by Dilpreet BhullarJul 25, 2023
A sequence of black and white layers unravels, questioning us on what it might ever represent: crossed by dark veins like a mysterious, gigantic creature, maybe fallen asleep in an indefinite time, it gradually reveals itself as a photograph depicting a marble quarry, probably somewhere in Italy, most precisely in the renowned Carrara city. After entering the gallery, we soon realise that marble is among the main protagonists of Closer Than Before, the exhibition of the British artist Alex Hartley currently on view at gallery Victoria Miro in Venice. Usually associated with endurability, this precious material is more fragile than it might ever seem like, and fragility is another recurring theme in the whole exhibition: in fact, for the very first time, the art gallery welcomes a site-specific art installation that invades, like an unstoppable disruptive phenomenon, the main wall of the venue.
Hartley, whose work has mostly focused on architecture and landscape throughout decades of research, chooses for Closer Than Before, a selection of details from Tomba Brion (Brion tomb, 1970-1978), a monumental grave built in San Vito d’Altivole, in the province of Treviso, which is considered one of the most relevant masterpieces by Carlo Scarpa (1906-1978). In this regard, there is no doubt around the meaningful influence that the great Venetian architect’s innovative method still has on north eastern Italy design culture and the contemporary architectural scene in general. Hartley, who recently had the opportunity to be an artist-in-residency at Victoria Miro Venice, decides to investigate this important heritage as a tribute to modern architecture characterising the Veneto region, without recurring to the frequent, overrated clichés surrounding the landscape and the cultural context it belongs to.
Known for having extensively explored both sculpture and photography during his career, Hartley now moves into a liminal space between these two media, creating three Carrara marble frames containing multiple layers of painted plexiglass that, after having been embedded inside an aluminium box, gradually reveal the single photographs hidden behind them. Differently from the work displayed at the entrance, This isn’t the Time (a much more traditionally-looking silver gelatin fibre photographic print), this series of compositions invites us to come closer—as the exhibition’s title kindly reminds us—and recognise Tomba Brion’s architectural details while they seem to gradually re-emerge through a phantasmic dust. Reflecting briefly on the works’ titles themselves (Divide and Dissolve, Seen and Unseen, A Frequent Returning), we become even more aware that the main focus of the art exhibition is the relation between time and space in an unspecified dimension. Here time becomes non-linear and based on infinite stratifications, similarly to geology: another possible connection with marble that, despite its weight, seems to levitate in the gallery space, together with the softly blurred impressions taken from Tomba Brion it embraces.
However, this exhibition, on view during the Venice Architecture Biennale 2023, is not just about delicacy: in fact, Hartley also chooses to show us a presence that causes us a strong sense of unease. Like an irreparable wound, the main wall of the gallery seems to be slowly and almost imperceptibly disintegrating in front of our own eyes. Behind the battered surface that is partially falling in fragments, we can catch a three-dimensional glimpse of the most iconic element defining Tomba Brion—the omega door, significantly inspired by the graphic symbol used to indicate the transition between present life and afterlife in the Christian tradition. Apparently disturbing the visual balance of the exhibition, the site-specific art installation Redoubt reduces the gallery’s perimeter, coming to meet the visitor like an accelerated and, yet, suspended in time ruin. Conscious about the consequences of the high tide phenomenon on Venetian architecture and the way Scarpa himself dealt with it as an architect—a great example is the equally iconic ground floor of the Fondazione Querini Stampalia in Venice, where the water flowing from the canal dialogues with a sophisticated marble structure. The installation artist offers a further plastic form to his personal reflection on the master’s legacy. Organic and inorganic, painted wood architecture and concrete architecture, past and future overlap, almost like the anticipation of an apocalyptic landscape.
In conclusion, as soon as a mostly reassuring perspective on landscape and architecture starts dissolving, our perception faces more and more visual ambiguity all over the surfaces displayed in front of us. Before leaving Victoria Miro Venice, while looking against This isn’t the Time, the first artwork we met, we notice another unusual detail—a drawing precisely reproducing the quarry’s veins is overlapping the photograph. This ambiguity is a further invitation to reflect on our ambivalent relation with the natural and architectural heritage that belongs to all of us, emblematically represented by the case of Venice, a city which is extraordinarily strong and fragile, complex and delicate at the same time.
The exhibition Closer Than Before is on view at Victoria Miro Venice till June 17, 2023.