Musings on creativity for photographers and artists by Rob Hudson

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Death in Venice: A review of Helen Sear's 'the rest is smoke...'.

I'm in a former convent in Venice looking at a Monmouthshire wood, there are numbers painted on the trees, and this is intercut with a young woman in a red dress circling the trees, her hand reaching out for the trunks. After a while I realise the numbers are counting down, and I start to intuit the meanings behind these images.

Helen Sear's “the rest is smoke...” is a rumination, a distillation on the temporary nature of existence which is currently being exhibited at Santa Maria Ausiliatrice for Wales at the Venice Biennale. The title comes from an a tiny Latin inscription circling a recently snuffed out, still smoking candle in a painting of St Sebastian by Andrea Mantegna that hangs in Ca’ d’oro on the Grand Canal. Roughly translated as “Nothing is stable if not divine, the rest is smoke”.

It starts with a big flashy (in both senses of the word) video installation entitled “In the company of trees”. Visit a beech wood on a sunny day and you'll recognise that flickering, as the light penetrates the canopy of thin-fingered branches their leaves forever moving on the breeze.

Life is embodied in the form of the young woman in a red dress circling trees in a wood. The red numbers on tree trunks counting down to zero are marks for felling, the death of the trees. Stills of the young woman, the trees and the red painted numbers are interwoven in a palimpsestic projection. It hints at and builds to a bigger picture of something concerned with our own and our environment’s temporality. And that's perhaps another concern of the former ’temple’ in which it is situated.

In the Pre-Raphaelites, who’s work Sear’s has been likened, red is the colour and symbol for lust. That's not the case here. Sear’s use of red symbolism indicates youth and vitality and perhaps the freedom of liberation, which is in stark in contrast to the inherently male gaze of those ’crazy’ Victorians.

All photography is perhaps a ghost story. The effect here is something akin to a multiple exposure broken down to its constituent parts and reassembled to merge and flicker in unexpected ways. That figure ghosts in and out of the frame, merges with it and, at times disappears in a calming, natural interlude. Yet the inexorable path to zero, to our and the trees’ imminent demise, soon resumes to haunt us once again.

The exhibition is made up of five rooms, some of which feel like an afterthought. I don't necessarily mean that as a criticism; although it doesn't hold together as a complete whole, it does represent the piecemeal way the human mind works. Sear talks about breaking the narrative to form a greater whole. This isn't storytelling, that's not complete story of the way visual art works, we are dealing with ghosts after all.

As we exit the first room with the main video projection there's a fine quote on the wall of an anteroom by John Berger relating to how people have historically measured themselves against trees. In height for example or in the mimicry of trees in columns and there's plenty of the latter in Venice and supposedly in the building which houses the exhibition (it was too dark to see them).

The next room, perhaps the least convincing, contains the fairground like attractions of a (computer generated?) reflection of trees moving in a pool and a video diorama of birds feeding at a bird-table. This small scale acted as something of a relief after the big brash projection, but I found myself wanting to move on, perhaps too quickly. Size subconsciously imparts importance and even if we know better, we sometimes accept its message.

Next, a spectacular sized black and white photograph of trees stacked-up horizontally after felling. It's the end of their existence as living things and it is printed onto perhaps fifty narrow metal strips leant against the wall of an otherwise monochrome room. We’re reminded of Berger’s words once again as the plates represent upright, vertical trees or perhaps planks in both size and scale. The focal point is always on the cut part of the trees, and it's as if the trees have left an impression on the metal that felled them.

Anyone who's used ’layers’ in Photoshop will also know a ’stack’ as an inherent part of that process of creation, this also relates to the video editing process of ’In the company of trees’ and indeed the creation of this piece itself. The city of Venice is also built on piles of wood, trees driven into the mud to form its precarious foundations, so another link becomes apparent.

The penultimate room has photographs of greened, mossy stumps and that final number zero rendered as a red circle. At first it feels like a full stop and unconvincing as either document or commentary. But after a short while I realised that it works in contrast to the monochrome stack in the previous room and that the colours seem to hum in relation to one another.

It's in the final room where the exhibition becomes whole again. A single image backlit in yellow illuminates the small room. It's an image of a field of oil-seed rape, clear felled of trees, that has been overlaid with a second image of twigs which we are told mimic the arrows piercing Saint Sebastian in the painting by Mantagne. Those twigs are red again, referring back to the red dress of youth and vitality and the numbers in the video projection. But these are now the red of pain and suffering, the canonisation or sanctification of the trees and hints at a possible afterlife in the religious sense. It’s an image that illustrates absence more than the substance of what it depicts. We’re in the realm of phantoms, ghosting again.

Before I conclude I have to admit to feeling somewhat conflicted by the sheer expense of this enterprise. Wales’ funding of £400,000 seems like a lot of money for one photography exhibition in the context of the generality of public funding for photography in my home country.

The (otherwise excellent) book accompanying the exhibition credits the involvement of 38 people other than the artist. I certainly don't believe either artists or curators or gallerists should be compelled to work for free, far from it, but I do question a cast of that size and the funneling of so much funding into one event.

How do we measure the efficacy of arts spending if it's not either in support of individual or groups of artists and the community in which they work? I’d question if it is “of contemporary relevance to Wales", that oft repeated line, a catch all for rejection of public funding with which so many artists are painfully familiar? Of course it isn't, it’s universal, it is addressing the bigger picture, and is probably better for it.

It should be noted that much of the funding will come from the British Council and presumably European sources. It's not from the photography budget per se, but has gathered around itself funding from other sources. Maybe this is more of an illustration of how generally photography is treated as a second-class citizen in public funding, but I seriously doubt any of the other arts are accustomed to such generosity. The exhibition will tour Wales after it has completed its six-month run in Venice. Also - and this is important - it is free to enter, unlike the eye watering €25 a head to enter the main Arsenale/Giardini sites of the Biennale.

We also shouldn't forget that the main curators Ffotogallery (the “national development agency for photography and lens based media in Wales”) are, for once, promoting an artist working in Wales, something they have been widely criticised for failing to do with sufficient frequency.

The Venice Biennale seemingly attracts funding like almost nowhere else. To put Wales’ £400k into context; the brand new building for the Australian Pavilion alone cost an astonishing AS$7million from “philanthropic sources”. The exhibition inside was excellent, incidentally, but have we gone a little mad?

That main Giardini/Arsenale area is only a tiny fraction of what comes under the umbrella of the Biennale; the whole city is seemingly one big gallery (and this in a city already stuffed full to overflowing with galleries and churches bursting with old masters). From opulent palazzos on the Canale Grande to disused churches and little rooms off little explored ’calle’, almost all of the remaining Biennale is entirely free to enter. And it is a wonderful thing, if only more cities had so much ambition. For that reason I'm pleased the Wales ’pavilion’ is on the outside of the main site, it's more democratic, more accessible and free.

Having said all that Sear’s “the rest is smoke...” is another wonderful thing. It is compelling, intriguing, perceptive and profound in a way that so much of the other art I saw at the Biennale simply wasn't (though not all). So congratulations should properly be made to those involved.

I'd urge you to go and see it when it returns home. Sear’s “the rest is smoke...” genuinely steps up to the big table of the arts. If it sometimes fails to measure up to its own ambition, this is perhaps because that ambition is so great. And I'm not about to criticise that when we need more work with eagerness and commitment to stretch our minds and helps us see anew. Sear brings a depth to her rumination on the landscape and our relationship with it that I can barely remember encountering before. It should be on your must see list if you have any interest in art, the landscape and our short stay on this little blue planet.

St Sebastian by Andrea Mantegna, courtesy of Wikipedia