Bad news: things may change fairly soon, but it’s not a simple matter to get to Venice at the moment. Good news: Mazzoleni’s current show (to 18th Sept) provides a convenient and cost-free evocation of La Serenissima. Melissa McGill, an American artist who lived there in the 1990’s, has returned to make two entrancing bodies of work.
The ‘Campo Boxes’ (2017) are black lacquered sculptural sound boxes which take the ‘negative shape’ defined by the irregular buildings surrounding the public squares – or campi – at the historic heart of every Venetian neighbourhood. Open the boxes, and you hear, in the gallery’s words, ‘the subtle nuances of daily Venetian life – the snippets of conversation between neighbours, 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’ – sounds which are threatened by the depopulation of the city as well as by climate change.
In 2019 McGill organised ‘Red Regatta’, for which 52 traditional vela al terzo boats sailed in choreographed regattas, all with red sails. The colour has many Venetian associations – from its bricks and terracotta rooftops, to its flag and history of trade in red pigment, to the paintings of Titian and Tintoretto – but here stands most pertinently for danger and alarm at the city’s environmental imperilment. The red sails were made the more striking by subtle differences, hand-painted in 52 different shades from a hundred that McGill identified in her project research – she shows her colour studies alongside preparatory works, film of the regatta and photographs of the sails as reflected in the lagoon.
An accompanying book demonstrates that the regatta wasn’t just a spectacle, but also a social project: it contains interviews with each of the boat owners, building up an account of the Venetian sailing community. Some are following family tradition, others fell for the boats by happenstance. One owner recalls ‘a baptism of water’ when he first sailed in storm, another explains that not only is the name Mitieleo an acronym encoding his family, but ‘the boat’s nameplate is in the shape of our dachshund, Peggy, who completes our crew’. In a story that might stand in for the wider malaise, one of the few female captains recalls that when she started sailing ‘nine years ago’, recalls of her start in sailing, motorboats looked at her with respect ‘and slowed down as they passed’, but now ‘nobody cares, they pass at full speed without caring if their waves jolt me. Our traditional boats are every unstable and fragile because they have a flat bottom so they can navigate in shallow waters. Last year the bottom of my boat cracked and I almost sank.’
Art writer and curator Paul Carey-Kent sees a lot of shows: we asked him to jot down whatever came into his head