In 2011, the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was arrested and held for 81 days. His period of detention was spent in a tiny cell with constant light, under permanent supervision from two guards. His family were never informed of his whereabouts. He is still prohibited from leaving the country.
Yet he's a major presence at the Biennale this year. His installation Straight is at the Zitelle complex on Giudecca, and he's one of the artists representing Germany at their official pavilion in the Giardini (or rather the French pavilion - our crazy German chums have swapped spaces with the French and are only exhibiting non-German artists this year. But this is another story for another time). And a new work, SACRED, has been developed especially for the church of Sant'Antonin.
Upon entering, the viewer is confronted with six seemingly solid rust-coloured blocks; featureless apart from the shape of a door, and some small (almost invisible at first sight) windows. The temptation, of course, would be to try the door; but it's immediately obvious that the shape is only incised into the surface. But the first glance through one of the windows is something of a shock : we look into a brightly lit cell, in which
the central figure (immediately recognisable as a small mannequin of the artist himself) goes about his daily business - eating, sleeping, using the bathroom - all the time under the gaze of two impassive guards. We move from block to block, wondering what the miniature Ai Weiwei will be up to in this one. It becomes an odd, disconcerting feeling. It feels intrusive and voyeuristic, Big Brother style, which is presumably the whole point.
It's worth visiting in its own right, but the chance to look around Sant'Antonin is something of a bonus. The church was designed by Baldassare Longhena, although the facade was never completed; and, as a result, is somewhat anonymous-looking from outside. It was closed in 1982, but has been undergoing restoration in recent years; and it's usually impossible to visit without pre-booking a tour.
Given that, I try to make the most of the opportunity and take a couple of photographs.
One of the invigilators sees us taking an interest in the church and comes over to talk. Work, he says, is ongoing but he has no idea if it will ever reach the stage where it can be opened up to the public again. He talks us through some of the art : to the left of the altar is a Last Judgement (a rather less grim version than many); and, to the right, The Sacrifice of Noah by Pietro il Vecchio. Directly behind the altar is The Martyrdom of Sant'Antonin by a Venetian artist so obscure that this is his only known work (and whose name, unfortunately, now escapes me).
The organ looks to be in splendid condition and, indeed, ,it turns out to have been recently restored - the only problem being that the restoration was only cosmetic, and it can't actually be played. Unfortunately, if understandably, it wasn't considered a priority to have a fully functioning organ in a permanently empty church.
The recently restored chapel of San Saba is decorated with works by Jacopo Negreti, better known as Palma il Giovane. Palma is ubiquitous in Venice. There is scarcely a church without a work by him. As a young man, he found a place in the workshop of the elderly Titian, and famously completed his master's Pieta after his death. Following the death of Tintoretto, he found himself the pre-eminent artist in Venice. And yet, I have to to say, I have never seen a work by him that has particularly moved me, or amazed me, or made me feel anything other than a general shrugging of the shoulders. The predominant impression I have of him is a preponderance of brown. Lots and lots of brown on dark, shadowy canvases. Now it may be that I'm doing him a disservice, and that perhaps the majority of his works are merely in need of restoration. The works in the chapel are typical, if perhaps ever-so-slightly less brown than usual. If you like his work, it's worth your while making a visit. If not, well, they won't change your mind.
And so we take our leave of Sant'Antonin. It's worth pointing out that you're not allowed to photograph the church itself, only the contemporary works. I snapped the picture of the altar, before being informed; and then took the one of the organ as discreetly as I could. And then, of course, the young chap who showed us around was so nice, friendly, and informative that I immediately felt guilty. Call it karma, if you like.