Whether installing enormous sculptures of flailing hands in the city’s canals or constructing a manmade beach, artists have used their platforms at the Venice Biennale to bring attention to climate change for years now. But now, the biennial’s 58th edition is raising awareness of the issue unintentional. Scheduled to run through November 24, the exhibition suddenly closed ahead of schedule on Wednesday due to severe flooding that’s led to the city’s highest water levels in half a century. By Tuesday, the seasonal tide known as the acqua alta had wreaked so much havoc—reportedly claiming two lives and causing millions of euros’ worth of damage—that the mayor of Venice, Luigi Bragnaro declared a state of emergency.
So far, there’s been no damage to the works in the biennial’s main exhibitions in Giardini and Arsenale, but the same can’t be said for art and architecture elsewhere throughout the city. Last year’s acqua alta, which caused what was then the city’s worst flooding in at least a decade, spared Saint Mark’s Basilica, but this time, the archive wasn’t so lucky: The historic cathedral has officially flooded for only the sixth time in 1,200 years, threatening features like its medieval mosaic floors. Like museums including the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, as well as the Pinault Collection’s Punta della Dogana and Palazzo Grassi, it has temporarily closed its doors.
To Venice’s mayor, there’s no doubt about what’s behind the severity of the floods: “This is the result of climate change,” he said in a video posted to Twitter on Tuesday. Regional governor Luca Zaia isn’t mincing words, either: “Venice has been tortured, but there are also other parts of the Veneto region besides Venice,” he told reporters. “It is an apocalyptic disaster.”
Still, biennale organizers remain optimistic. “We hope that all the activities will open tomorrow,” a spokesperson told artnet News on Wednesday morning. In the meantime, they’re getting an added boost of publicity: Advertisement for the biennial is now more visible than ever, thanks to a biennial-branded water taxi that’s currently stranded in the middle of the city.