Salty City

This summer, I visited Venice. As we rode the boat from the station around to the Lido, I passed the Magazzini del Sale, now an exhibition venue, currently showing ‘Salt of the Earth’ by Anselm Keifer. The economy of Venice was built on the salt trade, and as the historian S. A. Adshead has written, “for the Venetians, salt was not a commodity among commodities… it greased the wheels of all the working parts and fuelled its motor”. Salt was “il vero fondamento del nostro stato.”

As early as the year 528 A.D. the secretary to the Ostrogothic king of Italy wrote of Venice, “There lie your houses like seabirds’ nests, half on sea and half on land…Your inhabitants have fish in abundance: the same food for all, the houses alike; and so envy, that vice which rules the world, is absent there. All your activity is devoted to the salt works, whence comes your wealth. Upon your industry all other productions depends; for there maybe those who seek not gold, yet there never lived a man who desires not salt. For your gains you repair your boats, which like horses you keep tied at your doors. Fishing is the means of livelihood, salt the industry, democratic equality the social note.”

Today the dominant industry is of course tourism, and during the summer months, Biennale-goers compete with the souvenir shoppers and snap-happy tourists thronging to St Marks Square. However, visiting the Giardini, I found traces of the old salt trade in artworks in several pavilions. In the Israeli pavilion, artist Sigalit Landau’s installation One Man’s Floor Is Another Man’s Feelings includes a proposal for a ‘salt bridge’ connecting the Israeli and Jordanian side of the Dead Sea, and an installation of a empty boardroom, the scene of an apparent debate on the proposal. Landau is fascinated by the Dead Sea and “on what it represents for humanity…what it suggests about human life and the perils facing it on both the personal and communal levels.”

In another work, a pair of boots covered in salt crystals from the Dead Sea are placed on a frozen lake in Gdansk. The boots slowly melt the ice, sinking down as the sun sets. I am reminded of the corrosive power of salt, of its ability to make things vanish uncontrollably. The lake becomes quicksand, unstable ground, like our attempts to remember.


In the Brazilian pavilion, Artur Barrio’s installation Registros + (Ex) Tensões y Pontos includes crates of salt with fishes heads poking out, images of the sea and scribbles on the wall and floor, an umbrella standing at a jaunty angle and an abandoned bed surrounded by rubbish and empty bottles.

This is a constructed situation, but it accidentally replicates a real place out on Venice Lido, at Malamocco, where we swam and walked. In this strange edgeland, far from the masses, constructions have appeared at the waters edge. Perhaps Barrio has captured and preserved this lost spirit of Venice – the simple use of the natural environment and materials at hand to construct a heterotopia, a space of difference, where another world might be possible.



Building a Different World: An Aesthetics of Fluidity” by Chantal Pontbriand; in

Foucault – Of Other Spaces (downloaded from

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