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Art Fairs

Edmund de Waal Finds Space for Quiet Contemplation in Historic Venice

By Sotheby's
The British ceramicist and writer, Edmund de Waal, has a surprise or two in store for visitors to Venice this summer. He is staging an exhibition, many years in the planning, to coincide with the 58th Venice Biennale.

E ntitled Psalm, it exists in two parts: one at Canton Scuola, a 16th Century synagogue in the Jewish Ghetto area of the city; and another at Ateneo Veneto, a local institution dedicated to promoting Sciences, Literature and the Arts.

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Edmund de Waal, tehillim, 2018.

De Waal’s pieces in the first part are a response to the historic setting. In 1516, the Venetian Republic decreed that all the city’s Jews leave their homes and live together in a segregated section of the Cannaregio district (today known as the Jewish Ghetto). De Waal’s art works for Canton Scuola are meant, in some way, to reflect that community’s sense of exile.

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Sotheby's Mark Politmore and Edmund de Waal give opening remarks at the Sotheby's Preferred tour of de Waal's Psalm during the preview of the 58th Venice Biennale.

Sullam, for example, is a table whose surface he has inscribed with the words of Psalm 137 – a text which expresses the yearnings of the ancient Jewish people for Jerusalem during their exile in Babylon and is famous for its opening line, “By the Rivers of Babylon, there we sat down”. (De Waal has dedicated the piece to the early-17th Century poet, Sara Copio Sullam, who lived in the Venetian Ghetto all her life.)

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Edmund de Waal, tehillim, 2018. Courtesy the artist.

Canton Scuola is located in Venice’s north-west – far from the Arsenale, in the east, where the Biennale’s central exhibition is held – and de Waal says he hopes to attract art-lovers to a part of the city that largely remains unvisited. “There are people who… know every work in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection,” he says, “and yet they’ve never been to the Ghetto. I hope that this project will open it up to new eyes.”

Some of the spots in the synagogue, such as the women’s gallery, will be showing contemporary art in them for the first time. In the 1970s, Canton Scuola was actually on the verge of ruin, structural deficiencies threatening to topple the building into the adjacent canal.

It owes its existence today to the interventions of the World Monuments Fund, which carried out emergency reinforcement of the foundation masonry – before making various, internal improvements too, such as installing a new electrical system. The organisation's work extends to several buildings in Venice, and this vital conservation work ensures that these storied buildings will remain available for enjoyment and exploration for generations to come. De Waal's thoughtful intervention perfectly captures this spirit and reinforces the legacy of preservation.

Edmund de Waal, The Library of Exile Venice
Edmund de Waal, The Library of Exile, 2019.

The second site of de Waal’s exhibition is more centrally located: Ateneo Veneto is a stone’s throw from Fenice Opera House. Again his theme is exile. The artist has created an installation of 2,000 books – in translation from 32 different languages – dating back to works by Ovid and Tacitus in Roman times.

It is called Library of Exile and honours writers across cultures and the centuries, who have been forced to flee their own country – or live as threatened dissidents within it. There’s also a suggestion of Venice’s history as a hub between East and West, where those speaking myriad languages met.

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Edmund de Waal, The Library of Exile, 2019.

Other books included are by Dante, Voltaire, Thomas Mann and, more recently, China’s Ai Qing and Poland’s Czeslaw Milosz. The installation is a large, white unit, which De Waal coated in a porcelain slip, before inscribing on its surface the names of various, famous libraries now lost to us: from Alexandria’s in ancient times to Mosul’s in the present day.

He is hoping it will serve as a place for people not just to read the books within but also engage in conversation and debate. “It will be a new library, reflecting Venice’s thousand years as a place of translation,” he says. “It is the most significant sculpture of my life.”

‘Psalm’ is at Canton Scuola and Ateneo Veneto, Venice, from 8 May to 29 September. For more information, visit psalmvenice.org.

WATCH: Tim Marlow's Must-See Museum Shows: The Venice Biennale's Best Installations, from America to Ghana

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