The last time Leonard Cohen appeared on her radio show in 2006, Fresh Air host Terry Gross told him she wanted to play “one of your very cynical songs.” She meant Everybody Knows, from 1988. Cohen told her he’d started writing the song in a café in the Paris neighborhood of Montparnasse. “I don’t know who I thought I was at the time,” he said. “But as I was sitting there, I was the guy that you couldn’t put anything over on.” After he died, on the day of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, journalist Cory Doctorow called Everybody Knows exactly the song for our Trump-in-White-House, gentrification-riddled, resurgent rightwing times because, in it “inequality perpetuates itself, meritocracy is a delusion.”
On the first floor of The Boat is Leaking. The Captain Lied. at the Prada Foundation’s centuries-old exhibition space in Venice, Leonard Cohen’s voice resounds, a cappella, from a small side room:
Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died
Playing here, as part of an exhibition that has occupied all four floors of this regal space since the Venice Biennale opened in May, the song feels less jadedly self-righteous than it might coming from, say, a car radio (I can’t recall hearing those famous scorned-lover lines, “Everybody knows you’ve been discreet / But there were so many people you just had to meet”). Instead it feels like rebellious, frustrated global commentary, as does the exhibition title it inspired: what’s there to do now that we see the cards are politically and economically stacked?
This show’s title was part of its appeal for visitors planning their Venice itineraries (according to an artnet News “must-see” list, it would “aim to offer a critical awareness of the present-day state of our world”), especially in contrast to the main Biennale exhibition, Arte Viva Arte, on view 35 minutes away by canal. While politically vague statements accompanied Arte Viva Arte (it “is dedicated to celebrating, and almost giving thanks for, the very existence of art and artists,” said Biennale director, Paolo Baratta), the Prada Foundation promised a slightly sharper edge.
The meandering press release for The Boat is Leaking… described it as bestowing “expression and meaning” on, among other things, “normality and catastrophe, in a society divided between lust for life and loss of trust […].” A collaboration between four art workers of German origin – set designer Anna Viebrock, photographer Thomas Demand, filmmaker/theorist Alexander Kluge, and curator Udo Kittelmann, director of the Nationalgalerie in Berlin – the show plays out like a seemingly endless series of tableaux. You wander through corridors, across stages, into movie theaters and laboratories. It’s an impressively tasteful and ambitious undertaking, and mysterious in understated ways – though in practice it mimics and illustrates the delusion of equity more than it subverts it.
Cool subtlety characterizes the first floor, where Cohen’s song plays out. A film by Kluge fills a screen that extends from checkered marble floor to exposed wooden rafters, and in it German actor Peter Berling (a bearded 83-year-old who’s worked with Werner Herzog) blows out tall, white candles one by one. A glowing blue-and-white neon sign that reads “Hotel” hangs above a gold-framed doorway into a lobby you can’t enter. Across the room, there’s a similarly un-enterable door into a bar with the word “Safari” above it, lit up in pink neon. These sealed chambers are deceptive teasers; throughout the rest of the show, nearly all doors, even those padded or camouflaged by Viebrock, open to you. Go through one on the second floor, and you’ll find a stage with a small TV monitor on it, facing away, so you have to venture onstage to watch. Continue through the back curtains, then down three steps, and you’ll be standing beside an unnervingly smooth photograph Demand made in 2015: his subject a convincing paper replica he built of the Boston Marathon bombers’ backyard. Enter another door, encounter a room full of paintings by the 19th-century Italian artist Angelo Morbelli, and perhaps wonder if you’ve ventured into an altogether different exhibition. Morbelli has his own room because his work informed the exhibition, mostly thanks to the misreading of one painting in particular.
The press releases, exhibition handouts, and catalogue all tell the story of the minor Morbelli mishap: Demand, based in Los Angeles, emailed a postcard to Kluge and Viebrock depicting Morbelli’s 1883 painting, Giorni… ultimi! (The Last Days). At first, Kluge and Viebrock both thought it depicted old-man revolutionaries studying on benches, then later they decided the painting was of a retirement home for sailors and that the benches were for praying. In fact, in this painting of countless gray-haired men in black seated at plain wooden benches, Morbelli had been depicting destitute elderly men living at a Milan hospice. The repetition of this story suggests the exhibition’s nautical theme is partly based on a misunderstanding of a dead artist’s intent, while also making clear that artists and curator devised the framework together.
Kittelmann says in his curator’s statement that it “is a particularly lucky coincidence” that the filmmaker, photographer, and stage designer came together, since, “until now their different creative fields have prevented them from engaging in this kind of symbiotic collaboration.” That this is arguably true – creative fields remain too segregated – isn’t a great credit to the international artworld. Kittelmann labels this show’s approach “transmedia,” the word recalling those academics who gingerly cross entrenched disciplinary divides: rebelling just enough to seem progressive, but not enough to jeopardize a comfortable status quo. Similarly positioned, The Boat is Leaking… traffics in tastefulness and vagueness at the same time. In a courtroom designed by Veibrock, you can sit either behind the raised, solid wood judge’s platform or on a table, posing as the defendant. Thomas Demand’s photographs hang on two walls – the larger one, Klause II (Tavern II), faces the judge’s stand and depicts vines growing lushly around two windows. The whole thing is classier and more civilized than most actual contemporary courtrooms: an open-ended fantasy made of order, formality, and matching furniture whose chicness may or may not be sinister.
Miuccia Prada began collecting contemporary art in the 1990s and opened her first foundation in Milan in 2004. Her husband and partner-in-collecting Patrizio Bertelli prefers Color Field painting and Minimalism in his offices (Rothko, Stella); Prada bought a metal Andrea Zittel contraption and hung a Carsten Holler slide in her studio. They acquired the Venice building in 2011. Previously, at the start of the 1800s, it belonged to Pope Pious VII; then it became a charity administered by the Catholic church and then the contemporary archive of the Venice Biennale until the 2010s. Having for centuries belonged to powerful organizations, it is the definition of institutional. The Boat is Leaking takes advantage of its quirks and largess to stage its range of scenarios, but also reads as extremely comfortable in its context. The show is beautiful there.
In an elegant essay for the catalogue, novelist Rachel Kushner unpacks life under capitalism, paraphrasing Alain Badiou on “the lie” that the present is viable: “Once you see how impossible life already is, then the possibility of a real true actual emancipatory horizon comes into view,” writes Kushner. The problem is that, as a whole, The Boat is Leaking… quotes rather than destabilizes unsustainable realities. Walking from room to room – a retro computer lab with unfinished walls, a library table before a Demand photo of folders piled against the stripes of a U.S. flag – it’s too easy to get pulled into the poetics of the sets made up of Viebrock, Demand, and Kluge’s work. The aesthetic subsumes the critique, so the work doesn’t call out or push at its envelope: a building once owned by the pope and now owned by the international fashion designer. Nor does it dramatically challenge the form of a successful exhibition. Even in combining these three media, the design of The Boat is Leaking… privileges the norms of good composition over any disorder or upsets. The table still sits in the middle of the carpet. The lawn chair still faces the fabricated window. We can read all of this as part of an oppressive stasis, but what good is naming stasis while participating in it? What good is it to know the captain lied if you don’t try to jump ship?