3 July 2013
In Ersilia, to establish the relationships that sustain the city’s life, the inhabitants stretch strings from the corners of the houses, white or black or gray or black-and-white according to whether they mark a relationship of blood, of trade, authority, agency. When the strings become so numerous that you can no longer pass among them, the inhabitants leave: the houses are dismantled; only the strings and their supports remain. […] Thus, when traveling in the territory of Ersilia, you come upon the ruins of the abandoned cities, without the walls which do not last, without the bones of the dead which the wind rolls away: spiderwebs of intricate relationships seeking a form.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities (chapter V: Trading cities, 4)
Taking the road through the Giardini again in the direction of the German Pavilion, by way of exception the venue of the French intervention following an exchange of exhibition spaces between the two countries. It’s here that the extraordinary video-installation of Anri Sala, the Franco-Albanian artist invited to represent France at this Biennale, has been set up. The structure of the work reminds me of a modern tragedy in three acts, composed of a prologue, a main section and an epilogue…
A woman’s face, viewed from very close-up, occupies the whole of the screen: the watchful eyes and the lines of the face convey a state of extreme concentration. In the background can be heard broken fragments of a melody, of which it is impossible to grasp the overall rhythm. The woman seems intent on unravelling the original harmony of a passage of music; or, on the contrary, is trying to reassemble the pieces of an old song that has been lost. Her body and hands remain outside the frame: I can only imagine their movements. It may be that what she is listening to is a sort of inner music – the score of her most profound thoughts.
Main section: Ravel Ravel
The central hall of the pavilion brings to mind the set of an Expressionist film: the walls are covered with an expanse of rubber spikes, able to absorb the sound and eliminate any trace of echo. It is a surreal, metaphysical space, looking as if it were generated by an abstract mathematical equation. Projected simultaneously onto the two large screens at the centre are the movements of the left hands of two pianists playing the same piece: Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. The tempos of the two performances are slightly out of phase: there is a play of cross-references and resonances, a subtle asynchrony that complicates and “entangles” the original melody. The hands improvise a frantic dance on the keyboard; they chase each other, sometimes speeding up, at others slowing down. They stage a despairing, incomprehensible dialogue that alludes to death, war and the tragedy of physical disablement. And the trauma of amputation is the reason why the concerto was composed: Paul Wittgenstein, a Viennese pianist who had lost his right arm in the war, commissioned the work from the French composer. Thus the piece is conceived for the left hand alone: it is a lament for what has been lost – an unsettling crescendo that is suddenly interrupted with the force of a violent amputation.
At last I am able to understand the reason for the concentration of Chloé, the protagonist of the initial video: the lens of the camera now frames her hands, while they operate a mixer and record player. Chloé is a DJ who is trying to disentangle and realign the two previous performances of Ravel’s concerto: the aim is to merge them into a single version. It is an operation of unravelling, like that of undoing the threads of a tangled skein. A procedure close to revelation, intended to lay bare the original score of a piece. Perhaps a metaphor for music itself and for its revelatory power.
By the same author:
ArtSlant Special Edition – Venice Biennale
Notes on ‘The Encyclopedic Palace’. A Venetian tour through the Biennale
The national pavilions. An artistic dérive from the material to the immaterial
The National Pavilions, Part II: Politics vs. Imagination
The Biennale collateral events: a few remarks around the stones of Venice