The year is 1348. Europe is about to meet its worst enemy. Within a few years, nearly two-thirds of the population of the continent is dead. The cause? The Bubonic Plague. Rats were host bodies…where rats travelled, the plague followed. Cities, towns, rural areas all experienced horrific devastation and chaos. Those who survived the plague long-remembered this time as a period of sorrow, confusion, and absolute fear. In “Silentio Pathologia” the artist Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva considers the rapid movement of the plague in early modern Europe, and finds parallels to the transmission of viruses today.
“Silentio Pathologia” encompasses the entire interior of the Scuola dei Laneri, the former confraternity of the wool workers in Venice. One might feel claustrophobic here were it not for the natural light streaming in from the expansive windows along the entrance wall. The location was a lucky find and adds a layer of meaning to interpretations of this work. Wool was one of the many products Venetians transported across early modern Europe, unwittingly playing a significant role in the transmission of plague.
The visitor to the Scuola dei Laneri today also journeys. At the entrance of the Scuola one encounters the opening of a path marked by a metal wall about 10′ high at the left (two and a half tons of metal all told), and at the right a drape of silkworm cocoons threaded together. Here, one’s journey begins. The metal is imposing…most remains untouched but some areas show the effects of being worked in a circular motion by a grinder.
The metal surface also receives the patterned shadows cast by the threaded cocoons. The visitor walks between the wall of metal and drape of cocoons in a vaguely circular journey that leads to new walls…one made of untreated black silk threads stitched together by Elpida…
and the other wall a drape of albino rat pelts, also stitched together by the artist.
In early modern Europe, rats were carriers of disease. Today they are among the most common living creatures in research labs for the study of disease. At the center of “Silentio Pathologia” are two cages with pet rats. As the artist explained, the rats need to be held and stroked every day, preferably by the same person because the rats become familiar with one’s scent and like it; this care insures that the rats remain tamed and do not revert to their wild state. At the heart of this journey we come face to face with a dilemma…taming our fears requires embracing them.
Above: Preston Thayer with the artist, Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva, at the 55th Venice Biennale, May 28, 2013, talking through the gauze of black silk thread.
Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva completed her MA in Sculpture at the Royal College of Art, London in 1998 and currently lives and works in Brighton, England. Her work was part of the 51st Venice Biennale in ArtSway’s New Forest Pavilion. For more on Silentio Pathologia, see the artist’s blog at: http://blog.elpihv.co.uk/category/55th-venice-biennale/.
Silentio Pathologia was curated by Ana Frangovska, curator at the National Gallery of Macedonia, Skopje.
A expanded version of this post appears in The Art Section, (summer 2013, 7/6).