Despite its remarkable beauty, Venice has long been beset by connotations of death and decay. An ailing old woman lives “in a sequestered and dilapidated old palace” there in Henry James’ The Aspern Papers; the narrator of Robert Browning’s “A Toccata of Galuppi’s” describes Venetians as “merely born to bloom and drop.” Thomas Mann put the connotation front and center by titling his novella Death in Venice.
Today, there is the sense that Venice’s darker undertones have risen to the surface, concurrently with the rising waters that are imperiling the city’s future. Global warming-induced higher tides, structural decay, and erosion caused by tourist traffic have all contributed to fears that Venice itself, having bloomed for so long, will now drop. While the city battles the threats it faces — in particular, with a massive in-development floodgate project called MOSE (Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico) — Santa Fe-based artists Susanna Carlisle and Bruce Hamilton have documented those threats, through footage of Venetian buildings and canals taken over the course of a monthlong artistic residency at the Emily Harvey Foundation. Reflections, the resulting installation that debuts at Currents, depicts a city whose exquisite buildings are, at once, immortal and in flux.
“We’ve been to Venice many times, and we’ve always been interested in the effects of climate change on the infrastructure of that city and cities in general. Like what happened in New York with Sandy, and New Orleans, and Fukushima — these different things that are recurring because of the deterioration of the environment, due to climate change,” Carlisle said. The footage in Reflections — much of it showing the water itself, with buildings’ reflections rippling across it — clearly displays the toll being taken. Hamilton said of the buildings, “The brick is old, and since the water level is rising, the marble parts, which used to be the part that the water touched, are now underwater. It’s now rising to the brick level, so the bricks are starting to disintegrate. Basically, the whole city, you could look at it as a faux painting. It’s not faux; it’s the real thing. But it’s what faux painting comes from. It comes from the deterioration of brick, the deterioration of the mortar between the brick, and the dissolving of some of the stone.”
Carlisle and Hamilton have contended with environmental destruction in previous works, such as Vanishing, on bee colony collapse, and Debris, about the harmful effects of trash. Both have been shown at past Currents festivals, which Carlisle and Hamilton have participated in since 2002. Although a number of works in the artists’ oeuvre explicitly pertain to raising awareness of these calamities, they are quick to clarify that Reflections is not a work of judgment. “It’s just showing what is going on,” Carlisle said. “That’s why we called it Reflections, because it’s reflections on the environment.”
The installation will be shown on three large screens, which will run individual series of clips asynchronously. “We didn’t want them synchronized,” Carlisle said. “We wanted them to be much more random. Because that’s what you experience when you walk through the world.” An audio component adds to the sense of randomness, and perhaps the sense of chaos; the artists described the medley of languages, church bells, and water sounds that accompany the imagery.
Another element layered into the piece is one that attests not to the threats to Venice, but to a hopefulness that resists them. There are fish in the canals. According to Carlisle, they are returning after having left because of the pollution. It’s a small symbol, but one that deserves particular attention. Amid headlines projecting Venice’s abbreviated life span and recent book titles like the startling If Venice Dies, any tokens of hope that the Floating City will keep floating feel not only appreciated, but necessary.