Rocks Mara Coson

Briefly Outside, Day After the Preview, Venice Biennale
Mara Coson


We are on the number 1 Vaporetto down the Grand Canal towards the Giardini. We are standing beside a man wearing a multi-pocket khaki vest with a a thick travel book on Venice and a dark-haired woman who enjoys Dolce & Gabanna with leggings. It seems before he had boarded that he'd already been whinging to her about the "art crowd" in Venice and, with moderate derision, about its preference for "big obnoxious pants.” I never decide on what kind of tourist he is, or what art person she is, but as for us, M and I look “Southeast Asian,” are relatively tiny, wear average-legged pants, and have traveled over 6,000 miles for the 56th Venice Biennale. At stazione Salute, in front of the Punta dela Dogana and not far from the Peggy Guggenheim collection, the man hops off scowling into the eleven a.m. heat, heading towards the Basilica de Santa Maria del Salute, which the Venetian Senate built in 1600s to deliver its citizens from the plague.

M and I take his place beside the woman in order to lean, as we have been balancing ourselves like abled gondoliers on a narrow vessel and M’s feet were bleeding at the pinky toes. As the crowd of big, black, round-rimmed glasses fight their way into the Vaporetto before the first mate slides the barricade shut, a pudgy British man, overheating in a black polyester t-shirt and a red fisherman’s hat enters and notices the woman.

(As this is happening, the last man to board nearly clips his suitcase at the shutting door and yells out to the people he shoved and overtook at the boarding dock, "Fuck you! People live in this town too! Fuck you!" The voice of an American woman inside the boat follows : "Well, that's unnecessary…")

The man continues to barrel through the barely settled but barely moving crowd, and when he comes to kiss her on both cheeks, I am suffocated with affection. We hope he would apologize for his huge, fat arm creating a thick impermeable wedge between me and M, and leave, but instead, he holds onto the ropes from the lifesaver above us, hangs on, and keeps on talking. We also try to talk to each other over his arm, but not without breathing the stench emanating from his unhinged armpit, after which we give up. From San Marco to Arsenale, he speaks to the woman like they were alone on the balcony of the Cipriani. He tells her about how he's been (she says yes, yes) and about (how great it is to be) showing next to a (smallish) national pavilion beside (a street away from) a (lesser known) Young British Artist. I’m not sure about her reaction, I can’t see anything at this point but his splotchy and very hairy neck. I am also unable to speak to or see M. But I hear that she promises to go see it, maybe tomorrow. The vaporetto jolts. His sweaty back is about to smother me and pin me to the wall indefinitely, and so nervously and desperately I press a finger into his doughy back. He turns to me, almost too small to see, slightly bothered, and using his huge arm, pushes us aside because he is clearly speaking to this woman, and we were blocking his way.

We are waiting in line to buy tickets to enter the Giardini, where the main pavilion and some big countries sit. Unlike yesterday, it looks like a garden again, with people concentrated on lines of twenty each all waiting to enter via the six container-converted ticketing offices. The two-day preview is over, and suddenly it's £20 for us to see a few country pavilions we missed after getting exhausted by Hito Steyerl (and the trapped heat of the German Pavilion video room). At the end of my line, I notice three tall girls, possibly Northern European, and around the ages of 19/20/21, come out from a narrow dirt path behind the ticketing offices. Tall as models, one wears a revealing deep red bikini-material from the previous night’s party, revealing her back in the style of a bursting corset or a gladiator heel. Her attitude, like her back, was spinous. The other two, have by their unremarkable dress, knighted her as their clear leader.

The line, starting from the middle back: (1) a group of young Chinese students or recently-graduated artists (or I gather, talking about ‘gesso'), (2) a woman with short combed back newly showered reddish hair we were standing beside in the packed Vaporetto, and (3) a father and daughter with what appears like a vague interest in art, or the purpose of seeing Joan Jonas at the US Pavilion. (4) M and I. Then behind us, (5) a four-person group of mature age students from South Asia led by or who are leading a nerdy Italian graduate student. One of them, an older man, remarks, "The line isn't moving. It hasn't moved at all. We'll be standing in this line not moving for an hour," passively fretting.

It becomes clear that the girls are all hoping to insert themselves into the line, rather than bear the humiliation of being beautiful women at the back of the long line. They stand beside the two Chinese students, and move along with the line until they finally cut in front of the Chinese students, who say nothing. The woman from the Vaporetto behind the students taps them on the shoulder brusquely: "Back of the line."

They impudently step out from the line and wait for the sleek-haired woman to pass. But they also wait for the Italian-American father daughter to pass. We were their next target: bowl-haired, wide-faced, relatively meek, reminiscent of their neighbourhood Chinese restaurants the way the permanent pavilions remind me of the mausoleums of my neighbourhood mega-cemetery, the leader inserts her long waxed leg in between me and the American father. She looks at me, unchallenged by my likely unassertiveness. In response, I take a very visible, knee-high lunge forward. She steps back, insulted to have been defeated. They line up behind the South Asian students, who in spite of their complaints, allow them to cut in. Until our turn, we look at each other up and down and talk about each other in our different languages, and making it clear.


We get hungry going through all 18 rooms of the labyrinthine Punto de la Dogana to see "Slip of the Tongue," curated by Danh Vo from Francois Pinault's collection. Knees shaking we walk back from Room 18 to 15, through the piglet suckling a Boston Terrier and Nairy Baghramian, into a small section with a bookshop and cafeteria that smelled nicely like roast Four Seasons duck rice. We see a small glass bread bin holding (1) An overpriced pack of pesto fusilli; (2) Two overpriced packs of rice with carrots and capsicum; (3) Five naturally overpriced round prosciutto crudo sandwiches. We are after the rice (having eaten only potatoes and pasta for days), but it is unclear if the glass showcase, being accessible from the side of the counter and of the customer, if customers can take them first before paying. It is also unclear if there are any packs left. The makeshift line runs along the counter towards the cash register. A 50-some French bleached-blond haired woman, beside us, who is technically behind us, reaches for the two packs of rice. We turn to her hoping there’s more of the rice left (and if there’s none, it’s okay), but it appears she had grabbed the packs of rice right from the hands of the African Pavilion PR guy in turn beside / behind her, who had held on to it. "Oh my god I'm so sorry," she says, handing it back to him, sorry not sorry, because this move told him that she wanted them first, in case they were the last ones. "No, please, go ahead, you can take it," he says, confused. “No, take it,” daring him secretly. He takes the fusilli instead, and says "I changed my mind." He smiles, she smiles. And then she calls the server, holding her proud two packs of risotto. And though we are clearly ahead, she then calls the waitress to add her orders. The waitress asks, "and then to drink?" A cappuccino and a latte.

We assert ourselves, we are first, we say, and we would to have the two packs of rice. The Frenchwoman and the waitress look at us with loud disdain, as if we had just interrupted them and had no right to. The server hands us the two packs of risotto, and brings out more.