A number of things have struck me since we arrived in Europe to attend a number of conferences, travelling from Ghent in Belgium through Munich in Germany to beautiful Venice in the Veneto of Italy, and they do not augur well for the future of human society or the planet. These range from observations in the course of discussions with conference delegates, through perceptions of changing climate conditions in the countries we have visited to harrowing images in some of the art exhibitions comprising this year’s Biennale in Venice.
Almost without exception, evidence of our troubled era starts emerging when conversations or discussions with some of the delegates from other countries (and from South Africa, for that matter) reach a certain point – usually where one has managed to satisfy one’s intellectual curiosity about the topic of a paper – where the conversation takes a different turn, towards questions pertaining to one’s country of origin and the journey that has brought us together here.
No matter what country one comes from, there is some indication that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark”, as the Shakespearian saying from Hamlet goes. In the case of Americans it is not difficult to guess what they perceive as the root of the trouble. Academics usually being thinking people, it is predictable that they would single out Donald Trump as the biggest catastrophe to hit the US since the Great Depression, pegging him as an unadulterated buffoon, who spells disaster for the fight to slow down (or halt) climate change, as well as, potentially, for world peace.
In one such conversation two Canadians not only agreed with their American counterparts, but drew attention to the fact that the gradual heating up (‘warming’ seems too tepid) of the planet has been acutely noticeable in Canada, particularly in the course of the last two years, when summer temperatures have soared. One day when we travelled to nearby Verona with other conference delegates to visit the famous ‘balcony’ site where Shakespeare’s Juliet, of the Capulet family, reputedly lived, temperatures reached 34 degrees centigrade, which was far in excess of average temperatures this time of the year, according to a Veronese woman we chatted to. Not only that; the water levels in the fast-flowing Adige river were noticeably lower than usual, she pointed out, probably because of the fact that the glaciers in the Alps of the southern Tyrol, where the river originates, have been melting more rapidly than before. Not a pretty state of affairs; and then there are still, incomprehensibly, climate change deniers around.
As far as world peace goes, a Belgian woman recounted her anxiety – previously unknown to her – whenever she arrives at work in Brussels in the morning, near the Zaventem international airport, ever since the ‘terrorist’ attack there some time ago. In the same conversation a number of people expressed their worry about travelling back to their own countries without problems via Doha on Qatar Airlines, given the diplomatic row that erupted between Qatar and its Arab neighbours recently, with the latter accusing Qatar of harbouring ‘terrorist sympathies’. And let us not forget that Trump was a factor in the Qatar diplomatic crisis, too.
There were a number of South Africans at the multi-disciplinary Venice conference, and predictably the topic that dominated conversations among South Africans of all races was the unpalatable situation in our home country – politically, economically and as far as security is concerned. The most immediate concern was economic, of course, which manifested itself tangibly whenever other conference delegates suggested that we go for a beer somewhere. While for people from European and most Asian countries, as well as from Australia, New Zealand, the US and the UK, Euro-cost was no problem, us poor South Africans had to think twice every time.
To give you an idea of what I mean, consider this; for one pizza shared between myself and my partner, and two beers (which would cost about R100 to R120 in South Africa), we paid 25 Euro – the equivalent of about R375. Ordinary South Africans (without government expense accounts) are therefore finding it increasingly difficult to visit these countries. And while we’re on the subject, Venice is certainly one of the most stunningly beautiful cities we have ever visited, but we are not likely to do so again, because the Venetians exploit visitors to the city blatantly. In addition to the cost of the food you order in a restaurant, service and cover charges are added to the bill, adding at least another 5 Euro to it (which is not much for anyone earning Euros, but with our pathetic little SA Rand that means another R75 extra. Fortunately we like walking everywhere; for people less accustomed to walking, and therefore less fit than we are, every vaporetto (water bus) ride is another 7 Euro per person (more than R100), and water taxis are much more expensive.
And then we haven’t even started talking about politics and crime in South Africa. Most of the South Africans we talked to confessed that it was a relief to be out of the country for a while – a terrible thing to have to say about your own country, but a realistic assessment of the situation back home, where the ANC government has failed dismally to provide protection for its citizens. During our stay here we read with shock and sadness about the death-by-shooting (murder, that is) of Johann Botha, one of South Africa’s foremost radio and television authorities on music – all genres of music, from hard rock to serious (so-called classical and opera) music – at a roadhouse. Together with his friend, the owner, he was gunned down in cold blood by three people who came into the building. And this kind of thing happens on a daily basis in our country, with no end in sight.
The Venice Biennale 2017 is on at the moment, and any art lover is tempted to visit at least some of the exhibitions scattered all over the city. What has struck me about the visual art on display is that the majority is characterised by dark, disturbing themes. A case in point is the Bosnian pavilion’s theme, namely “University of Disaster”, which teems with images ranging from the ominous and portentous to those of outright destruction, for instance a black and white photograph of the physicist who built the first atom bomb, Robert Oppenheimer, juxtaposed with apocalyptic black and white images of tiny human figures in desolate land- and seascapes, sometimes reminiscent of Gericault’s famous “Raft of the Medusa”. The message is clear: a university is where one goes to learn something; at this university you learn that humanity has not learnt much in its chequered history. What one learns of here mostly concerns disaster, and by implication what humans have ‘learnt’ has mostly brought disaster.
Damien Hirst’s exhibition, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, at the Palazzo Grassi, was just too expensive for us to visit (most of the exhibitions are free, fortunately, but where famous people like Hirst are involved there’s no such luck). From what one could see from the lobby – a gigantic sculpture of “Demon with Bowl” – its iconography did not seem to suggest anything upbeat either, though. Nor did the Diaspora Pavilion, with its sometimes horrific images of the terrors and oppressions of colonial history.
But the exhibition that has stuck with me as far as its perspicacious visual anatomy of the horrors shaping the present world goes, is Estonian artist Katja Novitskova’s “If Only You Could See What I’ve Seen with Your Eyes” (a line from Ridley Scott’s futuristic film noir, Blade Runner). It exposes the links between seeing, ‘big data’ industries, ecological transformation and ‘biotic crisis’ with a series of disturbing images which leaves one in no doubt that the scientific mapping and processing of data pertaining to all living beings today comprises an extractive event of planetary proportions and effects. And it seems to be unstoppable.