Melissa McGill’s ‘In Venice’: a creative take on the ecological shift borne by Venice

The exhibition In Venice by Melissa McGill, with a variety of works on the city of Venice, introduces the audience to the environmental changes the city has experienced.

by Dilpreet BhullarPublished on : Sep 10, 2021

After the success of the Venice-based public art project Red Regatta 2019, which was presented in parallel with the 58th Venice Biennale, the exhibition In Venice by New York-based interdisciplinary artist Melissa McGill at Mazzoleni Art, London, is the first solo exhibition by the artist with the gallery. The exhibition is a display of artworks related to Red Regatta (2019) in a wide range of media. Along with the new series of watercolour studies of the Venetian Lagoon, the exhibition features hand-painted photographic artist renderings, works with sailcloth and paper, photographs, an installation in glass, and sculptural sound works.

Riflessi | Melissa McGill | STIRworld
Riflessi Image: Melissa McGill

In the early 90s, McGill lived in Venice, and she persisted to engage with the city. In an interview with STIR, she informs, “Venice has inspired me ever since my first visit, right after graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1991. I lived in Venice for two years and have returned often throughout my adult life.” The series of four large-scale site-specific performances Red Regatta in Venice’s waterways, presented during the time of Venice Biennale 2019, includes 52 traditional vela al Terzo boats, sailed in choreographed regattas, each sail hand-painted in distinct shades of red. The artist mentions, “The Red Regatta and Campi works in the exhibition grew out of my deep, personal relationship to this extraordinary city, the lagoon and my Venetian friends, and they evoke the dialogue of call and response and interconnectedness that is specific to Venice.” Both the projects - Red Regatta and Campi - were curated by Chiara Spangaro and co-organised by Magazzino Italian Art Foundation.

Artist Melissa McGill | Melissa McGill | STIRworld
Artist Melissa McGill Image: Marcella Ferrari

The colour red is frequently found in the art, architecture, and history around Venice - to mention from its bricks and terracotta rooftops to its flag are all in red pigment; to paintings of Titian, Tintoretto and other Venetian masters, dominated by colour red. The red, popularly associated with the forces of life and passion, alarm and urgency, in the hands of McGill is also a representation of the environmental issues. Significantly, the Red Regatta is the first artwork to be registered as a “Clean Regatta”, a programme of Sailors for the Sea powered by Oceana which mobilises sailors to protect the ocean through education and activism.

Red Regatta | Melissa McGill | STIRworld
Red Regatta Image: Melissa McGill

The exhibition In Venice presents an interesting body of work created at different intervals of the making of the Red Regatta. Since McGill is cognizant of the subtle and liminal relationship between architectural and natural environments of Venice: extending between land and sea and between humanity and nature, the first body of work includes the artist’s large-scale hand-painted photographic renderings. The work is a reflection of what McGill describes of the city Venice, “I was completely carried away with this extraordinary city and its relationship to water, with its constant movement and the endless reflections and a vibrant but fragile relationship between the ecosystem and the built environment.”

Campo Santa Maria Nova | Melissa McGill | STIRworld
Campo Santa Maria Nova Image: Melissa McGill

The second group of works displays vibrant red colour studies on sailcloth and paper. This work is subsequent to the sail painting workshop, where the artist hand-painted 104 red sails with art students and collaborating sailors in the historic maritime Arsenale in Venice. “Community is at the heart of Red Regatta and informed every decision”, mentions McGill. It is a collaboration with the Association Vela al Terzo, which was aligned with Red Regatta’s aim to raise awareness of the fragile balance between the city of Venice and the sea from the start. She adds, “52 traditional sailboats and over 250 partners took part in the regattas, as well as the students who came together with the sailors to hand paint each of the individual red sails in a specially organised workshop. Two years later, the community that came together to form the Red Regatta is just as strong—the red sails sail on!”

Color Study - Red Regatta | Melissa McGill | STIRworld
Color Study - Red Regatta Image: Melissa McGill

The third series Riflessi consists of the photographs taken by McGill during the live Red Regatta performances in which the red sails were reflected in the Venetian lagoon waters. For the current exhibition, they are represented as part of the two evocative installations: one printed on paper, another on glass, in varying sizes; the second reflects on the project from the perspective of the catastrophic flooding in Venice that immediately followed, caused by rising sea levels.

Campo Box- Santa Maria Nova | Melissa McGill | STIRworld
Campo Box - Santa Maria Nova Image: Melissa McGill

The new series of watercolour studies of the Venetian Lagoon is also part of the exhibition.  The Campo Box (Santa Maria Nova) and Campo Box (San Polo) are the black lacquered sculptural sound boxes aimed to evoke the architectural footprints and aural experience around this Venetian Campi. The incongruous public squares serve as the historic heart of every Venetian neighbourhood, which is under the threat of disappearance. The aural experience of the artwork is a walk through the daily Venetian life, populated by the conversation across the neighbourhood, calls from passing boats and gondoliers, children playing and footsteps in a pedestrian city where sound bounces off from stone to stone free of the din of traffic.

A strong advocate of public art, McGill understands the potential of public art to instigate positive social change. “A project like this can spark questions about our relationship to our environment and ways we can come together in community. Through authentic collaboration, we created something with an enduring impact,” states the hopeful McGill. To an outsider, Venice is a playful city of canals, a tourist destination safeguarded against environmental changes. Through the disparate works, McGill’s In Venice affirms the necessity of the collective effort to combat the inescapable reality of the environmental shifts.

The exhibition In Venice runs at Mazzoleni, London, until September 18, 2021.

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