Voices and images at Venice’s Palazzo Grassi exhibition

VENICE, Italy: Venetian canals transformed through a camera obscura, intimate snapshots of a prisoner’s life and a hall of whispers are among the installations on show at a new exhibition at Venice’s Palazzo Grassi.

Around 30 works by 27 international artists, borrowed from French billionaire Francois Pinault’s private collection, explore how the medium of video has been used to capture and challenge sensory expression and perception in art.

The hypnotic “For Beginners” videotape by contemporary American artist Bruce Nauman is among the highlights on show at the 18th-century Palazzo Grassi museum, which the French collector bought and revamped in 2006.

The 70-year-old artist’s hands are captured on screen as they respond to verbal instructions on what positions his fingers must adopt.

The video is just the latest in a series of his works which incorporate human body parts.

Alongside the talking hands, American artist Zoe Leonard captures the seductive beauty of the Serenissima’s waterways through a camera obscura.

A light streaming in from outside pierces a lens and flips the image of the grand canal outside the Palazzo Grassi onto its head, so that the waters cover the ceiling and boats pass upside-down as enchanted viewers loll on cushions.

The sense of peace contrasts sharply with Algerian-born artist Mohammad Bourouissa’s “Temps mort” installation, which collates images and sketches filmed by an inmate of a federal penitentiary in France on a mobile phone.

Bourouissa, who lives and works in Paris, asked the prisoner to film snapshots of inside – from chains to inmates gathered behind bars – to create a poor-quality video which evokes despair and violence in its banality.

Including films, videos and installations, the “exhibition testifies to the extraordinary plasticity of this medium through the variety of techniques (from 35 mm film to images captured on a cellphone) and of projection devices used (from the movie theater to the installation), the diverse means of understanding the passing of time (from the narrative to the loop), the importance of links to other fields of artistic activity (sound, action, dance) and to the realm of documentary filmmaking and of the social sciences,” writes Palazzo Grassi director Martin Bethenod in his catalogueessay.

“What unites these images, coming from Europe, North and South America, from the Middle East and Asia, is a shared method of questioning the present. If all confront social and economic issues at work in today’s world, none of them do so in a literal or unequivocal manner.

“The discourse of images privileges the intimate. They borrow from a shared gesture. Following the logic formulated by Jean-Luc Godard in 1970, according to which ‘one shouldn’t make political films, but make films politically,’ they do not constitute a speech, but an action.”

In “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” Venezuelan artist Javier Tellez reworks the 1928 film of the same name by getting mental health patients to rewrite the movie script to introduce the themes of madness and paranoid schizophrenia. Tellez, who often works on questions of psychiatric illnesses, then has the patients become witnesses to the trials faced in mental health institutions.

In American artist Bill Viola’s 1995 project “Hall of Whispers,” the pallid faces of 10 people who have been gagged are displayed on a dark screen, with their eyes closed, while their protests and moans are clearly heard.

Exhibition’s curator Caroline Bourgeois said video has stopped being a stand-alone medium and has become integrated into other art forms.

While each of the works speak, they do not have a common message. Each visitor to the show takes away their own interpretation, she said.

“Video does not have a cinematic type of narration. It’s victory that it is no longer billeted in a category but has become sculptural in a certain fashion,” Bourgeois said.

“Voices of images” runs at Venice’s Palazzo Grassi until Jan. 13, 2013. For more information please visit

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 31, 2012, on page 16.




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