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Architectures of Identities in Venice

8 May 2016

That’s Glynis!” – We were walking along the sunlit saffron sands of Lido di Venezia when Esther recognised a voice calling her name. Sure enough, seated nearby on the beach was our performance artist friend, Glynis Ackermann. We hastened across to exchange a whirl of hugs and kisses. Having met unexpectedly in Venice a couple of months earlier, all three of us were back in town to perform as part of ‘Contemporary Venice: Architectures of Identities‘ at Palazzo Cà Zanardi. It would be special.

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That serendipitous rendezvous with Glynis on our first trip to Venice had introduced us to the It’s Liquid group and their art events at Cà Zanardi. On returning to the UK, Esther had responded to their next call-out for artists, and been accepted. She would be performing a specially shortened version of Girl in Suitcase (with a little help from me) on the festival’s opening night. Only three days before flying out did we learn the excellent news that Glynis would be performing there too.

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Festival doors were to open at 6pm on Saturday 30 April. Esther and I disembarked from our Alilaguna water bus at the Arsenale jetty about 48 hours before. We were met by Elena, our AirBnB landlady for the next five nights, and shown to our private apartment. Once we’d moved in, we practised walking our route to Cà Zanardi, then settled down for pizzas at Bar Cupido on the waterfront by Fondamente Nove. The sun was out, the sky was clear blue; we were in a good place on many levels.

Friday 29 April

Late next morning, we boarded a vaporetto from Arsenale to Fondamente Nove with our heavy loaded suitcase for Esther’s performance. We found the Cà Zanardi team busy with their preparations for opening night, but they allowed us time and room to have a full (clothed) rehearsal. I was given an area in one corner to set up our laptop and speaker for music, whilst Esther took centre stage on the ground floor between four pillars. The space and the acoustics were good. We left in a mood for posing.

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After a late bruschetto breakfast-lunch at the nearby Tortuga pub, we headed across to the Lido for an afternoon in balmy sunshine. There Glynis spotted us and not only greeted us warmly but also invited us to participate in her own performance: Mobilé. Quickly we agreed, and were thus set to be part of two nude art pieces on Saturday. Esther celebrated in sunshine with naked handstand poses; there could hardly have been a greater contrast with the rain-swept nude poses of our last time here.

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Heading back across the narrow Lido island, we popped into the magnificent Grande Albergo Ausonia & Hungaria hotel for an impromptu clothed pose and to admire its historic décor, then bumped into Glynis again while drifting back to the vaporetto jetty. As we crossed the lagoon, the sun set beautifully behind Venice’s sea-facing façade. That evening, after a frustrating hunt for local restaurants, we relaxed over fine dishes of linguine and gnocchetti at Osteria Ale Do’ Marie. Another good day.

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Saturday 30 April

Relaxation continued into Saturday as we passed the time idling and writing near the Sant’Elena end of the island. By evening, however, as we arrived at Cà Zanardi for the performances, I was starting to feel a little tension. Not nerves, but a strong sense of responsibility and a desire to make the best impression. Glynis found us before 6pm and gave us a very short run through the moves for Mobilé. In no time at all, we were undressing beneath the blue and white paper art of Veronica Hodges.

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When the gathered mass of art lovers had hushed, the three of us stepped forth, each holding an empty white picture frame. I stood centrally with my back to our audience; Glynis and Esther faced outwards, such that we were aligned at 120° angles. As the video and music of a previous Mobilé performance projected onto our naked skin, we lifted the frames and plied them in gentle motion. The piece lasted 10 to 15-minutes and felt wonderfully serene. I had a superb view of shadowplay on the wall behind us.

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We were greatly appreciated, to the extent that Glynis led us out afterwards to take a second bow. One chap offered his congratulations and asked Esther and I to sum up in three words what it represented. I said: ‘beauty, movement, feeling‘. Still he wanted the core concept, so I referred him to Glynis. The next scheduled performance artist had not arrived, so Girl in Suitcase was to follow in 15 minutes; there was no time to lose. Esther went upstairs to undress while I positioned our suitcase and props.

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The performance was refashioned from Girl in Suitcase at the 2016 Telegraph Hill Festival with two main differences: first, it had been cut down to 20-minutes from the original hour; second, Esther had learned all its lines in Italian. This incredible woman never ceases to astonish me. We had assistance in the form of Veronica, who would hand out life drawing materials to the audience, but otherwise we were self-contained. As the crowd bustled below, I joined Esther to wrap her in bandages.

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When she was suitably swathed I led her slowly downstairs and, concealed beneath my gown, she descended into the suitcase. I withdrew to my sound desk and, when those present had quietened, I began playing ‘Sanvean’ by Lisa Gerrard. This was Esther’s cue to emerge, graceful and slender, removing the bandages to stand nude and reborn before those watching. As I lowered the sound levels, she addressed the audience in their native tongue: confident, strong, with great presence.

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She finished on cue at the end of Sanvean, and immediately I changed the mood by kicking into ‘Smoke in the Shadow’ by Lydia Lunch. Esther put on her red fetish stilettos, g-string and lipstick to pose with her tickling feather. She was portraying a journey of self-discovery, and the audience got into the drama of her performance by capturing these elements in their drawings. Only for 1-minute, however, as I lowered the volume once more, and Esther announced: “Here is the news.

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As at Telegraph Hill, Esther began reading a shameful list of global violence against women – only now translated into Italian. This was the cue for my first appearance. Dressed all in black, I knelt by the standing figure of Esther; I removed her stilettos, removed her g-string, slapped a rope down on the floor, put a bridal veil on her head, and held a large knife against her thigh, pointed at her vagina. I was the villain, but almost as quickly as I’d arrived I was dismissed with a sharp feminist broadside.

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Esther tore off the veil, held up the knife, and delivered a last impassioned monologue in Italian while the audience captured her form on paper. She then explained that their next life drawing opportunity would be a movement pose – very slow at the outset, but speeding up considerably. I started playing ‘Free Money’ by Patti Smith and Esther started moving. I had about two minutes till my next transition, so I took the chance to do a little filming.

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By the time Esther’s dance came to its frenetic conclusion, I was standing naked at the laptop. After taking a few seconds to control her breath, Esther reached carefully with her fingertips to remove her Mooncup. She inverted it, shrugging to show it was empty. I started ‘You are the blood’ by Sufjan Stevens, then walked to the centre of the room and folded onto my elbows and knees. Meanwhile, Esther took from the suitcase a small pot of recent menstrual blood and created art with it upon her legs…

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I still regard this as the most raw and powerful part of the performance, representing a total reclamation of the feminine. Esther posed with one foot upon my back while the audience drew this extraordinary tableau. About 4-minutes in, the music segued to a section of ‘The Song of the Butterfly’ by Estas Tonne. We both stood and I picked up a tray of paints, which I would offer around so the audience might create their own art on Esther’s body.

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Purely by chance, the first person I walked towards was Glynis. She understood what was required and boldly made the first marks – a perfect ice-breaker. Other audience members were a little more restrained but several stepped forward, took a brush, and applied their chosen colour. I contributed a few swirls myself, while Glynis returned to try finger painting. As Estas Tonne faded out, Esther paused a moment, then quietly said ‘Thank you’… and took her richly deserved applause.

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Our audience placed their drawings on the floor. Poses had been quite short so there was little time for the creation of figurative masterpieces, but some of the more loose abstract work was fascinating. We could see the audience had clearly been engaged with ideas and challenges presented by the performance, and I felt their work was the strongest vindication of its validity. It took us a long time to clean up and pack away, which meant when the time came, we were last to leave Cà Zanardi that evening.

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Glynis had waited for us, and together we went to a restaurant at Fondamente Nove. We sat outside and talked the night away over a meal. Esther was subdued, as she often is after giving so much to a performance and having to process the emotions it inspires, but Girl in Suitcase had been superb and our evening made more wonderful by the opportunity to support Glynis. Very generously, she paid for our meal and we hugged our goodbyes, dearly hoping to share another event some day.

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Sunday 1 May

Before leaving Cà Zanardi, we’d put all our props and equipment back in the suitcase and brought it with us. It was a literal drag, wheeling it back to our apartment through the dark Venetian alleyways, but we happened upon a magic shortcut that somehow got us home quicker than expected. This closure meant we had the whole of Sunday and Monday in which to do whatever we pleased. Sadly, after three gloriously sunny days the forecast was for rain, but it wasn’t too bad by the time we got moving.

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Originally our idea had been to escape the rain by viewing some art. We walked along the waterfront from Arsenale, passing Piazza San Marco, through alleys and across bridges to the Gallerie dell’Accademia, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, and Santa Maria della Salute. The museum queues were ridiculously long, however, so we changed plan and instead went to the sedate rustic island of Sant’Erasmo. There, on a spur of lagoon marshland, I had my own mini naked photoshoot.

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We’d seemed to be in complete isolation, yet no sooner had I returned to my clothes and pulled up my trousers than a couple of locals wandered by. What must they have thought of this scrawny naked Englishman posing at distance, being photographed by his performance artist partner? Ha. It had been nice to escape the crowds of tourists. The only disappointment had been our failure to buy veggies for a home-cooked meal that evening, so we returned to Bar Cupido for pizzas.

Monday 2 May

For our last day in Venice, we used the vaporettos to visit islands we had hitherto not explored. In the morning – after buying our veggies – we headed to Fondamente Nove, initially somehow walking in a completely circle – thereby proving that no matter how familiar we had become we this city, we could still go astray in its labyrinth of narrow paths. Once waterborne, we embarked on a mini tour of the northern islands: Burano, Torcello and Mazzorbo.

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The numbers of other visitors, coupled with a persistent light drizzle meant we weren’t moved to indulge in further spontaneous random nakedness. Instead we talked about the performance, places we could make art, blogs we would write, our futures and our pasts. That evening we dined in and drank out before falling to bed early, ahead of our 4am departure from Arsenale for the airport next morning. We had enough veggies left for a cooked breakfast – to the very last, everything worked out pretty well.

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After all

Back in the UK, we were excited to find a taster of Girl in Suitcase images published on social media – we now wait keenly to view the full set of official photographs from It’s Liquid. Having been so busy cleaning up after the performance we missed out on hearing direct feedback from the organisers and our audience, but reaction since has been favourable – Esther has been invited to return for further events. Girl in Suitcase is now an international artist: have suitcase, will travel.

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  1. Returning to a One Woman show – Girl in Suitcase

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