Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva, Silentio Pathologia, Entrance to the Exhibition at the Venice Biennale. Photo: Marjorie Och.
Macedonia at the 55th Venice Biennale
By Marjorie Och
The year is 1348. Europe is about to meet its worst enemy. Within a few years, nearly two-thirds of the population of the continent is dead. The cause? The Bubonic Plague. Rats were host bodies...where rats travelled, the plague followed. Cities, towns, rural areas all experienced horrific devastation and chaos. Those who survived the plague long-remembered this time as a period of sorrow, confusion, and absolute fear. In Silentio Pathologia the artist Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva considers the rapid movement of the plague in early modern Europe, and finds parallels to the transmission of viruses today.
Silentio Pathologia encompasses the entire interior of the Scuola dei Laneri, the former confraternity of the wool workers in Venice. One might feel claustrophobic here were it not for the natural light streaming in from the expansive windows along the entrance wall.
Scuola dei Laneri. Photo: Marjorie Och
The location was a lucky find and adds a layer of meaning to interpretations of the work. Wool was one of the many products Venetians transported across early modern Europe, unwittingly playing a significant role in the transmission of plague.
The journey begins. Photo: Marjorie Och.
The visitor to the Scuola dei Laneri today also journeys. At the entrance of the Scuola one encounters the opening of a path marked by a metal wall about 10’ high at the left (two and a half tons of metal all told), and at the right a drape of silkworm cocoons threaded together. Here, one’s journey begins. The metal is imposing -- most remains untouched but some surface areas show the effects of being worked in a circular motion by a grinder. The metal surface also receives the patterned shadows cast by the threaded cocoons.
Silentio Pathologia, detail of metal wall. Photo: Marjorie Och.
The visitor walks between the wall of metal and drape of cocoons in a vaguely circular journey that leads to new walls -- one made of unprocessed black silk threads stitched together by the artist and the other wall a drape of albino rat pelts, also stitched together by the artist.
Silentio Pathologia, detail of silk curtain. Photo: Marjorie Och.
Silentio Pathologia, detail of rat pelts. Photo: Marjorie Och.
In early modern Europe, rats were carriers of disease. Today they are among the most common living creatures in research labs for the study of disease. At the center of Silentio Pathologia are two cages with pet rats. As the artist explained, the rats need to be held and stroked every day, preferably by the same person because the rats become familiar with one’s scent and like it; this care insures that the rats remain tamed and do not revert to their wild state. At the heart of this journey we come face to face with a dilemma -- taming our fears requires embracing them.
After one’s journey is complete, one may return to marvel at the details. The massive metal wall now appears to be as much a drape as the cocoons, rat pelts, or raw silk – the weight of the metal disappearing behind the beauty of its curves and patterns. We look more closely at the cocoons and see that they are not all the same. According to the artist, their colors vary because some still held the silk worms and the reds and oranges we see are their bodily fluids. (Conversation with the artist, May 28, 2013.) Looking now at the rat pelts, we begin to see the individuality of these hybridized lab creatures – their fur is not merely white, each one exhibits shades of cream to suggest a subtle chiaroscuro against the striking tenebrism of the metal. And their tanned sides, equally varied, challenge definition by color.
Silentio Pathologia, detail, tanned rats. Photo: Marjorie Och.
Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva’s Silentio Pathologia is one of the more interesting installations at the 55th Venice Biennale. This is a work to experience, not merely an accumulation of materials to look at. Hadzi-Vasileva’s installation succeeds both as a structure and as an idea. The visitor is drawn into a space, and that space is transformed by the artist’s work. We forget the bricks and mortar of the Scuola as we transition from one material, be it metal, silk, fur, or tanned skin, to another. We see familiar objects in new ways. Silk, usually woven into a textile, here surrounds us in unfamiliar and unexpected formats. And if we touch the raw black silk woven into a curtain, we find that it sticks to us and we transform it. The rats, too, are both familiar and strange. From a distance, this drape appears to be a quilted textile -- until we see faces and tails. This brings us – literally face to face – with both a cause and a victim of disease. Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva’s work encourages the viewer to travel across time. Leaving the Scuola one might contemplate life in Venice, the most cosmopolitan city in fourteenth-century Europe, besieged by plague. Our thoughts then turn to global travel today where we are hours, rather than months, from our next port of call.
Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva, Silentio Pathologia. Photo: Marjorie Och.
Marjorie Och writes about early modern and contemporary art. She is professor of art history at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, VA.
Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva completed her MA in Sculpture at the Royal College of Art, London in 1998 and currently lives and works in Brighton, England. Her work was part of the 51st Venice Biennale in ArtSway’s New Forest Pavilion. For more on Silentio Pathologia, see the artist’s blog at:
Silentio Pathologia was curated by Ana Frangovska, curator at the National Gallery of Macedonia, Skopje.