Venice, friction, and water.

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the space in between things; in between people. I spent a weekend in Venice at the end of February, where the space in between is small, and full of stuff. Like the space between houses is full of canal water, itself full of bilge, and rats, and gondola drivers with their gondolas, and tourists, and people going places. I got lost on my way to the cafe and ended up sandwiched in the crowds. Looking left, over the grand canal on the rialto all I could see was an enormous wave of people, sandwiched together, surging down the steps like a tidal wave.

I was thinking, too, about a conversation I’d had with my mum in Treviso following the weekend in Venice, where she told me that when i was about 2 or 3 I looked at the moon and said “Mummy, is the moon moving, or are we moving?”, and then she’d told me about a conversation she’d had with her mother about whether or not people continue to live their lives when you’re no longer looking at them, which led to ‘does the moon exist when we’re not looking at it’ ‘do we exist when no one’s looking at us?’. All those people surging over the bridge still exist out there somewhere not-meshed, and when i saw them they were meshed. An almost indistinguishable merge of people, faceless, nameless, without individuality – simply a great mass of flesh rising over the Rialto. Or, do they? Are they? They had no friction on the situation – simply merged movements across space-time, the surface of the territory.

It was so interesting, going away with my mother, where everything needed for travel was stored inside my phone – a tiny little box of light that for things like tickets, or bus times, or train routes, we had no need to speak to a single human being. I stood there, like a surface parasite on the city finding my way around it without needing to engage with it. Sliding through it, or over it, like it wasn’t really there at all. All this was exacerbated by the watery surroundings – I felt like Venice was constantly sliding out from under me. Humid, peeling, the layers of space continually falling away. Not like the way I think about England where, on each underneath I can find something to hold onto, Venice had no traction for me; I felt like I was slipping the whole time like I’d been walking through oil slicks. There was almost a veneer between me, and the city itself. Evidence that I don’t know it, don’t know the language, and couldn’t grab a hold of something with which to gain traction.

Venice is tactile – everything looks worn, touched. The walls are peeling, there’s no green everywhere, and in many ways it resembles a kind of post apocalyptic space – crumbling into the canals, leafless trees, people rushing, or not rushing, dressed in Carnivale finery – from this century, or the 6 or 7 before? Any of them? Who knows?  Yet, despite the tactility of the city itself I couldn’t get my fingers underneath the edges to hold on somehow. Perhaps this was due to my own transience within the cityscape – I was flotsam and jetsam brought up by a boat to rest on the stoned shores. around by public transport, rushing by the lives of others without making an imprint upon them. Thousands of people – hundreds of thousands, maybe a million –  were in Venice. They’re all still living their lives now, out there in the world, maybe still in Venice maybe not. Do we move, or does the moon move? Do I keep going, or do they? Does anyone have any friction any more? Did anyone ever?

Anyway, we didn‘t stay in Venice itself – we stayed in Burano, a little island about 40 minutes from Venice by boat, that appeared and disappeared out the fog like it was never really there at all. Do you know the Genesis song ‘A trick of the Tail’? In it a horned & tailed creature leaves his bright city of gold to see what lies over his horizons – on leaving he ends up in the human world, is captured and put in a cage, and then convinces the humans to let him go home and if they do he’ll show them the city. 

Then there’s a line about how all the humans think the spy, on the horizon, ‘a spire of gold – no a trick of the eye, that’s all’. This always puts me in mind of the sun striking water in the distance – and in a way that is how Burano appeared after leaving Venice. A mirage, marked by its brightly coloured houses, and the spire of torcello rising behind it, and its church steeple striking the sky, glinting in the winter sun. Appearing and disappearing through the mist, a dream platform made by thought, rising out of the water. 

You get on the boat, and the first thing you pass is a sculpture of Dante and Virgil (Big Dante’s Inferno Reference)Frangulyan_Georgy_Dante_Virgil_Isola_San_Michele_Fondementa_Nuova_statue_statua_Art_at_Site_Venezia_Venice

This is right by the cemetery island, kept out of the city island because of plague, and looking like a city of the dead, as they stack the bodies upwards instead of downwards. I felt like I was on my own boat on some other weird river of styx going out of light and life and vibrancy and into some weird dream platform, built out of mist out in the lagoon.

The air is different in Italy. I know this from the last time I visited. Even on the first day of march it seems as though the air holds the promise of summer. I was sitting on a bench in Burano, worn and almost looking like it was made of driftwood, but I could see near the connections to the ironwork that the wood had been new and varnished once, and had just been weathered by the salty lagoon air, and the sun. The light was waning, and a Vaparetto eased its way around the side of the islan, leaving a stream of foam behind it, and making the noise that boats make. It looked to me like a boat full of ghosts, barely glimpsed through lit windows, small lamp on the prow guiding it. I don’t know which film it is that I’ve seen that has boats like this, ferrying souls about. I’m sure I have seen one. Later I’ll see one at night, windows reflected in the water, floating along in the blackness. Somehow I’m not sure which is more spectral, this half lit one, or the night time ghost boat.

I can see why so many artists and writers are enamoured with this lagoon, with Venice’s ancient beauty, and the quiet stillness of the surrounding island that seem in stasis even though they’re bustling with people. The ghost boats rippling up the still waters, rocking the boats, and making them boom against the canal sides.

The sun was setting behind some houses as I sat there, a red tinge seeping over the side of the view as I watched another boat pull out and away. It ooshed across the view, followed by a man in a speed boat going away, and two fishermen returning home with a catch. Little illuminated moments played out on the water, that reflects back the image, and then absorbs it. Liquid memory, holding the city up. The sky reflecting the red-grey-blue of the ocean, open.

I hear planes from Marco Polo in the distance, and the lap of water, and the laughing of children, and people, and birds calling out across the lagoon.

The water smoothed itself back into a glass so that I couldn’t see where sea stopped and sky started.

Perhaps it is the water that makes Venice frictionless, slippery. Water remembers, sure – but mostly it absorbs, and forgets. You could fall in the water, slip under, get stuck, and drown – and no one would know afterwards, because there’d be no mark on the water. No footprints, no boat streams, nothing.

I watched a stray black bird land on it and bob there – black speck on the surface. ripples circling outward.

Then it took flight, calling into the sky-sea-void out there that I floated on too.


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