Longniddry to Venice by Train
It was one of those daft ideas. Could I travel by train all the way from my brother Robin’s village in Longniddry, Scotland (East of Edinburgh), to Venice, and the 2017 Biennale? It might become one of the world’s great rail journeys. It might be a total disaster. I’d settle for a bit of both.
I’d already been to the openings of documenta in Kassel, and Skulptur Projekt Munster. Venice would complete the once-in-every-ten-year trifecta.
It all started with an email from painter, and very old friend, Jon Cattapan, in Melbourne. We’d shared a couple of biennales before, and we enjoy gorging on art and life together, as I believe others devour box sets of Game of Thrones. This time we’d try and book into the same hotel. Jon’s family hail from the Venice region, and he’d already located the ideal gaff for us – The Palazzo Contarini Della Porta Di Ferro. It’s in the Castello district, midway between San Marco and the Arsenale, convenient for all the biennale sites. But it’s a more local, working class area than the tourist ghettoes a few canals upstream. The nearest vaporetto stop is Ospedale (Hospital), and throughout the day and night the sirens of water ambulances racing in and out filled the always-hot air of the archipelago. Having said that, from the images I got back on my phone from bookings.com (headquartered in Amsterdam), our very reasonably priced hotel looked like the Venetian palace it had obviously once been. Twice a week, large-scale baroque orchestras entertain the paying customers in the large upstairs ballroom.
I’ve always enjoyed train journeys. My nephew Michael drove me to Longniddry station, and I was off! I had a few pieces of writing to complete for approaching deadlines, so the train from Edinburgh to London (changing to the Euro-Star to Paris, and then the overnighter to Venice), would let me push ahead with that. As if the journey wasn’t complicated enough, I had a three hour window of opportunity to put my case into storage at St Pancras and find a pub in Greenwich for a late lunch with John Beard’s clan, recreating last month’s Galway shenanigans.
I had to finish writing a piece on “Fake News and Superfictions” for Vault magazine, and another on the always-astonishing Michael Candy and his Digital Empathy Device for MUSEUM magazine. In this highly topical artwork that combines the use of statues and the internet: when a French bomb is dropped on Syria, a statue in the Place de la Republique, Paris, starts to weep. It is also a seminal work of what I call Adventurism, similar in spirit to those made by Robert Zhao in Singapore, and France’s Mathieu Briand, now based in Port Melbourne. MUSEUM is the most subversive magazine in the world. I love it. It looks as substantial and glossy as Vogue, full of advertisements for perfume companies and fashion houses. But slow down, look closer, and all the text and images relate to a single, bizarre, theme: “Potatoes” in one issue; “Noses” in another (including several close-ups of noses in portrait paintings from one of the world’s leading art museums; a photo-feature on police “sniffer dogs”; another on “farting”; and my own writings on Adeline Kueh’s scent-based artworks inspired by Lavender Street in Singapore, and the dumping of night soil. That edition had three alternative covers, each featuring a fashion model who, on closer inspection, has slightly flared nostrils).
I also used my train time from Scotland to Northern Italy to rewrite an essay on “Art and Money”. The working title had changed to “How Many Yachts Do You Need?”, relating to all the Russian oligarchs and Silicon Valley billionaires-who- started-up-in-a-garage and now park theirs yachts on the Grand Canal. It begins by talking about the disdain my born-in-the-1950s generation had for money, exemplified by The Beatles’ lyrics “I don’t care too much for money, money can’t buy me love”, and contrasts this with contemporary singer Lily Allen’s “The Fear”. She’s obviously not a Corbynite, but they may still share the stage at Glastonbury one day):
I want to be rich and I want lots of money
I don't care about clever I don't care about funny
I want loads of clothes and fuckloads of diamonds
I heard people die while they’re trying to find them
Anyway, I was Googling away, as you do, “Yachts”, “Contemporary Art”, “Money” and so forth, and kept being lead to links, blogs, and newspaper articles about Sir Nicholas Serota of Tate fame. He the uber-Museum Director, recently retired – but about to become the high-heid-yin at Arts Council England, and be replaced at Tate by Maria Balshaw, formerly director of Manchester’s Whitworth. I was there a few weeks ago, during the Manchester Festival, and Balshaw had returned to chair a panel session with exhibiting artists. At the end, as we all rose to witness a performance event-cum-picnic in the outside grounds, I realised Melbourne’s Juliana Enberg (previously director of ACCA) had been sitting right behind me, and we talked about the many events she has commissioned for Aarhuis, 2017 European City of Culture, in Denmark. And there, too, was the Giacometti stick-like figure of Sir Nick Serota, hovering at the edge of things, looking like he survives on a banana and a few peanuts every day. Which brings me back to those art-and yachting blogs. Apparently there are a lot of angry Tate staff, a few on zero-hour contracts, who were asked to chip in for his leaving present – a yacht! Now, I’m sure it’s nowhere near the size of the yachts Russian oligarchs have been parking in front of the Statue of Liberty, or alongside the Grand Canal. It’s probably not even up in the Edward Heath class. But in these times of austerity, perhaps inviting staff to contribute towards a rowing machine would have been a bit more politic.
The train journey continued, across France and down towards Milan. I was sharing a compartment with three Peruvian women – a mother and her two student-aged daughters, one of whom had just completed a business degree in Madrid. They’d been to her graduation and were now touring Europe. We shared what food we had and made conversation by using mostly nouns, and pointing. They left at Milan, at five in the morning. I got up and had the compartment to myself all the way to Venice. I bought a coffee and a sandwich and did some work restructuring my Fake News and Superfictions lecture. The first time I gave it was at the Justin Art House Museum in Melbourne. The second time was in the Pier Arts Centre in Stromness, Orkney, on the longest day, the darkening sky still awash with light close to midnight. So at least I’d straddled the globe with the first two outings. On both occasions I kept the lecture to under an hour, but never got through all the material. I’ve introduced a few short video clips which eats up the time: Bill Clinton, for example, repeating three times “I did not have sex with that woman Miss Monika Lewinsky.” Or Gerry Conlon, one of the Guildford Four (I was there on the night of the bombing in 1974), shouting out an animal howl of rage at the cameras when he is released from prison in 1989 “I watched my father die in a British prison for a crime he did not commit. I spent fourteen years in a British prison for a crime I did not commit.” Police falsification of evidence one of the worst forms of Fake News.
Having to write 1200 words on the topic of Fake News and Superfictions for Vault has been a good way in to rewriting my lecture. Say it all in just over a thousand words, and then expand it upwards towards fifty minutes, around six thousand words. I’ve used Rachel Maclean’s Pinocchio-inspired Spite Your Face video projection in Venice as a way into the piece, with its asides to Trump and Brexit.
The boundaries between truth and fiction – between “reality” and “Reality TV” - have become dangerously blurred. As Simon Kuper wrote in The Financial Times recently (August 12/13, 2017) “John Kelly imagines he is Trump’s chief of staff, whereas in fact he’s The Trump Show’s new Marine-general character.”
Fake News is not new. Machiavelli, for one, would be astonished that we might think it is. What is new is the ability for an unleashed United States President to be able to tweet to the world at six in the morning through the uncritical network of social media. Propaganda is as old as politics and warfare. Hyper-connectedness, with no built-in space for reflective or peer-reviewed comment, is what is new.
It’s light outside. The train passes olive groves. Rolling hills. The sun is up. We stop occasionally at colourless platforms. Someone comes on board selling orange juice and newspapers. The air is already warm. Another hour, I reckon, until Venice. The evening before I left Longniddry – and yes, it had been a memorable journey, not least emerging from Gare du Nord and seeing some poor fellow knocked off his motor scooter by a speeding car and spread across the road – I’d gone to Douglas Gordon’s opening at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, exploring it with Sam Ainsley and David Harding. Every second person I meet is an ex-student of Sam’s. She’s the best, and she’s taught the best – including Douglas.
So many good friends are in the middle of exhibitions and projects, or about to have them, on both sides of the planet. Sam herself is preparing for a solo show in Mull; David Harding produced wonderful work for documenta, in both Kassel and Athens, as did Bonita Ely from Sydney; Kate Downie in Edinburgh; Gail Dickerson in Sheffield; Michael Candy in Singapore; Louise Weaver in Sydney; Annie Cattrell making land art near Loch Ness; Jon Cattapan at Paul Greenaway’s in Adelaide; Michael Downs in Berlin and Beijing; Jacquelene Drinkall in New York and Sydney; Barbara Nicholls in the New Art Gallery in Walsall; Hilarie Mais at the MCA in Sydney; Troy Ruffels in Devonport; David Thomas from Melbourne and Ian Woo from Singapore both exhibiting together in England soon…the list is long and exhilarating. A few weeks ago, I travelled to Dundee to play a small role in a film that Ronnie Forbes has devoted two years to creating.
But back to Douglas Gordon’s meditations on Burns. It’s an astonishing work of great subtlety. I don’t think any of the London newspaper reviewers noticed Douglas had turned all the many sculpted portrait heads in The Great Hall to face away from the main event. And the main event centered around the famous statue of Robert Burns, made by John Flaxman in 1824, and a broken, black version Douglas has fabricated and placed on the museum floor, hence its title Black Burns. It’s all about slavery. So much is today. The newspapers being full of modern slavery in the darkest parts of England’s green and pleasant lands – indentured farm labourers in 21st Century Britain, their passports confiscated, their wages never paid. Far worse in the sex industry. And statues. They are very much in the news too. Statues from the colonial past being defaced, removed, debated in a dozen parliaments around the globe. Or linked to French bombings in Syria, in Micahel Candy’s masterpiece. Statues with a history of slavery. A few weeks later, at the Edinburgh Festival, Douglas Maxwell’s new play The Whip Hand would open at Traverse theatre. It flips between the present and the past, between Glasgow today and Jamaica yesterday, and contains the great, cutting, line “It’s not called Jamaica Street ’cos we dig reggae.” Glasgow’s history of the “tobacco Lords” and their links to slavery have still to be unvarnished.
But the beauty of the show at the SNPG is that Douglas Gordon’s new work was paired with Graham Fagan’s The Slave’s Lament, first seen at the last Venice Biennale (2015). The double catalogue, with its dark, glossy cover, is beautifully produced. Douglas leads you in from one side. Graham, once the catalogue is turned upside down, from the other. Both meet in the middle, where you find a suite of newly minted poems by the Scottish Makar (National Poet for Scotland) Jackie Kay. These lines from Mirror, printed opposite a mirrored page in the centre of the catalogue:
“Will ye listen tae my voice shift over decades;
My accent lift, lilt into song; afore lang ye hear me in Haiti,
And in France, in Kenya and Jamaica, in Guyana
And Nigeria. Across the world o’ years. Here I am. My face.
Are you Scottish, he says. Are you Scottish she says.
Where have you been? I’ve been Scottish all my days.
I’m translating as ye speak across the rivers and seas.”
Jackie herself, born to a Scottish mother and a Nigerian father. I hear her read a few weeks later at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. It is just the best. Tears and laughter like intertwining streams.
Burns came close to leaving Scotland to work as an overseer on a slave plantation in Jamaica (sugar being the local currency rather than Lily Allen’s diamonds, that people still die, and still are enslaved, trying to find), escaping both poverty and various fraught elements in his personal life. However, his first book of poems was published before the ship sailed, and he spent the rest of his short life in Scotland. Graham Fagen’s The Slave’s Lament is inspired by Burns’ elegy on the life of an African in Virginia, remembering his homeland in Senegal and his life before enslavement. It’s a four part video work that beautifully merges classical European instruments with the soft reggae-inspired vocals sung by the gold-toothed Ghetto Priest. It’s much, much, more of course, and I can only recommend the fine catalogue essays by Julie Lawson and Michael Morris.
I never did get to the last Venice Biennale, so I never saw Fagen’s work there, but I was rapidly approaching this one, and trying to push newspapers, laptop, and more cables than a shipyard into my backpack as the train – how does it do it? – glides across the water towards the Grand Canal. And reflections on that, and my return trip via Berlin, will have to wait for next month, as I am still digesting and reflecting on the many wonders Jon and I saw, ate, and occasionally bumped into.
(that last is a reminder to me to tell you about how I learned to use Google Maps in Venice).
Dr Peter Hill is an artist, writer, and independent curator. He is Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at RMIT University, Melbourne
Next installment: October 1, 2017