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Game of Two Halves: Biblioteca Marciana

This is part two 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 long bridge that connects Marco Polo Airport to Venice. Crossing the bridge on the airport shuttle bus, I could see the dome of Santa Maria and the tower of Saint Marco. Familiar sights, though not due to any art historical training (I got a C in 104 Renaissance Italy). Instead, I’d spent hours scaling Venetian rooftops in Assassin’s Creed II. This kind of knowledge that was once privileged, difficult to attain, can now be acquired in some surprising ways: for the price of the water-bus up the Grand Canal, I’d already scaled 16th century Venice and killed the Doge.

Walking off the wharf at Saint Marco, I noticed a Simon Denny banner draped over the big marble building to my left. I’d heard that it is hard to get noticed at the Venice Biennale. Well… noticing Denny was easy. It took gumption to hire the Biblioteca Marciana – I wonder what the weekly rental is on this 16th century library?

Entering the Library, I was handed a brochure at reception and ascended to New Zealand’s national pavilion via the allegorical staircase of knowledge.  The pomp continued as I surveyed the room housing Fra Mauro’s Map of the World, 1448-1453, which Wikipedia tells me is “a key memorial of medieval cartography”. The pavilion attendants (wearing Secret Power American-Football jerseys) ushered me into the main hall of the Library, which houses works by Tintoretto, Titian, and New Zealand’s own, Simon Denny.

Composed of eight ‘server vitrines’, Secret Power (Marciana Edition) produces a portrait of the NSA through its former graphic designer David Darchicourt. Calling upon Darchicourt’s years of experience as a NSA ‘Creative Director’, Denny has created a sculptural record of the NSA’s image culture – as revealed by Snowden’s release of classified slides. It sounds complicated – and it is – though the density of information, and complexity of narrative is precisely the rub. Navigating the vitrines and other display structures, it quickly becomes apparent that Denny isn’t pursuing a clear polemic; rather, his is a fetishist’s view of the usually politically rendered NSA.

Amongst gilded walls and renaissance frescos, Denny’s made-to-order structures were opulent in their own synthetic way. The vitrines felt sanitised: the interned sculptures vacuumed in a server farm’s banality. Glistening with LED light, Denny’s wunderkammern sneered and riled the Marciana’s tungsten interiors.

Upon a closer inspection of the vitrines, I realised I knew a lot more about Secret Power than I’d anticipated. Incessant references to WarhammerTM, Magic: The GatheringTM and Yu-Gi-OhTM represented a cultural milieu that I was surprised to share with the NSA’s tech-literate warriors. Denny had rendered a community of NSA analysts that probably weren’t on the high-school football team.

The exhibitions reliance on gaming references describes a form of espionage born on the gaming table, and tempered in the strategic training of role-play games. The US military establishment has long been wise to the indoctrinal potential of video games (releasing their first state sponsored war game in 2002). Denny’s work draws a sage – albeit comic – relationship between the glamour of spies and espionage, and the much maligned world of gaming.

Secret Power is not simply a sculptural report on the NSA: Denny’s matrix is also a form of satire. Within this skeptical comedy, New Zealand is the pip-squeak lackey of the ‘Five Eyes’ (an intelligence alliance comprised of the USA, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and yes, New Zealand). This absurdist lens is most clearly manifested in Darchicourt’s Tuatara mascot, a reptilian android commissioned to represent the country.

Venice is strange, and Denny contributes another oddity to the city.  The former maritime empire is a sage backdrop with which to consider America’s own hegemonic decline. Set amongst one of Europe’s great ‘civilising’ achievements, Denny expresses the less pleasant inward face of empire: control, surveillance, and paranoia.

to be continued….

Emil Dryburgh

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