Francesco (right) and Jacopo, Italian staffs of the Hong Kong exhibition, Venice Biennale, July 2019.
The title of this year’s Hong Kong exhibition at the 58th Venice Biennale is “Stakeholders: Hong Kong in Venice,” through which artist Shirley Tse proposes a world-view where everyone is a stakeholder. Here, I would like to introduce some of the stakeholders of the Venice Biennale–the Biennale exhibition staff. These are the indispensable but unacknowledged individuals who spend the most time at the exhibitions, who take care of the artworks and venues, greet and aid dazed and confused visitors, and make sure the show go on (or not) under whatever circumstances.
Francesco, Italian staff of the Hong Kong exhibition, Venice Biennale, July 2019
Francesco was pleased when I greeted him “Buongiorno.” Our resourceful Italian staff lives in Padua, another medieval city near Venice famous for the Giotto frescoes and the university where Galileo taught and Goethe visited for Europe’s oldest botanical garden, and he has worked for the Hong Kong exhibitions at the Biennale for a decade, both for the art and the architecture exhibitions. He remembers everyone–not just the artists and curators, but also all the exhibition interns he has worked with (and indeed some have come back to see him), and he is probably the one who is the most familiar with the specificities (to say the exhibition is “Francesco-specific” instead of “site-specific” is probably not an overstatement) and eccentricities of the venue.
The M+ interns know he knows everything. He studies the artworks thoroughly and can expound on the subject in any language to any visitor showing the merest sign of curiosity in his extravagant Italian manner. He can get rather cross with careless, provocative visitors who think nothing of crossing over Shirley’s sprawling installation. This is how he puts it: “This work is called Negotiated Differences. You have to negotiate with it. You have to negotiate with me. If you convince me, you can cross over.” Anyhow, this angry guardian can usually be appeased with a caffè macchiato.
Jacopo, Italian staff of the Hong Kong exhibition, Venice Biennale, July 2019.
When the other exhibition intern, my partner, could not come at the last minute, Jacopo was called in. The 23-year-old is an art student of the Accademia di Belle Arti di Venezia, and he has been helping out the Biennale during semester breaks. This is the first time he works for the Hong Kong exhibition. Contrary to Francesco, Jacopo is soft-spoken and relaxed, and he prefers espresso. After the initial days he has grown accustomed to the venue and is a ready helping hand, and can explain the exhibition to visitors from his own knowledge of art. During slower hours we would exchange about Venice, art, cinema, etc. He told me to visit San Servolo island where he goes to school, wherein also are the Cuban and Syrian Pavilions. Francesco and Jacopo constitute the good and the bad cops at the Hong Kong exhibition, though they do not quite agree as to who is the bad one. Such is the wonderful Italian team I worked with during my 6 weeks’ internship in Venice, and I assume that when they converse in Italian between themselves they are only speaking well of Hong Kong.
Nunung Mulyani from the Indonesian Pavilion, Venice Biennale, July 2019
Not all the national representations at the Biennale can afford to send someone from their home countries. Most of the time you find bored local students playing with their smartphones at the reception, leaving the visitors to their own devices. But I have been fortunate to meet some new friends from the other pavilions during my stay. “Nunu” Nunung Mulyani works at the Indonesian Pavilion and is a student of Health Economics at Bologna University. Everyday after hours we would find her outside our venue, waiting for her other colleagues at the Arsenale. From the exchange of greetings to the exchange of favours, Nunu, always sincere, polite and obliging with a sweet smile on her face, has become one of the first Venice Biennale staff friends of ours.
Mariana Yaremchyshyna (right) from the Ukrainian Pavilion, Venice Biennale, July 2019
I remember Mariana when she visited the Hong Kong exhibition, for she did something quite extraordinary which I am not prepared to tell here. Some time later I saw her again at the Ukrainian Pavilion, and I realised that we were actually colleagues. Recognising me, Mariana began telling me all the stories about and behind the legendary project of the Ukrainian Pavilion which involved an aircraft that was supposed to fly over the Giardini on the opening day but did not. Then, finding a comrade in me, she moved on to talk of her troubles in Venice (and in life). There I learned something about the different organisations of the different national representations at the Biennale. Before leaving Venice, Mariana brought me a piece of uncut Murano glass as a memento. Sadly I had nothing to give in return, only a vague promise to keep in touch and maybe meet again somewhere in the future.
Ben (left) from the New Zealand Pavilion, Venice Biennale, July 2019
The challenge to the idea of nationality happens not just in the choice of artists in the Biennale this year. From the New Zealand Pavilion, Ben is born of parents from Hong Kong and Taiwan. Because of our shared heritage, we talked about what was happening in Hong Kong. It happened one day when he came into the Hong Kong exhibition and invited us to “Spritz Sunday,” an informal social gathering for the exhibition staff at the Biennale, which he initiated, so that we would not remain on each our own lonely islands without encountering the world that is literally happening out there. What is international exchange if not this, the exhibition staff of all the national representations coming together to complain about their impossible visitors and difficulties at home over a glass of spritz?