“What do you mean? Nothing. Everything. Yes. Be patient. You will say everything. Start with how you feel, right here, right now.
–Luce Irigaray, “When Our Lips Speak Together”
Side event of the 59th Venice Biennale
angels are listening
April 23 – November 27, 2022
Signs of historicism, religious iconicity and psychoanalytic thought permeate Rachel Lee Hovnanian’s current exhibition, angels are listening, currently presented as part of the Venice Biennale 2022. The text – including the viewer’s own written words – and the sculpture constitute the central structure of this project. Organized by Annalisa Bugliani, angels are listening reorients the thematic trajectory of this year’s Biennale, baptized The milk of dreams after surrealist painter Leonora Carrington’s book of fairy tales of the same name – towards socially engaged artistic creation that works through audience participation.
In Hovnanian’s exhibition, definitions of medium and message, artist and viewer, receiver and recipient, sacred and profane, as well as aesthetic and real, were made interdependent. Each category is made flexible, apt to be shaped by the introspective viewer-participant, a fluidity that redirects the traditionally circumscribed experience of a silent viewer toward psychic emancipation. To do this, Hovnanian draws on three prior interrelated, semi-religious projects that touch on the individual’s capacity for cathartic release, even purgation: A dinner for two, held in Pisa in 2021; another iteration of A dinner for two, this one was held in Lucca in 2020; and Taped closurewhich premiered in New York in 2019.
Visitors entering the current exhibition are first confronted X Listena neon text about two meters high, mounted on the eastern wall of the portico of the neoclassical building from 1767 casino, or pavilion, the show occupies. The architecture is characterized by an elegant Palladian façade designed by Tommaso Temanza. Currently known as Biblioteca Zenobiana del Temanza and located in Dorsoduro, one of the six sestieri or subdivisions of Venice, the casino faces Ca’ Zenobio degli Armeni, an 18th century palace skilfully designed in grand Baroque style by Antonio Gaspari.
Upon entering the actual exhibition space, inside the pavilion, the viewer is guided by the following instructional text displayed on a wall:
Approach each side of the confessional.
Take a ribbon.
Write down what you couldn’t say, what you didn’t say.
Open the door and leave your message in the box.
Ring the alarm clock.
Take a listening blanket and reflect in the garden.
Title Silent White Bronze Angels, seven replicas of a two-meter-tall bust of a cherub in white bronze, each mounted on a cylindrical plinth, surround the visitor in a dimly lit space, where a barely audible hymn of penance, attributed to the hymnologist of the 5th century and the linguist Mesrop Mashtots, carefully crosses the threshold between sound and silence, expression and reserve. With X-ed mouths meaning “what you couldn’t say, what you didn’t say,” Hovnanian’s depiction of celestial bodies is accompanied by The Silver Confessionnala baroque-style confessional, as well as La Scatola Catartica (The Cathartic Box) & Awakening Bell, consisting of a reused container placed under a bell. In their concept, these two structures recall the function of Sigmund Freud’s famous psychoanalytical couch. Visitors are thus invited, through white ribbons and writing instruments, to anonymously express their thoughts, their impulses, their repressions, their existential concerns and their most intimate metaphysical quests. Doubts about oneself, the immediate family space or the wider socio-cultural sphere can also be revealed. The analyst and the analysand, now desegregated in the person of the visitor, together give rise to written statements such as:
I constantly feel alone.
Sometimes I’m so ashamed of myself that I’d like to disappear.
I wish I could say no.
I’m afraid to die but I’m afraid to live.
All the things I tolerated made me cold inside.
I don’t love a person I should.
I cannot forgive. I have been abused. I was a victim. I am not a bad person. I’m afraid.
I was raped.
Hundreds of these phrases in many languages, left in the temporary storage under the bell, are regularly incorporated into blankets spread out on the garden lawn outside, where visitors can sit to reflect on their own experiences in the context of the writings of others. . Recalling the concerns detailed by Anna C. Chave in Trauma and visuality in modernity– a formative collection of essays by ten scholars that discuss the place of modern and contemporary art in the wider social field –angels are listening is a form of social work that coexists in critical tension with its distinctly highbrow humanist framework. As Chave explains,
As appalling as they are, rape statistics are still social statistics, of course, and art and art history are not exactly social work… And what troubles me, in an age of post-ness for feminism, it is the artistic writing that seems to want to banish the embarrassing specter of the female victim by erasing the signs of traumatic experience, even of difference in general, from female artistic production.1
Chave’s commitment to examining the practice of art and its reception in the context of female corporeality and trauma finds a powerful parallel in the principles of angels are listening.
And yet, the extent to which Hovnanian’s interactive, meditative project can actually engender some degree of self-reflection, self-redemption, catharsis, or emancipation can only be assessed by the individual participant. However, I cannot help recalling the words of Hélène Cixous as a discursive counterpart to angels are listening“The imagination of women is inexhaustible, like music, painting, writing: their flow of fantasies is incredible. … Time and time again I too have felt myself so full of torrents of light that I could burst – burst with forms far prettier than those put in frames and sold for a stinking fortune. And I didn’t say anything either, I didn’t show anything; I didn’t open my mouth, I didn’t repaint my half of the world. I was ashamed. I was scared and swallowed my shame and fear.2 It is the very demand for such repression, felt by Cixous as by so many of us, that Hovnanian’s installation seeks to take into account.
Anna C. Chave, “‘Normal Ills’: On Embodiment, Victimization, and the Origins of Feminist Art”, in Trauma and visuality in modernity, ed. Eric Rosenberg and Lisa Saltzman (New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 2006), pp. 132-157, here pp. 141-43.
Hélène Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa”, trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Flight. 1, no. 4 (summer 1976), pp. 875-93, here p. 876.