28 Feb “When Beauty Visits” at the Venice Biennale
A slender man dressed in a white cotton shirt and a long black skirt with his hair tied back was walking very slowly beside a long exhibition table, deep in meditation. His quiet demeanour set him apart from the bustling crowd pressing through the International Pavilion. People turned their heads away as he passed, avoiding being called upon to be part of the performance. I was intrigued by the depth of his focus. He inspired me to pause amidst our haste to take in all the Biennale art exhibits on a two-day ticket. He came to the end of the table and then I lost him.
All of a sudden he appeared before me and asked me graciously if I would like to come with him and sit in the garden. He lead me to a large courtyard with high walls covered in ivy and a water feature that occupied a third of the courtyard floor. I looked back at my friend as I followed him and mouthed, “I knew he was going to choose me.” He lifted a stone from a chair set apart from the audience. I sat down underneath a curved concrete pagoda that softened the rectangular space and opened the garden to the sky above.”Please enjoy the garden. I will be back,” he said gently.
I listened to the sound of the water and took deap breaths to calm my nerves as the onlookers chattered and recorded the performance on their cellphones. He came back, still moving slowly, carrying a roughly hewn wooden board bearing a white envelope. The thick paper was embossed with Taiwanese lettering and the words “When Beauty Visits, Lee Mingwei, Venezia, 2017”. He asked if I would accept this gift. I looked directly into his eyes and struggled to contain the emotion welling up within me. This refined and graceful man presenting me with a gift at the Venice Biennale opened and humbled me. I wished I didn’t feel so self-conscious in front of the crowds as I wanted to weep. I fought back my tears as he explained that when I see something beautiful I should open the envelope. He invited me to enjoy the garden for as long as I liked and floated away through the crowds.
From Venice I went to visit a friend in Padua. She suggested I spend a day in Verona. I had cleared out my daypack in anticipation of a day of walking and decided to leave my precious envelope in my room. Verona, the setting for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, was one moment of beauty after the next – masterpieces by Bellini, Tiepolo and Veronese at the Museo di Castelvecchio, Pisanello’s fresco of St. George and the Princess in the Basilica di Sant’Anastasia and the Renaissance Giusti gardens where lovers who find their way to each other in the labyrinth are promised eternal love. During my tour I came across the Accademia Filarmonica. There was a performance that night. We hadn’t been able to get tickets to the famous opera house in Venice as the opera season hadn’t started. Not knowing much about the pianist, I decided to go to the concert if I could get a ticket and find a room for the night.
Feeling rather travel weary and not well dressed for the theatre, I made my way to the opera house. I was surrounded by very chic Italians in fur coats and diamonds and was quickly ushered into another queue for the upper balconies. I had a bird’s eye view of the magnificent horse-shoe shaped theatre decorated in gold leaf and relief. An enormous chandelier hung high above the main hall. The grand piano stood alone and expectant on the bare stage. Sokolov, a Russian child prodigy who gave his first performance at the age of 12 in Leningrad, appeared to great applause. I had no idea that Sokolov is considered to be one of today’s greatest pianists. I did know that this was my moment of beauty. I was transported by the notes ushering from a master’s hands beyond the theatre, the furs, the diamonds, the woman texting on her phone below me into a realm where I felt the deep spirituality of Haydn and Beethoven’s music. Again, I was opened and humbled and deeply grateful.
Back in South Africa, I opened my envelope and read about a moment of beauty written by a friend of the artist. She watched an old man and a young boy laughing joyfully whilst they played a game in a small piazza in Castello. I bought a few Sokolov CDs and am carried by the piano music to my moment of beauty in Verona. I marvel at my luck in being chosen out of the thousands of visitors at the Biennale for a deeply moving moment of connection in the Scarpa garden. I give thanks to Lee Mingwei and to his assistant for seeing me. Opening to fleeting and sometimes sonorous moments of beauty and sharing them has been and always will be a fundamental part of me.
(Photo by Jeremy Anderson)