The 57th International Art Exhibition in Venice closes on Sunday, so for this week we will go back to re-explore some of its installations. We are symbolically starting this wrap-up of the Biennale today, the Feast of Our Lady of Health in Venice.
One of the most photographed and Instagrammed installations at this year's 57th International Art Exhibition in Venice was definitely Sheila Hicks' "Escalade Beyond Chromatic Lands", included in the Arsenale section called "Pavilion of Colors", a space exploring the source of emotion in colours and their effects on the human brain.
"Escalade" consisted in a mountain of visually striking colourful fiber bales piled against a wall of the Arsenale and reaching the ceiling. For many visitors the temptation of taking a selfie, touching these soft gigantic pom pom-like elements or even lying on them (a practice that was promptly banned by the organisers after somebody lay down on the installation causing a mini-avalanche of colourful soft rocks during the press days...) was simply irresistible. This reaction prompted by the possibility of new tactile discoveries, is not surprising for Hicks.
"That happens all the time," she states. "When I exhibited the Bâoli at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, people came and immediately wanted to interact with the pieces on display, they wanted to sit down and touch things, but, if we allowed it, such structures wouldn't last for very long, so we have to protect them to make sure more visitors can genuinely enjoy them."
Those visitors who are willing to contemplate more quietly the powers of colours in this installation - a sort of gigantic version of Hicks' "Mighty Mathilde and Her Consort" - may discover other pleasures, different from merely visual or tactile ones. There are indeed intriguing architectural studies to unravel behind this fun pile of intensely coloured soft bales.
As Hicks explains, to create this installation she started from a crack in one of the Arsenale walls, on the left side of her installation. The crack could be conceived as a portal to another dimension à la Stranger Things, or a wound in the building that Hicks tried to mend, filling it with fibers bleeding their colours among the bricks.
"I started with that wall at the back, with that unique crack to make sure that art met architecture, since at the Venice Biennale architecture is definitely the most important thing to take into account," Hicks says.
"An artist who gets invited here doesn't want to just hang something on a little white wall, you must absorb indeed the fact that you are in a unique building and you must dialogue with it in some way and feel how you can be in this building and what you can say or do with it. If you don't take architecture into consideration, you miss the chance, the opportunity to dialogue with this architecture."
Hicks has paid special attention to architecture from the very beginning of her career: while studying at Yale she attended courses given by Louis Kahn and while living in Mexico she worked on projects with Mexican architects Luis Barragan and Ricardo Legorreta.
Architecture is currently informing other works by Hicks: at present she has a new outdoor installation called "Proserpine en Chrysalide" at the garden in Versailles (until 7th January). "That's my secret - architecture first," Hicks says, "then I wonder what kind of material I will be working with and I start combining the material with the surrounding architecture."
The material of choice for the Venice Art Biennale installation – cotton fiber – hides an intriguing secret as the fibers were not dyed, but they were mixed with pigment. For what regards the colours, the installation is a riot of different shades, yellows and blues are mixed and combined with reds, greens and oranges, because, as Hicks remarks shrugging, "We went for every kind of colour that we could find, because why choosing one?"
The installation comprises also two large woven panels that were added at the very end. "After ten days of work installing the bales, we had one crate left sitting here and we wondered 'Shall we open it or not? Should we say that's enough or go on?'" Hicks remembers. The team ended up opening the crate: it contained two cotton and linen panels woven in Guatemala that became an integral part of the installation. "I call them the anchor panels," Hicks explains, "as they are simple pieces, but they frame the other elements pretty well and the way they are woven allows the light to pass through."
Studying the lights in an installation space is another phase of Hicks' modus operandi, in a way it is the final stage to perfection. "After you have dealt with architecture, materials, scale, composition, and emotional impact you must take into consideration the lighting," Hicks says. "Many artists don't do it, but I find this aspect very important."
For "Escalade Beyond Chromatic Land" Hicks opted for very subtle and quiet lights compared to the other installations in this space of the Arsenale. "When you use too much light on a work of art you lose the nuances and the subtleties, but the electrical team in Venice did a great job coming to assist me every single day, and kept on meticulously working on the shadows."
Playing with shadows and lights allowed Hicks to create a sort of secluded and hidden dimension within an obvious space. "When people get nearer to the artwork they venture into the shadows, they are on a promenade, or in a forest, but then they become part of the installation as if they were a second layer," Hicks explains while intently watching visitors reacting to her piece. "In a forest you first see the trees, then the lights and then the shadows. I would advise you to learn to look at the shadows - you will be surprised about what you see."
There are other chances to learn to contemplate the shadows in Sheila Hicks' works and discover more about her passion for blurring the boundaries between art, textiles and architecture: "Sheila Hicks Free Threads 1954-2017" is currently on at the Museo Amparo in Mexico (through 2nd April 2018), while there will be a major retrospective next year at the Centre Pompidou in Paris that will be celebrating 50 years of "unbiased waves", as Hicks likes to describe her works and installations.