Built in the 15th century and located on the edge of Venice’s Rio de San Marina, the Palazzo Pisani might seem a long way from Vancouver artist-run centre Western Front.
But without Western Front, the palazzo would be looking a bit different these days.
The Foxes, a work initiated during a July 2012 Front residency by Canadian-British artist Corin Sworn, currently forms the centrepiece of her Venice Biennale exhibition in the 1400s-era building.
Now based in Glasgow, Sworn is one of three artists in “Scotland + Venice,” an official collateral event of the Venice Biennale that opens Saturday at the palazzo and continues there until November 24.
Sworn says that her exhibition in Venice is, in many ways, about how the “layering of different perspectives or different kinds of lenses produces particular readings or ways of seeing.”
Much of the ECUAD and UBC graduate’s past work has dealt with these themes as well, and successfully so—recent group exhibitions include “Art Now” at Tate Britain and “Hors Pistes” at Centre Pompidou, and she was nominated for a Jarman Award in 2011.
Yet The Foxes and the exhibition that grew out of it may well mark Sworn’s most personal approach yet towards her characteristic themes.
“A lot of the work that I’ve done more recently pretends to be far more personal than it actually is,” Sworn says—a matter for which The Foxes marks a change.
For example, in Endless Renovation (which was shown at the 2010 Glasgow International Festival before heading to Tate Britain and Vancouver’s Contemporary Art Gallery) Sworn created an audio track for a collection of found slides that sounded personal—but it was actually mostly scripted quotations.
Lens Prism, which showed at Tramway Glasgow and Whitechapel Gallery, created a seemingly unbroken monologue out of quotations from 19th and 20th century literature, theory and film.
In contrast, The Foxes features a variety of slides belonging to Sworn’s father, a professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto.
And for a good part of the audio, it draws upon a conversation Sworn and her father had about those slides.
The Foxes began at Western Front over two days in July 2012, when Sworn sat down with her father to look at the slides—the reason being that her father wanted to view the slides again, and the gallery still had the slide projectors necessary to view the images at a significant size.
As they talked, Sworn learned more about the trip the slides documented: namely, fieldwork her father had done in 1973 as a social anthropologist in a Peruvian village.
“So much of what goes into that story—you know, his ideals and the things that he was looking for, the things that he holds to be valuable or worth telling and talking about—are things that would have produced me as a person,” Sworn, who was born in the UK in 1976 and grew up in Toronto’s Seaton Village neighbourhood, explains.
Though she had heard such stories as a child—her father had actually used them in a visit to her primary-school class—they held new meaning for her as an adult.
Those Western Front slide talks provided a familial example of a phenomenon that has intrigued Sworn creatively for many years: the fact that stories (or experiences of stories) change over time.
“At 8 years old, your parents’ adult life is very foreign to you in a way,” she says. “And it just seemed more kind of weird back then than necessarily interesting.”
Sworn even includes a picture of herself in The Foxes to illustrate differences between past and present, something she hasn’t typically done in past work.
Another element of The Foxes is video footage from a trip Sworn and her father took in January 2013.
During the trip, they revisited the area of Peru where her father had done the field work and followed up with people in the region to discuss some of the images from his slides.
These Peru conversations further elucidate how the meaning of images can change significantly over time and through the experience of the viewer.
For example, one slide showed a person who was a heroic-looking defender of a rural village in the 1970s. On the return visit in 2013, he was identified as a man who made his living as a fruit-stand owner.
Sworn has often referenced the past in an attempt to address “our ability to project and read things and determine them” about historical events.
But her work about the past has also addressed “how that’s often inaccurate, because we actually can’t access that [past] thing that we’re trying to speak about.”
The temporal and narrative tensions made visible in The Foxes also grew into a set of prints that are exhibited in a room next to the space where the video is projected.
Each print layers a slide image taken by Sworn’s father in the 1970s with a photograph Sworn took of the same site in Peru in 2013. The differences are highlighted in the form of RGB separation.
“A lot of things in the images have changed. But also,” Sworn says jovially, “my father is two feet taller than I am! So I came back [from Peru] and discovered that everything [in the still images] was going to be offset.”
Sworn’s desire to highlight the layered nature of stories and perceptions is also manifested in the layers of coloured silk—again in tones of red, green and blue—that she has used to cover the windows in the room of prints.
The same type of layered silk is also used to separate each of the three rooms in Sworn’s exhibition, creating a barrier that that obliterates visuals but lets audio flow through freely.
The result is that the audio track from the video becomes layered into the experience of the entire exhibition.
Though Vancouver can claim much of this show’s origins, Venice played a large part in the exhibition, too.
The island city’s influence is most visible in an untitled installation work exhibited in a room next to The Foxes.
In this installation work, Sworn arranges ceramic floor tiles into patterns that alternately cohere and dissipate.
“For me, the way it sort of came together was being in Venice and seeing all these incredible mosaics everywhere, and thinking about whether there was some way I could work with mosaics,” she says.
Sworn also noted that the mosaic itself was a form that had shifted through different cultures and places, just as stories might.
“In Peru, I saw this incredible collection of tiles,” she marvels. “And then [there was] returning home to Glasgow, looking down into the apartment building’s floor and realizing that there is this Victorian mosaic—this kind of mutation of a form which has moved from culture to culture, and each one has picked it up and used it differently.”
Overall, Sworn’s exhibition in these three rooms at the Palazzo elegantly conveys the ways in which stories and places can be at once fragmented and unified.
In the untitled ceramic piece just inside the official exhibition entrance, small fragments of tile are arranged side-by-side in ways that both consolidate and dissipate wider unifying patterns or cultural meanings. (The fact that the brittle piece references floor designs, and is displayed on a flat plinth inches away from the floor, also underlines the at-once foundational and fragile nature of many of the stories well tell culturally and personally.)
In The Foxes, which comes second, Sworn’s own stories about her father and his history exist alongside his own tellings and retellings, as well as the voices and landscapes of people pictured in her father’s slides. Sometimes images and stories from different people overlap—although the disparities between eras are highlighted.
In the prints, which come third, the relationship among narratives, times and landscapes becomes one of total overlap—although the disparities are highlighted.
And in the curtains and room dividers, a trio of silks is layered together, displaying different effects and hues in different lighting and air conditions.
Through it all is the thread of Sworn’s own experience—one that is in itself continually layering and shifting through time and space.
“It’s really hard to know what aspects of your life influence your work, really,” Sworn says.
Yet, she says, “Venice has such an incredible layering of past and present and different cultures.
“I think as someone who has moved around a lot myself and straddled different places…I guess there was a kind of echo or a kind of sense that that was something I was interested in exploring.”
More coverage of the Venice Biennale can be found throughout the week at canadianart.ca/venice2013.