by Dilpreet BhullarSep 17, 2022
A deep, quiet blackness is suddenly broken by the braying of a donkey trapped in an underground space, similar to people seeking refuge from bombs during the World War II. This evocative image of tragic memories is framed inside a light-filled rectangle that unexpectedly appears in the middle of the dark—Pantelleria (2022) is the work of Italian duo Masbedo that first welcomes visitors to the video art exhibition Penumbra, curated by Alessandro Rabottini and Leonardo Bigazzi for Fondazione In Between Art Film, a Rome-based foundation directed by Beatrice Bulgari and dedicated to the promotion of this specific medium. The exhibition located inside Complesso dell’Ospedaletto, originally built in the 16th century, contains interventions by some of the most important contributors to Venetian cultural history, such as the Baroque architect Balsaddarre Longhena and the Rococò painter Giambattista Tiepolo. For this reason, this historical building, at first glance, wouldn’t look like the most obvious venue for a selection of video artworks appositely commissioned to eight international contemporary artists, not afraid of experimenting with their favourite medium.
In truth, the set-up curated by Milan-based studio 2050+, directed by architect and curator Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli, offers an opportunity to rethink the stratification of styles constituting Complesso dell’Ospedaletto, creating a unique encounter between contemporary art and the ancient space that temporarily unfolds around them. In this regard, before an in-depth analysis detailing the originality characterising the case of Penumbra, we can briefly mention other examples of a successful balance between historical and contemporary, that we have been admiring in Venice during the biennale season. Among them, the retrospective Louise Nevelson. Persistence, curated by Julia Bryan-Wilson at Procuratie Vecchie in Piazza San Marco (recently restored by David Chipperfield Architects Milan), is of worthy mention, for the chromatic and formal dialogue between the wood sculptures—by the great Ukraine-born American sculptor—at once delicate and muscular, the textures of the interiors, as well as the surrounding architectural views. Last but not the least, another successful example is the set-up of the Historical Capsules designed by Formafantasma for the main exhibition of Biennale Arte curated by Cecilia Alemani, where masterpieces from the 20th century—many of them long forgotten—have been rediscovered through the lens of alternately futuristic and archetypal shells.
As soon as we enter Penumbra, with the fog starting to cover the canals again, much like a reassuring blanket, we realise the succession of spaces constituting Complesso dell’Ospedaletto, opening before us spaces and dimensions that are never similar to each other. It is not the first time, this building has welcomed different shades of possible parallel realities: in fact, the same venue previously welcomed Lithuanian Space Agency: Planet of People, the utopia projected by artist Julijonas Urbonas and curated by Jan Boelen that represented Lithuania at Architecture Biennale 2021. At the time, the focus of the pavilion was a big 3D scanner, a Kubrick-reminiscent monolith of sorts, placed in front of what once used to be a church altar. Very differently from then, the sequence of video works componing Penumbra run through the whole building, set up in spaces that are particularly characterised not only by their original functions and their history, but also by specific installative choices.
The concept of transition between light and dark is efficiently translated into the alternation between video works dominated by sunlight, artificial light, and deep darkness. After Masbedo’s work, we meet Plateau (2021) by British-Nigerian artist Karimah Ashadu, in which realistic depiction of African mining landscapes is reverberated through a yellow ochre carpet. This warm room is immediately followed by the purple darkness of É Noite na América (2021) by Ana Vaz, a reflection on the urbanisation in Brazil and the role of wild animals in this process. One of the most evocative corners is the vertical screen reproducing Aphotic Zone (2022) by Lithuanian visual artist Emilija Škarnulytė, a representation of the life on the Pacific seamounts, where apparently alien creatures are put in opposition to the scientific needs of machinery. At that point, climbing a circular staircase to reach the foreground literally feels like re-emerging from an abyss.
Afterwards, another interesting formal choice is the contrast between Qualities of Life: Living in the Radiant Cold (2022) by James Richards (United Kingdom) and the frescoes of the room where the work is set up—once used to teach singing to children and now pervaded by experimental sounds. Artificial light also dominates House of Nations (2021) by He Xiangyu (China), a reflection on globalisation in the uncertainty of pandemic, while sunlight shines again in Olho da Rua (2022) by Jonathas de Andrade (Brazil), a human gallery of homeless people whose bright faces are reflected by a traditional multicoloured Venetian floor. At the very end, night falls on us in Takbir (2022) by Aziz Hazara (Afghanistan), where lights disseminated in the dark bring us hope one more time, in these complex times, we are living in.
'Penumbra' by Fondazione In Between Art Film is on display during the 59th Venice Biennale until November 27, 2022.