Continental - IV

At the Venice Biennale, Fayes T Kantawala's national identity was the subject of surprise, discomfiture and pity

Continental - IV
I flew in Venice’s Marco Polo airport directly from Nice, which is not something I’m likely to do again. The train, the only other way most people get to Venice, would have taken me eight hours or more, and I caved in to the pressure of temporal ease despite the fact that I don’t like flying around Europe. (The planes are tiny and they charge you for breathing: you want peanuts? You gotta buy ‘em.) All this is on top of the travel anxiety of waving around a Pakistani passport in places I’d rather not show it. But more on that later.

Flights land in mainland Venice, a vast expanse of fugly that serves as a working hole for all the people who live in Pretty Venice. There are no trains from the airport to the town. This leaves you with two options: either you arrive looking terribly chic and take a speedboat reserved for you directly to your opulent hotel. Or you can cram into a bus with two-dozen Chinese tourists and hope that there is water on the other side.

Twenty minutes later we were in the winding streets of the medieval town trying to locate ourselves on Google maps and an hour after that we finally found our hotel, a small but reasonably nice place nestled in a deep alley.

[quote]The flattering glow of Venice made my selfies look like Vogue covers[/quote]

For those who don’t know, Venice is a series of tiny islands reclaimed from swamp land many centuries ago and the whole place is a labyrinth of streets and alleyways and thousands of bridges, big and small. Because of its small size there is a density to the treasures in Venice one doesn’t find anywhere else. We had barely walked a few bridges to get a slice of pizza and within minutes had stumbled on a major attraction – the altar of Titian’s ‘Assumption of the Mary’, the Academia, San Rocco, the Grand Canal, all major sites of European art history (history, really) and home to some of the most beautiful things that man has created. I know I sound a bit sentimental, and I am unashamed. Venice is my first love and I have studied every bit of it, but you needn’t know its history to enjoy it. The entire city is a living museum and just walking around there is an experience to cherish. Because there are no roads and only canals of water, the light shifts from pink to blue to amber to yellow and back again within seconds, and the whole of the city – the food, the buildings, you – are bathed in a flattering, glittering glow. My seflies looked like Vogue covers. Yours will too.

Perhaps because it’s a living museum, Venice as a space can lend itself extraordinarily well to contemporary art. Every year it plays host to the Venice Biennale, a massive Olympics-style gala of art and design where entire countries send in entries and compete. One year they do the art Biennale, which is massive and messy, and the next they do an Architecture and Design Biennale, which is smaller but no less ambitious. The system allows the two industries a break between events and assures Venice a constant flow of people.

The biennale was one of the major reasons I wanted to go. This one wasn’t the art event, but Architecture. Each participating country had a pavilion where they responded to the theme of the biennale. This year’s theme was fundamentals. I was luckily travelling with an architect and she was kind enough to guide me. Apparently, architects are pissed off that fancy new buildings are being built to be nothing more than good photos, and that people are losing their grasp on the fundamentals of why we build. That’s the theme: Fundamental, a call for architects and designers to return to the basics of building philosophy (roti-kapra-makaan, if you will).

The main show was a history of architectural elements like ceilings, corridors, toilets, windows. Things you take for granted but had been shown in such inventive ways that I spent three hours just staring at ancient loos. In one room there was a prototype for a system that only heats you in the room based on sensors (as opposed to the entire room), thereby saving tons of energy; there was a sidewalk that converted the energy of footsteps into energy for street lights; There were flexible windows and collapsible doors; there was also a prayer matt that glowed when it was pointed in the right direction towards Mecca, which wasn’t very green but was rather cool.

The French, Americans, British, etc. have permanent buildings where they put up their pavilions, because they come every year. Others, like India, rent out spaces. I couldn’t find the Indian tent because it was raining and the place was closing. It goes without saying that Pakistan was nowhere to be seen.

I felt quite apologetic traveling around Europe this time. Whenever someone would ask me where I was from, and I’d reply Pakistan, there would first be a momentary silence as they sized me up. Then came the pursing of the lips, a wince and (depending on how invested they were in the conversation) a shaking of the head. Once the ticks subsided, they commiserated with me (almost condoled) on how unfortunate that was and how sad everything about Pakistan was. “Terrible situation”; “Muslims shouldn’t be this way”;  “I’m from Syria, I know how it feels”. (The last one caught me off guard. I mean, sure. We have issues, but we are not Syria yet, are we?)

In Paris, a waiter I was chatting to knew all about the Lahore High Court stoning incident, and said how awful it was that major cities are “falling”. Every person I met – it didn’t matter where they were from – every single one of them knew the worst of what was happening back home. And every single one of them seemed to sense a terrible end that I wasn’t yet aware of.

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