It’s fitting that the last exhibition at The International 3 should look forward, rather than back. Founders Paulette Terry Brien and Laurence Lane have twenty-five years of history working together, which would have provided ample material for a final show, yet in keeping with the gallery’s ethos they choose to bring things to an end by lending their platform to a local group of emerging artists and curators. The group was brought together at this year’s Venice Biennale as participants in the British Council’s Venice Fellowship scheme, allowing them to spend a month invigilating the British Pavilion and conducting independent research.
For …into the labyrinth, curators Chris Bailkoski and Manuela Zammit showcase work by the Venice Fellows from Manchester School of Art and the University of Salford, giving a collective legacy to their individual experiences. The artists involved work in different, seemingly disparate ways, yet all their work is informed by their time spent in Venice. The experience of being thrown into the otherworldly, labyrinthine city was further enhanced by being at one of the art-world’s premiere events, the Biennale.
Sarah Boulter’s ‘Public Relations’ (all works 2017) provides an immediate contrast to the grand Venetian environment, grounding the experience in the minutiae of daily life, the everyday tasks that continue regardless of where you are in the world. Spread across a display of various old-fashioned box monitors with unreliable colour and squared aspect ratio squashing the footage, the viewer becomes like a security guard at their station, gaining a voyeuristic glimpse into the daily monotony of tasks such as Boulter drying her hair. These clips could be from anywhere; the cramped, dark environments could be any overpriced, undersized urban accommodation. Even as Venice, in all its glory, is just outside the window, it seems like a fantasy incommensurate with the lived experience of everyday life.
In contrast, Anita Kwiecien explores the labyrinth itself, walking the streets of the city and recording her routes to produce ‘Venezia é una cittá verde’, a collage of prints and pressed flowers, and an accompanying publication. With this project, Kwiecien explores the artificiality of Venice, the work’s title reiterating the idea that Venice is a ‘true city’, an urban centre built on water and therefore completely removed from rural environments. This is further reflected in a lack of green space within the city, and throughout her journeys Kwiecien documents how the citizens of Venice react to this, optimising limited space to place planters, hang window boxes and do whatever they can to maintain a connection to the plant life that their environment prohibits.
Polly Palmerini takes a similarly broad view of the city, this time focusing on the precarious nature of its existence. She does this via a series of photographic prints, using underdeveloped negatives exposed using different kinds of light to produce semi-abstract records of the Venetian islands she visited during her stay. The resulting images have an eerie fragility, like ghostly imprints on the verge of fading into nothingness, hanging onto existence. In this way Palmerini references Venice’s tenuous hold on its future, as it continues to sink.
Similar to Boulter, Hazel Rebecca Clegg’s watercolours have an intimate feel, initially seeming to move away from the broader themes elsewhere in the exhibition to focus on portraying large-bodied women in delicate tones of pink and blue. Through the soft colour palette and graceful poses in and around water, Clegg combats existing stereotypes of body ideals and portrayals of larger bodies, connecting her work to the growing Body Positive Movement. At the same time, with titles such as ‘Submerge’ and an emphasis on water, Clegg has her subjects act as surrogates for the city itself.
The contribution that is most divergent, with no outright references to Venice, is Emma Bradley’s video, ‘Nan’s house test1’. Using architectural rendering software, Bradley attempts to recreate her grandmother’s house from memory, from the overall structure down to the smaller details, such as ornaments on shelves. Although initially appearing to be a single looping video, careful viewing reveals several different attempts to recreate the house. Bradley plays on the inaccuracy and unreliability of memory, the importance we place on certain details that allows us to remember them. Objects or details might be misremembered according to the value we place on them (i.e. bigger or smaller in size, more or less prominently positioned), or forgotten altogether. Thus, the work functions as a reflection of Bradley herself, in the ways that her memory diverges from reality.
Finally, Rika Jones’s sculptural interventions are the only works in the show that explicitly reference Phyllida Barlow’s Biennale installation, folly (2017), which all participants became very familiar with through many hours of invigilating. Without aping Barlow’s style, Jones shows a similar affinity for tactile sculpture, using rough, rugged materials to produce visually engaging objects. Jones produces works that are not quite what they seem, sculptures that resemble concrete and other building materials but are actually delicate, fragile things. She is also the only artist to engage directly with the space at The International 3, wrapping one of her sculptures like a bandage around a wooden beam in the gallery ceiling.
The exhibition does feel like a collection of disparate objects, with only some of the themes noticeably overlapping. Yet this is to be expected in an exhibition of this nature; while the artists have shared an experience, it has informed their work in different ways. Nonetheless, …into the labyrinth demonstrates the value of the Venice Fellowship, giving the artists and curators time and space to be immersed not only within art, but in one of the world’s most fascinating cities.
…into the labyrinth ran from 23 November to 1 December 2017 at The International 3.
Tom Emery is a curator and writer based in Manchester.