us, but their gradual nature, their very predictability: this slow, well-known, apparently inexorable rising of the crisis into our homes and our lives. I still think that writing about it, making images about it, is necessary work. But this work exists in a space of tension between two kinds of blindness: the unimaginable and the ‘new normal’.
I stopped on a bridge to check my phone. Social media was full of red suns, brown skies and #apocalypse hashtags. Scott Morrison had offered thoughts and prayers, and was tweeting from the cricket.
We waded on, turned along the Riva, past closed shops and nervous people, past a locked yard of spent performances where Richard Bell’s No Tin Shack winked at us from behind a fence. Bell’s crowdfunded imprisonment of a model Australian pavilion was a timely reminder that the colony’s long experience of wilful blindness has carried it neatly to its present predicament.
The Giardini stood above the water, but it was half puddles and three quarters deserted. The limitation turned out to be a blessing. The acqua alta changed what rose to the surface, what held meaning, what floated away. Outside the Central Pavilion, which was bathed in mist, Tomas Saraceno’s gorgeous Arachnophilia, a collaboration with spiders and the Tarot, whispered to the non-human in ways not much of the work at this Biennale seemed able to. The cards that lay upturned before the intricate spiders’ web, an invented major arcana, said Extinction, Entanglement, Climate Eviction; the cards said The Unconcerned.
The spiders could see it, even if we didn’t want to.
Inside the pavilion, Can’t Help Myself, a robot arm by Beijing-based power couple Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, had become doubly uncanny. The huge industrial limb was dedicated to its clean-up of a blood-like substance, occasionally flailing in apparent frustration, splattering the walls of its glass box. Its moves were programmed to generate empathy. The piece seemed to address the flood outside directly. Like many others, we couldn’t stop watching it struggle.
We wandered the rest of the Giardini’s closed pavilions, marvelling at the architecture as if at a lost city. Again the future swam up to meet the past, with that premature archaeological imaginary it has lately. It suddenly seemed to us that everything that was going to be left behind would be left behind in this way: that abandonment was not an act, but a gradual, haphazardly distributed tide.
As we left, the sirocco had powered up: it whipped the city from the south, surging along the Riva. My adrenaline surged with it. The Biennale’s banners flapped against closed vaporetto stops, which rocked against their piers. ‘May you live in interesting times’ had never felt so contemporary, so like a curse.
We thought we had waited out the worst, but the tide peaked an hour later than it was expected to.
The walk across Venice to the railway station should have taken forty minutes, an hour at most. It took three. It is hard to explain the non-linearity of that walk now, from the safety of a dry room. The intellectual labour of decision-making and the blur of rising grief seemed to fuse, losing their distinction. And yes, despite knowing it was a moral failing, the surreal images of the drowning city remained enchanting. I stood on land beside a boat, the hull of which floated above the level of my boots, and I laughed at the image I was in.
Resilience is other people. A camaraderie unfurled between tourists caught together in this surreal waterscape. Asking for directions was constantly necessary, but it meant asking about water levels, possibilities of passage. We negotiated language barriers in ad hoc fashion. Everyone reinforced their messages by pointing to their limbs. Along with chairs, fences, walls, doors and hydrants, all our bodies became flood markers.
We stopped on bridges to make assessments. To watch where the water reached on the boots of others, to see if they would make it through. At some point each of us had to become the person who took the risk, so that others could watch and save their socks.
‘When does it finish?’ a woman from New York asked me, passing on one of the bridges.
‘I don’t know. But you can get through that way.’ I put the side of one flat hand against my leg, and she hurried away.
H and I spoke intermittently, the way we do when hiking. Long silences, shared observations, lingering thoughts that invite return. We talked about floods we’d been in before. We wondered if they’d always carried the weight of the future, or if this sense was new. We had time to speculate and observe. We took a lot of pictures. I made notes towards this story. We checked in with each other, helped each other, laughed. And this was pleasant, a good collaborative effort: we were glad to solve these problems together, to keep our heads and look after each other, to absorb this experience into our relationship’s rich imaginative repertoire, our extant logs of survival.
It might be terrible, but it mattered that we find the beauty in it, I thought, as we stopped to admire a row of lions that seemed to float on the water with variously distressed expressions. The act of seeing anchored us to each other, held us in the shared reality. We watched anonymous figures disappear around corners, appear from shadows; we watched family dynamics, like miniature theatrical productions. We heard the strange silence above the water, and felt the reprieve from the city’s usual hustle, the suspension of its ordinary, transactional life. We liked how the hard sell had vanished behind the barricades.
We also felt afraid, and profoundly sad, and utterly furious at those who had chosen to burn the world. The grief rose against our bodies, slowed us down with its great, dense, liquid resistance. It hurt in the muscles, as it hurts now in the bones. Something changed in our being, but the emotions could not be allowed to overwhelm for long. We had to keep moving.
We passed a man in waders carrying a GoPro. He was visiting from a nearby town. ‘It’s going down’, he said, ‘you can see the movement of the water has changed, you can see it flowing away’.
‘This is so surreal’, I told him, ‘it’s like Calvino’. I felt followed by the writer, by the city’s past and by its future. Better equipped than us, the man went off in a deeper direction while we hesitated over our next move.
It was like a game, a dream, a film. H imagined the city as a future dive site, and I agreed it would be stunning. But we were not the kind of people who would do this, become catastrophe tourists, I said. And yet there we were. I suddenly remembered a snorkelling trip we’d taken to the Great Barrier Reef a couple of years previously. I had wept into my mask at the sight of it. Maybe there was no corner of the world that could be seen with easy pleasure. Maybe that had always been the case.
Despite trying to avoid it, knowing it was the lowest point of the city, we were pushed back towards Piazza San Marco. An hour after the peak, the square was still closed. A few cops were blocking the passerelle, showing waders where the water rose to on their bodies, shaking their heads. We wanted to go around it, but the long way was also too deep, so we waited on the bridge. We shared the tiny space with other tourists: sorrowful Chinese girls wrapped in brightly coloured rain ponchos, Africans in deep coats, young Italian men eating a packed lunch, older men selling rain ponchos and plastic overboots, too many pigeons. The man with the GoPro reappeared and said hello. H unpeeled an orange and fought off one of the pigeons. We observed the varieties of acqua alta streetwear. One person had sticky-taped a garbage bag to the top of each gumboot. Another had wrapped garbage bags around her legs with packing tape. I respected the DIY aesthetic, but I noticed that neither was trying the water.
The tide peaked at 152cm just after 1pm.
There are various ways to phrase the statistics: since 1923, when reliable records began, there have been 23 exceptional tides (above 1.4cm). It has happened 14 times this still-new century, and it happened five times that month. The day after we left, the Monday, it rose almost as high again. Of the worst ten floods in the city’s history, four happened in a week. Do not get used to these records; they will soon be broken.
We lost patience, took the long way around, and got wet. The relatively fresh scent of the lagoon was slowly ebbing away, replaced by sewage and rot. I stopped to wring out my socks and tried not to think about rats, or the dogs I’d seen shitting in the streets that morning. People began to appear in doorways holding brooms, bailing out their shops and apartments. Pumps spouted dirty water into streets. People washed their walls down quickly to avert the risk of salt damage, which can eat mortar like termites eat wood. The sea sank back into the drains, its point made for now.
As the water receded, shops emerged. Chinese restaurants and bars propped open their doors, kebab shops served pizza through their windows to customers standing in ankle-deep streets. Cocktail bars appeared, miraculously. The city remade itself quickly, relying on the good survival techniques of its residents, many of whom are immigrants. I wondered how many of those that were mourning the loss of Venice felt the same way about the Bay of Bengal, or the Marshall Islands.
‘Better now’, said a man in an apron, bald and grinning, when I asked how he was feeling. ‘It has passed.’ But the clean-up operation had only begun, and the worst of the damage was still to be revealed. A donation account, Venice Nel Cuore, had already been opened to fund the restoration of Venice’s important sites, including the damaged 800-year-old mosaics in the Basilica San Marco. Millions have been raised for Australia’s bushfire relief efforts. But how does one rebuild on shifting ground?
Mayor Brugnaro posted a video from the re-opened Piazza San Marco, standing in knee-deep water to thank the volunteers and emergency services that protected the city from the worst. ‘We can look to Venice to study the effects of climate change on the world’, he said, reinforcing the message. It was hard to hear him over the wind.
‘No, it’s not climate change, it’s just the sirocco!’ declared a handmade sign in a shop window, written in Venetian. It might have been sarcastic. After Venice’s exceptional tides came a week of intense rain, with record flooding across Northern Italy. In a politically divided country, it can be difficult to find consensus, even on the facts. I heard Bella Ciao sung again at the November 29 Climate Strike marches, where protesters held up signs reading non chiamatelo maltempo – ‘Don’t call this bad weather.’
During the bushfire crisis, it has sometimes seemed to me that denialism’s flimsy protection is slipping away, that its cracks are showing, that the corruption is being revealed under the slippery veneer of Morrison’s attempts to seem comforting. I want the disaster to mean something, become a pivot point, a way out.
As we changed our boots at the railway station, there were two miracles: the astonishing afternoon light slinking beneath the clouds, and the fresh, dry socks we’d managed to save. A new batch of tourists were arriving, posing for photos on the Ponte degli Scalzi. The enchanted city was turning gold behind them. Despite closures, cancellations, disruptions, we refused to give up on our holidays, on these images we can’t help but reproduce.
I looked up the essay referred to in the Italian pavilion, Calvino’s La Sfida al Labarinto, when I got home. He wrote of a postwar Italy in which everything seemed to be in flux, where the relationships of the world, its very maps, were changing: what he called ‘our habits of representation’ were failing, and the old stories no longer of use. Perhaps, he considered, there is no point yearning for a key to get out of the maze, and yet the search itself was vital. ‘What literature ought to do is define the best attitude for finding a way out, even if this way out will be nothing more than the passage from one labyrinth to another.’
When I look to art for focus and direction, I sometimes believe I am looking for a way to utopia. But the work that stayed with me from the 58th Biennale, the work that seemed to offer a way forward, was not utopian at all. It was gestural, shared, and it reached for networks of care and responsibility and survival. The exquisite, acutely painful crocheted coral reefs of Australian artists Christine and Margaret Wertheim, a lament and a collective reconstruction. The beautifully worked cane armour Indian artist Shakuntala Kulkarni donned in Of Bodies, Armour and Cages evoked the power of ancestral defences in the midst of an epoch of violence, an image both futuristic and ancient. In the Ghana pavilion, El Anatsui’s incredible hanging tapestries made of bottlecaps and copper presented a luxurious salvage operation, map-like in its possibilities. The work that sang to me in the flood was made by human hands, for human use: art with the sensibility of an offering, the memory of a craft. I thought of the many artists I know, artists that may not be represented at Venice but are creating work that helps by doing: image as dedication, making as movement.
For weeks afterwards, I waded through floodwaters in my dreams, wearing for the most part inappropriate shoes. Perhaps my brain was mapping a strategic memory, adapting to a changed environment. According to Calvino, cities are dreams to begin with. Venice especially.
I dreamed of the algae and weeds that grew two steps below the surface, waiting to expand their territory with the tide. I dreamed of children in gumboots, running up flooded escalators; of children sinking into the silt below. I dreamed of ash falling, walls collapsing, stairs twisting, buried things rising to the surface. The map of the world is shifting. I’m still looking for a way through.