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The Art of Death in the City on the Sea

Published in Citylife
Magazine - October 2005

Oliver Benjamin breaks on through
to the other side in Venice Italy.

I am standing in the middle of Saint Mark’s square in Venice, Italy. Pigeons are resting on my head and every conceivable place they can find on my outstretched arms. My mother snaps photos and laughs so hard most of them come out blurry. Their little claws are cutting into my skin. The sensation is eerie – like being grabbed by a hundred little devils trying to pull me down (or up, rather) to hell.

Death brought us here. I suppose death brought many people here. Venice, I mean. Why else would they build this astonishing city on the middle of an oceanic swamp? Fact is, Italy was not always the languorous tourist paradise it is today. Things got particularly rough when those pesky Germans trekked over the Alps and helped themselves to the spoils of the crumbling Roman Empire. Some clever locals said “there goes the neighborhood” and ran out to the relative safety of a malodorous, seaswept lagoon.

A grizzled descendant of these clever cowards sold me birdseed at one euro a pack, laughing as this unsuspecting straniero is mauled by black clouds of ravenous pigeons. I suspect this is bit of latter-day revenge against the barbarians. I do in fact have Austrian blood.

Death brought me here. Certainly, I would have come here eventually anyway, but Venice is one of the most expensive cities to visit in the world and I was always putting it off for the day that I sold my first novel, won the lottery or got a proper job. I did have an uncle who lived there that I could have stayed with. B
ut he and my father were not speaking, despite the fact that time for reconciliation was running out. Dad had cancer and didn’t want to complicate his last days. Neither did I.

After my father passed away, though, furtive emails started to trickle in and out between me and this mysterious quasi-Venetian who shared many of my genes and none of my memories. It turned out that he wrote children’s books and knew our entire family’s genealogy. He lived on the Grand Canal and had interviewed US presidents. Despite growing up Jewish, he had recently been ordained as an Episcopalian priest. He sounded like an utter nut. He sounded like a Benjamin.

My mother, sister and I diverted an Austrian summer holiday southward for a week and dropped in on Uncle Alan. I, who knew no extended family, didn’t know what to make of the dim echo of familiarity that a close relative can evoke. We finished each other’s sentences and found out that we had both been working adult nursery-rhyme books called “Mother Goosed.” We shared weaknesses for extremely bad puns. And we both knew the arcane etymology of the world’s most famous word: “O.K.”

Death brought me here. Truth is, Death is what brings everybody here. Venice, as the novelist Thomas Mann noted, is a City of the Dead. It’s been an embalmed corpse ever since Vasco de Gama sailed around the Cape of Good Hope in 1499 and broke the city’s monopoly on trade with the East. Shortly after that, the Turks kicked what remained of its gilded ass. But the Venetians were descended from a resourceful, hardy stock, people who built a metropolis on a marsh, controlled early global trade and even opened Europe’s first coffeehouse. Putting their heads together, they soon discovered people will happily pay good money to stare at a dead body, and they turned their entire economy over to tourism. Venice, and indeed most of modern tourism, has been ruled by this voyeuristic, morbid principle ever since.

The other reason people come to Venice is to see the Venice Biennale, an enormous international art festival held here every two years. This year’s theme is something vague and abstract like “the relationship of the past to the present and the present to the progressive” which sounds to me more like a chapter title in some Deepak Chopra self-help book. But there it is. A German has made headlines for offending Muslims by reproducing its holiest shrine. Everyone is talking about an Italian trailer for an imaginary remake of Caligula in which Gore Vidal anoints his cheeks with semen. And England’s Gilbert and George have promised (and very nearly succeeded) “to do our very worst.”

But I live in Thailand most of the year and so can’t wait to see what kind of nonsense the Thais have come up with. I imagine it will be something typically cute and unimaginative, like a giant puppy made out of Prozac or a map of the world fashioned out of flowers. But I’m dead wrong. Given the location, the exhibit the Thais settled on was eerily appropriate. “Those dying wishing to stay, those living preparing to leave” addresses that most Venetian of subjects and my own reasons for being there: The Man in the Black Pajamas. The Reaper. The Sexually-Transmitted Disease we all inherit. Death.

I notice that one of the featured artists, Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, hails from Chiang Mai, my adopted home town. As my mildly-bored family leaves me to go gorge themselves on the life-sustaining products of Venice: seafood and pasta, I stay behind in the semi-darkness and behold the Thai angle on the great unknown. Araya’s contributions to the exhibit are black and white videos in which she gingerly interacts with real human corpses.

My first reaction is one of mortification, as if she has resorted to the same kind of exploitation employed by Robert Mapplethorpe when he dunked a crucifix in a jar of pee and called it clever. But gradually I see this is not what she is doing at all. These are genuinely compassionate, tender pieces in which she is trying to present morbidity as something we all might well be more familiar with.

In “Conversations I, II & III” she hums and wanders through a room of orderly-arranged corpses covered mostly by white sheets. In “This is Our Creations” she lies down next among them and gently recites: “I came here to know you, lying here motionless. Once my father sent me a postcard from very far away. Its sentence: only a still pond can reflect the stars.” In “The Class” she parodies the conceits of academia by lecturing a classroom of lifeless bodies about death, something they all know far better than she.

The exhibit is deadly silent too. That’s because it’s installed in an old monastery, the Convento San Francesco Della Vigna. To complete the effect, the corridors are lined with tombs of medieval monks. Tourists drift in giggling and bouncy and quickly settle into a reverent silence. Despite the melancholy subject, it’s a welcome respite from the tourist-addled city outside and some remain for hours. The young Italian docent of the exhibit, Anna Paola Passarini is herself obliged to spend six hours a day here. An artist in her own right, she has found her own artistic inspiration in Araya’s work, and in her role as guardian of these representations of the real. “It is like conversing with dead people,” she says, “In artwork there's always something unsaid, unspoken, that you discover just staying for a long time with them in silence.”

This stops me cold and I have to sit for a while to think. These video screens, these recordings, are dead shells of one artist’s ideas. Art is a representation of inspiration, just as the dead are to us representations of the once-inspired. Thus, to attend an art exhibition is to attend a funeral. And it is up to us, the onlookers, to keep the spirit of both art and the departed alive through quiet contemplations and our conversations about them. But this parallel does not discredit the dead. On the contrary, it elevates art.

Westerners are generally not comfortable with the concept of death, but in Thailand it is seen as an essential part of the life cycle. Whereas some here have been disturbed by the usage of fresh corpses, in Thailand Araya’s exhibit was criticized only for its failure to adhere to strict Buddhist ritual. East Asians generally seem to have a different relationship with their dead. For instance, it’s common among Thais to keep the fully-dressed bodies in their houses for a week or more before cremation. Certain kings have even been known to be kept on display for years. Whether this attitude stems from anxious superstition or respectful acceptance of the shadow world, the effect is the same: They love their dead as they love their temples and kings and overtly mythical past, all stretching back across the hazy horizons of time. Nowhere in the world is this institutionalized longing more evident than in Thailand and it is this, perhaps, that holds them together as a stereotypically peaceful, self-effacing people. As modern as it gets, it’s still an ancient land at heart. Their dead are still all around, watching them, and watching over.

I move back out of the quietude into the strange light of the city. Surrounded on all sides by water, there is always a perpetual illumination coming from all directions, and yet the tall buildings among the narrow streets cast unexpected shadows everywhere. I meet up with my family and grab a couple of panini, small sandwiches. They’re going on and on about the amazing lunch I missed. Mom has been taking pasta con frutti di mare at almost every meal and my thin sister has already put on a noticeable amount of weight. We are all enjoying Venice immensely, but much more than that, we are enjoying getting to know our uncle Alan.

Death brought me here. As we ride the vaporetto back to our rented apartment I sit next to this new member of our small brood, similar and yet so different from the 46-year old who sired me, the 82-year old who expired last year. There is a question I’ve been meaning to ask him, something I’ve never been able to ask anyone before.

“What was my father like,” I say, “when he was young?”

All text and images © copyright Oliver Benjamin