A Review of Silentio Pathologia By Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva
What hits you first as you enter the room is the smell of the dusty cocoons and the preserved animal hide. Unfamiliar, fetid and alchemic the aroma sets the tone for a work that is based on the history of disease and its relationship to Venice.
The installation is encircled by a wall of metal sheets, stapled together at intervals, and supported by a small bend at the floor. These panels remind me of the Gagosian exhibition in 2009 by Richard Serra ‘Blind Spot/Open Ended’, channeling the viewer but without the sheer brutality and weight of the Serra works.
The structure of the work is based on a labyrinth, with multiple layers, each made of a different material, which leads the viewer to a central point. The first layer is a hanging lattice of silk cocoon which have been carefully stitched together to make a hexagonal pattern which remind me of scientific diagrams of atoms. The lower edge of this odd curtain curves in a seemingly irregular way, never touching the floor.
The second layer is that of black lace thread, stitched together in an irregular web, a bit like a Goth’s jumper. The third layer is that of albino rat skins, flatten and sown together to form a continuous blanket of grotesque luxury. I notice their little faces frozen in a toothy grimace, the missing eyes add to this nightmarish feeling. If this is the dramatic climax of this maze; what decomposing delight might the middle hold?
To my surprise the rat curtain ends to reveal a couple of innocent looking domestic pet cages, complete with water dispenser, and feeding toys. Inside each cage hang two black handbag-pouches, which contain live rats. It is just possible to see the reflection of light on the beady eyes of those creatures; they are clearly very nervous, one can hardly blame them, being surrounded by a somewhat sinister drapery.
The work is fascinating and well worth getting lost in the back streets of Venice to find. But it leaves me a little confused. Perhaps this feeling of disorientation is intentional. I go to the catalogue to seek answers. There is a lot of writing about the Black Death, and theories of how the Silk Road assisted the spread of the virus. The importance of these events in shaping the history of Europe cannot be under estimated, the myth and imagery surrounding this disease is still very much alive in modern Venetian cultural and storytelling. These historical events relates to the current debate around the threat of influenza epidemics, and the potential impact they might have.
All this serious subject matter leaves little room for simple playfulness. Is the artwork a prophetic omen? Or is it weaving a series of symbols and metaphors into a structure in order to generate some other kind of meaning?
I feel the work is a little unresolved, or perhaps too resolved. Ironically, the simple rawness of the artist’s previous body of work has been lost in the complexity of this piece – it’s mix of materials and their dense proximity. All the hours of intensive hard labour that went into making the work are evident and impressive. Yet I wish it was a little messier or more menacing and the constructed-ness of its composition less dominant. Being reprimanded by a gallery assistant for taking a stroll around one of the metal walls did not help. If you were going to experience the art installation version of a pandemic, surely you should come out covered in a thin film of feverish sweat, or at the very least less mindful of health and safety requirements?
I go to the artist’s talk at the ArtQuest Artist’s Pavilion on Garibaldi. Listening to the story of the struggle to make the work, gives me great respect for the determination and research it took. There is talk of the play between revulsion and beauty, and the idea of viruses as being something beautiful. She talks about seeing how far you can push the materials and then letting fate or decay take-over.
It occurs to me that possibly some of the most interesting work by this and other artists happen when they let go of controlling the process, allowing things to evolve or degenerate naturally. Some of the most successful artworks I have seen in Venice fully embrace the accidental and improvisational, both in formation and participation. Maybe ‘Silentio Pathologia’ is at the beginning of this cycle, and if I were to visit it after a few months – during which the climate and time take their toll – the experience would be entirely different.