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Notes from a Novice in Venice

Exclusive to the blog this week are the chronicles of artist Lily Simonson’s visit to the 53rd annual Venice Biennale, which opened to the public this past Sunday. Stay tuned all week for special posts on this most monolithic of contemporary art fairs. — Ed.

Aleksandra Mir, "VENEZIA (all places contain all others)," 1 million postcards for free distribution, 2009. Photography: Medioimages, Photodisc Getty Images, Courtesy the Artist.

In a corner of Venice’s 13th-century shipbuilding complex-cum-contemporary art exhibition space called the Arsenale, attendees of the 53rd International Art Exhibition swarm around an unruly stack of boxes, each overflowing with postcards.  Squinting in the dim light, you see that the postcards are all glowing shiny blue with “VENEZIA” splashed across each image in various colorful fonts. As you look closer, it becomes clear that the photographs are not pictures of “Venezia” at all. Some depict oil rigs, others capture waterfalls, and still others display joyful whitewater rafters. There are, in fact, 1 million postcards available for exhibition-goers to take away over the next 6 months. Polish artist Aleksandra Mir chose 100 images by searching stock photography services for images of water. Mir’s own website states that water operates in this piece as a metaphor for globalization. Since the installation also includes a “real Poste Italiane mailbox” and purchasable stamps, viewers can mail the works to anywhere in the world.

In the context of this year’s Biennale theme, “Making Worlds,” and my own experience as a newcomer to Venice, I see Mir’s creation of 13 tons of fake postcards as a metaphor for the artist’s role as a creator of new realities, and as a messenger between fact and fantasy. Stock photographs strive to tap directly into our collective imaginations, with images that are at once versatile and specific. Souvenirs such as postcards are more than just photographs; they reify our most personal and extraordinary memories and emotions, in turn allowing us to share them with others. Meanwhile, isn’t artmaking almost always about manifesting imagination in reality, and ultimately blurring the line between the two? Mir’s installation achieves all of that.

Ok, so I’m waxing a bit romantic…but wait! I can explain!

My visit to Venice for the opening week of the Biennale marks my maiden voyage to the city. I arrived here equipped with preconceived notions from two very different, and more or less embarrassing sources (in that order): the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas and Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. Before you LOL too hard at me, I have to say that even if I had been able to assemble my impressions of the Venetian hotel and Mann’s renowned story into a cohesive fantasy prior to my visit, it would have surely imploded upon my arrival. Venice is beauty incarnate and, to clunkily paraphrase Elaine Scarry, nothing can prepare a brain for that.

Ornate, ancient, crumbly buildings emerge from glowing pale-emerald waters all around you. Flowers overflow from wrought iron balconies. And there are no cars (I live in Los Angeles)! The same foolish shock I felt years ago when I discovered that French people really do say “voila!” and Londoners really do ride double-decker buses consumed me twenty-fold when I discovered that Venice really is a Floating City.  I mean, how imaginary can you get?

Which brings me back to Vegas, Thomas Mann, and the world’s most celebrated international art exhibition. Rather than mere financial gain, the gambler seeks a jolt of bliss that accompanies magically beating the odds and merging with divine Lady Luck. Similarly, the jouissance ultimately experienced by Mann’s stalker protagonist does not derive from mere sexual gratification, but from the search for a metaphysical melding with aesthetic perfection (which happens to be represented by a prepubescent blonde Polish boy). While some art collectors might be interested in all of the above, I believe that each and every Biennale attendee—and each and every viewer of art everywhere—is seeking to find a work that will transfix and transport them, a work with which they can merge themselves with the forces of imagination, beauty, and knowledge of some kind. And what better setting to achieve this state than in a city (or in the former two cases, a fictionalized version thereof) that literally sweeps viewers off their feet, and leaves its visitors disoriented, dazzled, enchanted.

Up next: Season 1 artist Bruce Nauman receives the Golden Lion Award for Best National Participation!

Lily Simonson received her MFA in painting from UCLA in 2008. She currently lives and works in Los Angeles. Images of her paintings can be found at, although the site itself is a work in progress.

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