This is an excerpt from my catalogue essay published by Halcyon Gallery London to accompany Lorenzo Quinn’s monumental sculpture at the Venice Biennale 2017.
A pair of monumental stony hands reach imploringly out of the Grand Canal, lurching towards the pink façade of the Ca’ Sagredo, in the Canareggio district next to Santa Sofia. It is perhaps a strange sight, but then nothing in Venice, the amphibian city which is part dream, part miracle, can ever seem that impossible. But whom do they belong to, and where are they reaching from? It isn’t clear whether this is a body that is sinking out of view beneath the water, or a superhuman body that is emerging like a guardian river god from the canal-bed. And so we start to ponder, are these hands from a past that has been submerged and that we cannot recuperate? Or do they belong to a future determined to support its ancestors?
Lorenzo Quinn’s sculpture ‘Support’, installed to coincide with the city-wide celebration of art for the 2017 Venice Biennale draws an entanglement of issues to the watery surface of the canal. Among these are the city’s dialogue between past and future, its relationship with water, and the inevitable ecological concerns for a city that is known to be sinking. The Ca’ Sagredo palazzo has occupied the canal-side since the fourteenth century, and represents the heritage of the past which seems to be in dialogue with these monumental hands.
Imbedded into the mud of the canal, Support draws our thoughts beneath the reflective surface of the water, to a place that tells the history of mankind’s relationship with the elements. It is a history that reveals a ceaseless negotiation between the human, water, and stone. For Venice was built on the salty marshes and waters of the archipelago by refugees in crisis, seeking shelter and support when barbarian forces swept through northern Italy in the fifth century AD. Temporary homes were made on the islands of Torcello, Malamocco and Jesolo, and, over time, an amphibian city emerged from the water and silt with masonry built on wooden platforms supported by stakes driven deeply into the clay of the seabed. Centuries of bathing submerged in salt water protected these wooden foundations from the oxygen in the air that would accelerate decay, and, instead, hardened the wood into stone through an invisible subaquatic alchemy.
This petrified wood beneath the surface is an echo of the stone that impossibly teeters above the surface, which is also given genesis by the sea. The white Istrian limestone characteristic of Venetian architecture is actually the compression of the shells of eons worth of marine creatures, to create impermeable stone. In such, Venice’s buildings are a fusion of the aquatic and architectural- so much so that John Ruskin gave the name ‘sea story’ to the ‘ground’ floor levels of the city’s palazzi, such as the Ca’ Sagredo, which are in constant contact with the water.
Hands define us as being human. It was mankind’s ascent to bipedalism that freed up the front limbs of our hominoid ancestors, allowing man to engage in the manual pursuits that shaped knowledge and culture. But the hands have also been associated with the godly- the notion of the ‘hand of God’ is the base metaphor for creation, immortalised in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling with the divine hand that fuses Adam’s body with life. Very often the hand has been a metaphor for the godly taking human shape, such as in medieval images, where it was often just the hand of God that would be represented; the whole divine body was considered too powerful to represent and visualise. The hand of the artist has even been reified as a parallel with godly acts of divine creation, for the way in which it transforms matter into artworks that imitate life, and this concept of creation has been explored by artists from Albrecht Durer to Auguste Rodin. Lorenzo Quinn has also explored the theme of the divine hand in his sculpture Hand of God (2009), and introduces a further spiritual element in this relationship between the human and godlike in suggesting how mankind can be held and supported by animistic forces outside of ourselves.
However, despite this celebration of the hand as an instrument of support, and artistic and divine creation, there is also an ambivalence in the hands, because as humans we have used this potential to both create and destroy, to nurture with the one hand and to harm with the other. The familiar imperative ‘do not touch’ is a reminder that touching with the hands can be an act of destruction, and it is at the hand of man that we have entered into what geologists have called the ‘Anthropocene Age’, an era of damage inscribed irrevocably onto the planet’s history.
Quinn has often returned to the narrative potential of the hands in exploring complex and abstract ideas, such as in his Love series of sculptures which visualise the silent eloquence of hands in describing the many sensations of this most multifarious of emotions. Equally manifold is the sense of touch that is largely but not exclusively governed by the hands. Support invites us to consider the effects of touch, and in turn how we ourselves are touched. Venice is a city that touches its inhabitants and visitors in more ways than one; the salt in the air settles on the skin and can be felt on the lips and in the nose, while the water is felt lapping at the edges of everything. The nineteenth-century writer Henry James remarked on this embodied experience of the city suggesting that: ‘Venice as she deserves it, is to give her a chance to touch you often – to linger and remain and return.’ While the touch of the sea and of man in its myriad ways is what is destroying Venice, Support seems to explore both how the city rises up from the seabed to touch us, and how the supportive touch of future hands might save it…..
The rest of this essay was published by Halcyon Gallery for Lorenzo Quinn in May 2017.