Eternity Itself

Instagramming in Venice

Image: Chris Wallace

Maybe Venice wasn’t the best place to go in hopes of breaking, or at least calming somewhat, a debilitating Instagram addiction — Venice during the Biennale, no less. Even when not given over to oligarchs looking to launder money through merchandisable art, Venice is, on the face of it, well, all about face: art, artifice, surface. Three-hundred sixty-five days of the year, every year, Venice is the world capital of superficiality.

I mean that in a good way. No place is more beautiful, because no place has spent more time primping itself while staring into the reflection in the surrounding lagoon. No city has more of its collected wealth invested in its facades — facades qua facades. We need look no further, or deeper, than St. Mark’s Cathedral with its gold foil applique and marble tile siding for proof — needn’t and couldn’t, as there really isn’t a there there beneath the varnish and veneer; even its most stolid and sacred of buildings are but stucco and cement confections, done up like Liz Taylor.

In her great book on Venice, Mary McCarthy observed that, as garishly adorned as they were, the exteriors of the various palazzi in Venice appeared as nothing more than painted stage set flats. And the city does have the scale of a playhouse, a dollhouse diorama theatre. Every quiet little piazza, entered suddenly, alone, seems to be awaiting an errant troupe of Ren Faire players due back at any moment from their smoke break. And, like stage flats, every dusty pink wall, every terracotta-toned painting, every twisted Murano glass, and ornately patterned lace in Venice is constructed to communicate, to broadcast. Every Orient-inflected detail propels a narrative, like a souvenir, vouchsafing its owner’s character: I am this; I have been here and done that.

Instagram too is like a kind of stage set, beckoning performers, projection. On Instagram, you might say, we are playing ourselves. And, as in dream, or memory, these projections of ourselves needn’t be accurate to be true. In fact, it is in the elisions and exaggerations that we tell our truest stories. And like junkies, or expatriates, we seem to be opting out of the real life in favor of the fantasy. And Instagram addiction is not entirely unlike the distraction provided by the theatre either, a kind of half-stimulated, half-marveling fugue state: Entertain me, entertain me. What else, what else. When we are in its thrall, the feed walls us off from reflection, from secondary layers of consciousness. In the spring of 2017, all of the newly installed art on display, in the old arsenal depot and in the permanent pavilions clustered in and around wooded gardens (the “ Giardini”), built specifically for the purpose of the annually alternating art and architecture fairs, seemed made — staged? — to be Instagrammed.

On the road, away from home, we are allowed to believe ourselves to be the best versions of ourselves, our fantasy selves. More mindful, more attentive, interested, eager even, our traveling selves are who we might be if not for the debtors and responsibilities that dog us in our real life homes. The desirability of our traveled-to places, then, is in direct correlation to the ease with which it facilitates our dreaming, our ability to escape ourselves, the ease with which we can slip into the fantasy world of that place — a fictional construct of the city made up of all the cultural referents that most appeal to you (in the case of Venice, for me: Visconti, Nic Roeg, and Talented Mr. Ripley). And no place is more receptive to the projection of a past or a fantasy, no place more welcoming to the romantic than Venice, where we can easily still trace Casanova’s adventures, or walk in Aschenbach’s sandy footprints, searching for whatever it is that Tadzio means to us. Venice, more than any other place, feels like the surrealist reality of Escher’s dreams — so many staircase bridges leading you, somehow, back to where you started. There is an actual hedge maze, on one of Venice’s islands, and, fittingly, named for Borges. But the real labyrinth is the city itself, haphazardly set down first in refuge from the rampaging Attila, and to this day inexorably bound to malarial islands in a lagoon.

Venice is a city famous for doubling, twinning things — beginning with that Narcissisian reflection, and on to the twins in Don’t Look Now. But why, I wonder, when I visited in May did I feel the need, when in search of a new layer of experience, to reconnect with discoveries past — to again find solace in the relatively calm back garden of the hotel Metropole, for example, to insinuate myself again amidst the garrulousness of the off-duty gondoliers at Trattoria Rivetta? Retreading past visits, going back to places of great reverie doesn’t double the memory so much as it doubles the place (if only in my mind). A particular hotel garden, say, which my memory has already carried away and edited into usable shape for a story cannot possibly be the same one I enter again on the next trip — I’ve opened a new memory document, Metropole1. In order to orient myself, to weave new memories into a matrix with the places I’ve known before, I’ve obliterated a past, or at least, altered it, turned it into a shrine to itself. Like an Instagram post. Or, like Venice itself.

Henry James wrote in Italian Hours, that “Venice of today,” this, in 1909, “is a vast museum, where the little wicket that admits you is perpetually turning and creaking, and you march through the institution with a herd of fellow-gazers.” All true. It is a museum to itself; it is playing itself in the play that is life — and what could be better? What is more deserving of preservation and celebration than this weird exotic fairy tale confection of a city? “The sentimental tourist’s sole quarrel with his Venice,” James wrote, “is that he has too many competitors there. He likes to be alone; to be original; to have (to himself, at least) the air of making discoveries.” Every time I’m in Venice, I swear up and down that I am going to quit my present life to stay there and paint. (“Watercolors,” replied one ferry captain when I bored him with this fantasy, as though he’d heard it a million times before.) Whether or not it is yours alone, it’s impossible to not feel as personally possessed by the light in Venice as Turner so obviously was.

Though everyone in town that week was there, ostensibly, for the art, an exorbitant amount of time was spent posting, posing, staging, scrolling, and even talking about Instagram — just as you’d expect. Because image making — in the sense of sculpting one’s self-image, one’s public image, as well as the creation or capturing of an image — is at the center of our culture today. Maybe no one reads Playboy, or anything for that matter, for the articles anymore. Pictures are the artifacts and expression of the day. Which makes Instagram our sort of institutional memory, a nebulous, temporally vague cave painting of the culture.

The image, then, is the thing. While in Venice I began to wonder if it were the only thing — if Instagram were life, you might say, and the rest of our wanderings and doings, setting up the shot, primping in preparation for the performance, collecting and cultivation ourselves in readiness, would just be hashtag-behind-the-scenes.

The day I left Venice, my feeds swelled with pictures of the acqua alta then flooding St. Mark’s square — providing yet another reflective surface on which to contemplate Venice’s wonder, and, of course, providing another glorious photo op.