Golem Italian-Style at the Venice Biennale



Gary Lucas plays his live score accompanying The Golem at the Venice Biennale in 2003. Photo: Arjen Veldt

I see that The Venice Biennale is upon us again -- the Bi-annual (nuthin' to do with sexuality…just means they hold this event every couple years you nutzie dopesies!) international art, film, music, sculpture and whatever else they feel like displayin' Art-wise (3D bondage holograms anybody?) exhibition -- the ne plus ultra / Crème de la crème / topper-most of the popper-most of contemporary ARTificats from around the globe.

We are but a mere week away from this year's official opening on April 23rd. The exhibition will run until Nov. 27th, with crowds estimated at about half a million rubberneckers give or take a few, wandering hither and yon and crowding the view in various national pavilions pitched in the Giardini section of Venezia, as well as down the Lagoon apiece in the Corderie dell'Arsenale. The theme this year is extremely timely, as curator Cecilia Alemani focuses this long-awaited 59th edition of the Biennale on Contemporary Women Artists, embracing "symbiosis, solidarity, and sisterhood." Gotta see this!! Here's an up to date list: https://news.artnet.com/art-world/venice-biennale-2022-artist-list-1796493

Mention of the Venice Biennale stirs up all sorts of pleasant memories. I gave a concert there as part of the 2003 Venice Biennale, performing my live solo guitar score (co-written with childhood friend Walter Horn) accompanying a screening of the German expressionist silent horror classic The Golem (1920, d. Paul Wegener and Carl Boese).

The Golem is a famous myth from Jewish folklore, a kind of a Jewish Frankenstein monster without a soul, a giant clay man brought to life most famously in 16th century Prague through the cabalistic magic of the actual historical Rabbi Jehudah Loew to become a servant of the Prague Jewish community and to protect them from annihilation. Since 1989 I've worked with this film hundreds of times performing my original solo guitar score accompanying screenings of the film at film festivals and venues around the world in over 20 countries. Some of my favorite performances include sold-out shows at Cineteca Nacional in Mexico City, at the New York Jewish Film Festival at Lincoln Center, at the Tel Aviv Next Festival, at Sao Paulo's SP Terror Festival -- and in Prague, home of the Golem. More info about my project here: http://garylucas.com/www/golem/golem.shtml

It was my first time setting foot actually in this loveliest of Italian cities in fact, which rapidly became my favorite city in Italia -- a land I've loved to perform in for many a year. Avant-classical-jazz piano pounder par excellence Uri Caine, a real prodigy and a very nice guy, and a staple on the NYC Downtown Music scene at that time, got tapped to put together a two-day program under the rubric of "Jewish Avant-Garde Music" -- a slippery whatsis if ever there was one -- I've been known to argue the toss both for and against the very existence of such a musical genre depending. But anyway I was happy to get the gig, it was the Venice Biennale after all, and so…

Venice was incredible. I was there for about a week and got to explore its many-splendoured charms in depth. The Festival put me up in the faded grandeur of the Grand Hotel des Bains on the lovely isle known as the Lido -- a mere vaporetto ride away from the festival grounds -- so it was no biggie to get to and fro the events every day. I spent the first day or so exploring the national art exhibitions at the Biennale, and I was blown away by the loving care the curators had put into a comprehensive and awe-inducing showcase of the world's finest contemporary art. I also trucked myself around Venezia and environs to visit the Peggy Guggenheim Collection and its jaw-dropping display of 20th century surrealist art, Murano's famous glassworks, the old Jewish Ghetto -- only some of the many highpoints of this beautiful city. I just adored Venice, and to this day revisit it any chance I get, either playing there or visiting there in the corporeal flesh, or in re-screenings of Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now and Fellini's Casanova.


Then came the day of the big Press Conference, whereby Uri was introduced to Italian journalists with his Commedia dell'arte troupe of avant-Jews from the Apple -- the Q & A of which was a hoot!

Simultaneous translations abounded -- my Italian isn't great, and no one in the large press corps covering the event seemingly spoke any English.

"Mr. Lucas," one of my press interlocutors began. "Of course, THE GOLEM stands in for the state of Israel in your mind."

"Absolutely not!" I fired back. "That was the furthest thing from my thoughts when I decided to work with this film. People read what they want to read into it. I don't see that myself, at all. I think the best art mystifies, amazes, and raises questions -- it doesn't supply explication or pat answers so simplistically and didactically."

And here's another one, 'nother one...

"Tell us, Gary Lucas. Why should we listen to your, quote, 'avant-garde Jewish music from New York’, unquote -- when we can sit back and listen to and enjoy good old-fashioned KLEZMER!"

"Well, sir," I replied. "I didn't realize I was part of some cabal of avant-garde New York Jews…but if I am--

then why aren't I working more??"

Big laughter all around. :-)

My concert with the film the next day went just fine.

I broke my high E-string in the first 10 seconds of the film, and NOBODY NOTICED THE DIFFERENCE!

I figured out a long time ago how to keep the show going when various components might randomly break down on me.

(to do this, you got to know how…).

In fact a Chinese female musician named Rachel Fu who'd been in attendance that very evening (a full house and a very appreciative audience) looked me up in NYC a couple months later, eager to collaborate -- and she was floored when I told her about the string breaking.

Now I don't know if I was the first artist ever to perform at the Venice Biennale with a silent film score, and I surely was not the last.

But I have to be the only 5-string guitarist who ever performed there without a safety net!

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