Susan Kleinberg


No one should die without having once checked into Alitialia, the Italian national airlines, in a moving van.

So began the “installation” phase of life as an artist participating in the Venice Biennale.

The Venice Biennale, begun in 1895, is the oldest and most respected international exhibition of art in the
world. To participate is an invitation laden with myth and history. In celebrating this 100th year of the
Biennale, 14 artists from different countries were asked to design sculptural installations to float in the
Venetian Lagoon.

When I was first asked to conceive of a piece for the Biennale, one that could float in the deceptively
rough conditions of the “Bacino San Marco,” I searched my memory for the strongest floating image I
could locate.  It was the dramatic re-entry from space of the first Apollo space capsules, floating in bright
yellow, so precariously, yet so strongly, while we waited breathlessly to see life emerge. And so I called

The people at NASA, Cape Canaveral and the Johnson Space Center in Houston could not have been more
helpful. Engineers long retired from “Landings and Recovery” sent data and drawings. It was a most
worthwhile excavation into significant generative thought from such a pivotal moment, and I would rather
speak to Rip or Bernardo than most anyone else in my day. They were greatly concerned about how it
should look – I was entirely concerned about how it should work.

They put me in touch with a company in Cape Canaveral that constructs for NASA – and would now build
an Apollo-like flotation collar for me, ultimately stamping on it, “Round Float Thing – This Side Up, Susan.”

In my research, I had begun to focus on the major ceremony of the Venetian Republic, the “Sposalizio del
Mar,” begun in 1,000 A.D. It was the symbolic mystic marriage of the Doge (King) of Venice to the sea,
continued to this day by the Mayor of Venice, a Communist. In its day, it was a lavish procession at dawn
to toss a bejeweled ring into the sea, sanctified by the highest priests and witnessed by most of the
populace in their slender gilt boats.

This symbolic interdependence of civilization and Nature seemed apt in 1995. My ring from Cape Canaveral
would imply a movement through time and space and a continuation of this immutable pact. In its center
would be Venetian references and objects of all of our histories to the present: Columns, manhole covers,
a sea dragon, gothic windows, Byzantine capitals, a mask of the four winds, plates from Harry’s Bar,
angels’ wings, books, ionic pediments, tritons, an inflatable swan, a Crusader’s axe … all golden, rising up
out of the sea, emerging and submerging with the waves.

It was deep shopping – 100 pounds of false pearls can be purchased in New Jersey – major detective
tracking, divine intervention.

I spent two months at the American Academy in Rome, preparing, researching, thinking, testing ideas
and materials. I felt fairly well-versed in the Venetian Republic – its secrets, its codes – how St. Mark’s
body was smuggled out of Egypt to Venice wrapped in bacon so the Muslim authorities would keep a
distance, this type of relevant information.

In the following months I constructed it, and now here I was, checking in.

So ten Italian men in gray suits screaming that my 20 ft. long proposition, with its Cape Canaveral insignia,
and nine other pieces of “luggage” at their check-in counter was “impossible”, was not such a worry. It was
not wrapped in bacon and the telex from their main office said the “impossible” was in fact expected. And
so it left with blessings and tags.

Some many hours later, as we slipped through mist-shrouded canals on three transport barges, the miracle
of a civilization functioning on no known rationale made perfect sense. It was a sonata and this piece of
mine, which would float in the water in front of San Marco, a wonder and privilege.

We passed my favorite sites, the Gothic Pecheria on the Grand Canal, where fish have been sold each
morning for generations, yet it speaks of cloaks and velvet and elegant glances – no small feat for a fish
market; past the Campanile from which Galileo demonstrated his telescope to the Doge in 1609, to the
open Lagoon.

The Biennale authorities had arranged that I would be assembling my piece on San Servolo, the next
island in beyond San Giorgio, kind of to the left of the Hotel Cipriani. San Servolo was the former
hospital for “maniacs of good family.”

And was a place of dreams. My beautiful decaying ballroom opened to a terrace of gnarled perfume –
roses primarily. The sea glimmered flat and unpredictably at every time of the day, and the custodians
tended to be a bit “particular,” becoming interested in whichever minute aspect of construction appealed
to their inclinations. The dog’s name was “Roma.” Napoleon’s contribution to mental health in Italy was
to add a wing for the populace at the far end of this small island, which now houses an exceptional
center for classical restoration.

It has been my most unusual studio thus far. Ultimately, escorted by a fairly regal flotilla – from the
Guardia de Finanza to a squid fisherman and an algae harvester – we dropped the Sposalizio del Mar
into the sea – and it worked.

I became known in Venice by each school girl who caused her ferry boat driver to swing by the piece,
as “the artist of the duck,” no matter how many times I would protest, “It’s a swan – Leda and the Swan,
et al, not the duck.” In classic Venetian tradition, I ultimately resigned to fate.

It continues to be a pleasure each day to think of this living archeology bobbing about through the
hours, witnessing and witnessed.

From the acquisition of scuba divers to bureaucrats guarding the keys to kingdoms – or in my case,
“permisos” – I recommend to anyone embarking on this type of adventure a great deal of time,
maintaining an attitude that it is all anthropology and an embrace of the true Venetian spirit that
nothing of value was ever seen on a direct route.

    “Fear Not” touches similar themes.