Death and Venice, for Dennis

Dennis Oppenheim, 2007

Death and Venice,   for Dennis

Read at the National Arts Club, February 11, 2011 on the occasion of Anthony Haden-Guest's book signing.

Elegies surface like boils and volcanoes. They happen by chance or circumstance if you find yourself on the Lido one chilly afternoon in January 2011.

I am writing this email from Venice though I know you may not receive it. Venice is unusually quiet at the moment, no Biennale. It happened so quickly. You were very much alive the last time I saw you. Are you staying in the Hotel De Bains?

In Venice tourists wander about the narrow streets looking for calamari, chachkas, carnival masks, and Louis Vutton. I am looking for a hotel.

There aren't many tourists in January. It is winter and the streets are empty. When the water rises the locals adjust. They put on thigh-high fishing boots. Venice transcends chachas and desert, or at least most. I did have a terrific tiramisu. Over the lagoon, the fog is coming in. It blankets the lagoon and drifts through the canals and onto streets.

There are pretty girls here in Venice, but I am warning you, in the winter not as many as in New York. Stick around Manhattan for a while.

We miss you.

I have found that it is not really a bad thing to look at pretty girls. God doesn't strike you dead on the spot. I am living proof of that. Perhaps you are not. Gustav Aschenbach liked to look too, but he was fictional, and he looked at fictional boys, one in particular, from his table in the restaurant of the Hotel des Bains, and from his white chair in front of his cabana on the beach.

It was 1911. The hotel was fully booked with people dining, laughing, and gay-they call it the Belle Epoque.

I take the boat to the lido, and ask a local "Where is the Hotel de Bains?" I am traveling with my sixteen-year-old son Tristan. Before I left New York, I googled the Hotel Des Bains. I wanted my son to have the experience of staying at the famous hotel, the setting of the novella.

I found the hotel on line, along with photos of the balconies, the stripped cabanas, a few rooms, and a restaurant. Everything looked just like I remembered from the movie. But when I try to reserve a room, all were booked for three years in advance. The booking possibilities ended in 2013 meaning, I supposed, rooms are never available.

I think, "How grand! How exclusive!" The Hotel des Bains must be as fabulous today as it was in 1911. I mean, even the Cap de Antibes isn't booked for three years in advance- nor is the Chelsea, nor the Carlyle, the St. Regis, the Pierre or the Boca Resort for that matter. I imagine parties and ladies in gowns, gentlemen in tuxedos, because they still dress formally in Venice, especially on Saturday nights.

So I assume, if we can't get a room, at least we can have a drink. We will make a pilgrimage to the Hotel des Bains and celebrate whatever. (This was before your died.)

On the Lido: We disembark from the ferry. The locals direct us--straight on, then a right along the seaside. As we approach the water I don't hear the laughter I imagined, the songs or the violins. Not even a cab. It's quiet except for the waves.

We find skeletons of cabanas. On the other side of the street is the shell of the Hotel des Bains. Perhaps they are renovating and maintain the deceptive site in hopes of a future. For now the hotel is empty-- of furniture, of flowers, of food, of laughter. It is empty except for reflections that inhabit the hotel, alive like you were, or alive like the Hotel des Bains on a summer evening in 1911.

Now I know it's weird to compare a conceptualist to a summer evening in Venice circa 1911. Look what Victorian morals got us, The Great War. The cubists, the fauvists, the supremacists, the surrealists, the expressionists and the minimalists took their respective swings at Victorian aesthetics and morals. The conceptualists took swings at the cubists, the fauvists, the supremacists, the surrealists, the expressionists and the minimalists. Look what that got us-Postmodernism!

So maybe it's OK to compare the Hotel des Bains and you. You always exuded a louche glamour one could only wish for. You are the Keith Richards of the art world or maybe the other way around. Maybe Keith is the Dennis Oppenheim of rock.

You lay on the beach in the strange seventies with a book of tactics on your chest, and ironically no suntan lotion. What were you trying to figure?

You ran barefoot in mud with a smile that said, Wow! This is art? You made a sculpture with your fingernails like this, pressing your forefinger and thumb together. It's on the cover of that book Gloria Moure did for the Miro Foundation called "Behind the Facts." You shoveled circles of snow on a half frozen river on the border between Canada and the United States, putting Duchamp's tool to good use. What good was it anyway hanging on a wall? But wasn't that a little dangerous?

You personify an era.

You changed the way we look at art, and you are innovative for this time. There was often something of terror in your work, a present danger. Remember when you blew out Bonlow Gallery with your rocket machine? I was scared even before you lit the fuse. One critic wrote, "The artist made a mistake." A mistake? Or another word for "sublime?"

In recent years your work was larger than the idea that made it possible, expansive as if, like Aschenbach near the end of his life, you found the freedom we had only an inkling of in the seventies. Now that inkling has become a grand hotel, a hotel of laughter, of young girls and boys, of beautiful women and men, where every room is booked forever.

I don't mean this as an evocation of heaven, simply as a metaphor for your panache.

Late afternoon: An old view camera stands abandoned on its tripod, no photographer.

Tadzio walks into the shallow water, silhouetted by the setting sun. He turns and looks back onto the beach where Aschenback is slumped, dying in his chair.

He gives him a sign.

This is how you do it:

Take your thumb and your forefinger and press the tips together to make a circle. Point your pinky to the sky. Tadzio was Polish and the story is written in German.

Translated from the iconic and meant for you, this sign means roughly,

"Hey man, Far out.
Far fucking out!"