If you happen to be seated on the left side of the plane as you arrive in Venice from mainland Europe, the view is, rather unexpectedly, of a total dystopia. It is not of the hydraulic and architectural marvel that one might expect – unbelievably upright since the 10th century – networks of canals that frame the characteristic Venetian Gothic chapels, domed churches and palazzos (with noticeably Byzantine and Islamic influences, given the city’s maritime and trading history with the Middle East and Asia).
Instead, mounds of coal are being scooped up and loaded onto barges; or stacks of colourful shipping containers sit like Lego blocks, languishing in the damp, either waiting for departure or stuck forever in a trash-limbo. Then there’s also the large swathes of murky, green-grey lagoon water distilling to an even murkier effervesce in the sun.
In 1853 John Ruskin had already declared that Venice was dead. She is ‘a ghost upon the sands of the sea’ he wrote in the three-volume essay The Stones of Venice, ‘so bereft of all but her loveliness, that we might well doubt, as we watched her faint reflection in the mirage of the lagoon, which was the City, and which was the Shadow.’ Ruskin’s wrote not about a city, but of its spectre, and his was an imagination of death and decay.
He is not alone in this, it is a frequent response to the lagoon, and the city made up of 118 small islands. Venice is sinking; it has always been sinking. Seawater spills onto pavements and licks the city in a greedy, teasing way. The imagination of death is also perhaps to do with how difficult it can be to grasp, how unbelievable Venice really is: so precariously flung into the sea, with its never-ending Gothic aesthetic, its crumbling, leaky charms.
Its copies elsewhere in the world (“The floating Venice” of Dubai; “The Venetian” casino and hotel in Las Vegas and Macau; the eerily empty “Venice Water Town” in Hangzhou, China; the San Marco Bell Tower at “Everland Resort”, South Korea) are all copies of an original that no longer exists, or perhaps, never existed in the first place. In reality, the city is not always as dappled and charming as its many copies propose—in fact, it stinks, floods and flesh-eating bacteria spawn in its waters.
But this is perhaps exactly what makes it so charming: To love Venice is to love that it is sinking, that its foundations are splitting at the seams. To visit Venice is often to hunt for the apocalyptic, to stand on its sea-soaked stones and resign yourself to the end of the world. The world is ending – but here you are in its triumphant, luxuriating decay.
In a large warehouse on the southeastern shore of Venice, a group of singing vacationers are spread out on a fake beach, feeling too close to the end of the world. They sing, in chorus:
‘This year the sea is as green
as a forest: eutrophication!
Botanical gardens are
flourishing in the sea – the water blooms
our bodies are covered with
a slippery green fleece’
They are a part of Sun and Sea (Marina) (2019), an hour-long opera performance at the Lithuanian Pavilion, as part of the Venice Biennale 2019. The opera has been written, composed and directed by three women, Lina Lapelytė, Vaiva Grainytė and Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė. Young and old beachgoers lounge on imported Lithuanian sand – each of them restless and anxious – singing softly into small, transparent microphones.
People sing as they scroll through their phones, eat snacks, fan themselves with rolled-up newspapers or cover their faces with paperbacks as they snooze. A pair of teenagers in matching sapphire blue bathing suits flip over on their backs, tugging at their braids. They are twins – the “3D Sisters” – their mother left the 3D printer on, the song tells us, and it printed one of them out.
‘I cried so much when I learned bees / are massively falling from the sky,’ they sing, ‘I will remake this world again: 3D corals never fade away! / 3D animals never lose their horns!’
Grainytė’s libretto is a series of such little arias, each from a typecast vacationing character. There’s the “Wealthy Mommy’s” who feels a great ‘relief the Great Barrier Reef / has a restaurant and a hotel!’ She sings while sipping piña coladas, ‘They tasted better under the water / Simply a paradise!’ The “Workaholic” is the most damning, and gets closest to the heart of the matter here: ‘the vacation is what killed the mammoth’ he bellows, implying it will lead to human extinction, too. He is not entirely inaccurate: holidays to foreign beaches have a lot to do with our contemporary apocalypse.
The music is low-slung, almost choral. Viewers climb to a balcony to peer down at the beach below, taking the same vantage point as the sun. There is something deeply vulnerable about each of the arias, sad songs that mourn the death of the world and yet implicate their performers (and us, as viewers) in its demise.
Venetian and Lithuanian performers sing about too many airplanes in the sky, unpredictable rip-tides, endangered bees and of course, trash: ‘Turning on my stomach, a foreign body – A champagne cork – poking my ribs! What’s wrong with people – is it so hard / to walk to a trash bin, or what?’ The narrative is non-linear, and as such, nothing in particular connects the performances. They all happen to be on the same stretch of beach, and they all happen to be deeply aware of how humanity is hurtling towards its end. The scene here may be cynical, but it is also intensely tender, and it shifts gently between the two. It is a fresh approach to a commentary on our times: it does not make analysis, it offers no arguments. It also looks really fun.
This Lithuanian Pavilion won the prestigious Golden Lion award for best national participation. Grainytė’s libretto is thus suitably full of songs about globalised bodies, but it must be noted that most bodies here are white. This is unnerving: it could be a comment on the blindness of white privilege (sipping cocktails and rubbing in sunscreen as the apocalypse rages on “elsewhere”), or perhaps as the product of white privilege: this is just how the makers of the work see the world. In all of the applause and conversation around the work, race has been alarmingly kept out of the conversation.
It is hard to imagine a Northern European beach, as this one most closely mimics, without the migrant labour that surrounds it: black and brown labourers that work informal jobs which provide quick work and opportunity, primarily for those travelling over as a result of the now over half-a-decade-long migration crisis.
‘Acidy waves / Ivory foam / Rocking the boats full of canned goods, tourists, fruits and weapons’ goes the chorus of a Siren’s Aria in the libretto, forgetting to mention those other kinds of boats that rock the acidy waves of seas leading to Europe: those that smuggle, sneak in, and very often, sink to the bottom of the ocean floor.
Skye Arundhati Thomas is a writer and editor based in Mumbai.