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Game of Two Halves: Marco Polo International Airport

This is part one of a series that investigates Simon Denny’s Secret Power, the project representing New Zealand at the 56th Venice Biennale. The exhibition addresses the intersection of knowledge and geography in a post-Snowden world, and is split between two sites: the Marco Polo Airport, and the Marciana Library.

There is a family of stone goats in Auckland’s Myers Park. I attended the near-by Jewish school and remember seeing goat horns in the Rabbi’s office. To me, the horns appeared like something primeval (they were in-fact Shofar, ceremonial horns to mark the end of Yom Kippur). Because of the Rabbi’s goat horns, I’d assumed the goats in the park were jewish. The goat’s seemed to be an authentic part of the area, and were presumably rich in meaning to Arthur Myers, the jewish philanthropist who gifted the land.

While on a recent trip to Europe to see family and ‘big culture’, I spent a few hours in Guangzhou Airport. Waiting for my transfer to Heathrow I noticed a series of murals depicting pre-industrial China, and prominent in each, my jewish goats from Myers Park. It turns out that the goats were a gift to Auckland in the 1950s, given when Guangzhou was named our sister city (Auckland has 6 sister cities, and 2 friendship cities).

This anecdote might seem like a strange segue into Simon Denny’s Secret Power, but it caught the sense of mutable experience possible in a global age. Auckland and Guangzhou had perpetrated a bait and switch, in much the same manner that Denny has conflated a library and an airport.

The view is grubby as you fly into Venice. Beneath the clouds is a petroleum complex made of steel and concrete. This oil refinery hidden at the top of the Aegean is the first impression of many visitors to the Venetian basin – a swamp renowned for its prettiness, Venice sinks under the weight of expectations.

I was grumpy as I got off the plane, and straight-away complained that Denny had placed part one of Secret Power in the arrivals terminal. In this hurried, jet-lagged space, Denny’s captive audience is at their most irritable and unconscious, and far too busy being corralled like a bovine herd. On the inverse, those in the departure terminal tend to have an excess of time, and plenty of vacant attention. Nevertheless – and despite the fact I only travel with a small carry-on bag – I made my way to Carousel #5 with aesthetic intentions.

Thanks to a near-constant stream of reviews and Denny-profiles from media outlets like the GuardianNew York Times, and the Wall Street Journal, I felt pretty prepared for Denny’s conceptual switcheroo. In fact, the work felt so familiar that visiting the exhibition felt cursory, a benign pilgrimage to Denny, the ‘New Zealand-born, Berlin-based artist’ who had just climbed to 364 on the Artist Ranking Tool – an improvement of 182 on last year’s ranking.

Denny’s carousel was revolving as I approached, and one part of the Titian fresco was spinning around the conveyor belt, providing a slapstick gimmick as it fell in-and-out of sync with the larger composition. It’s a surprisingly simple conceit. Transplanting one architecture for another, Denny takes one of the city’s least desired settings and injects an awkward nostalgia for Venice’s historic centre. The vinyl Titians and Marciana posters are an anachronistic ode to Venice, and a sage tribute to flawed authenticity.

Denny’s plastic claddings – perhaps processed at the near-by oil refinery – ground the first instalment of Secret Power outside the timeless reverie given to Venice. The sinking city under constant maintenance – the Rialto Bridge restoration is brought to you by DIESELTM – Venice has chosen to clad its construction sites in digitally rendered screens that recreate the hidden facades beneath. Even the timeless city is stamped with the imprint of global capitalism; its processes, its materials, and its ideologies. In the midst of these ‘to-scale’ corporate sponsored mockeries, Secret Power reaches a logical conclusion, Titian on the carousel.

to be continued…

Emil Dryburgh

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