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For this year’s Welsh collateral event, Wales in Venice, photographic artist Helen Sear (b1955) has filled the five rooms of former church and hospital Santa Maria Ausiliatrice with a whole new suite of work. Each room has its own identity, but there is a dialogue between them, uniting the figure and landscape, nature and culture, and the local and the universal.
… the rest is smoke is a visceral experience, whichdraws the viewer in. At first, they hear the sounds of birdsong and a chainsaw, before turning the corner and seeing the film that cleverly cuts together footage of the artist’s stepdaughter in a red dress, circling a tree, and shots of the wood itself, with trees numbered for felling. While Peter Greenaway’s Drowning by Numbers counts from one to 100, Sear’s film counts down from 83 to one. It is a battle of number v nature and the wood is a character every bit as sentient and significant as the human self.
The title of the exhibition is taken from a tiny inscription on Mantegna’s last painting of St Sebastian, now housed along the canal in the Ca d’Oro: Nihil nisi divinum stabile est. Caetera fumus. This painting is honoured here with a lightbox, glowing bright yellow with the view over a rapeseed field. The image mirrors Mantegna’s in dimension and is pierced by rapeseed stalks, handpicked by Sear, in exactly the same spots that St Sebastian’s body is pierced by arrows. The effect is magnificent and overwhelming – not least because of the golden light – akin to standing before some masterful altarpiece. A church for worshippers of nature? For those who worry about getting old? A monument to times gone by, to changing technologies, to film and literature. These five rooms offer all this and more. There is much to be fathomed in Sear’s work, but there is much to simply be felt as well.
Helen Sear: … the rest is smoke
Cymru yn Fenis / Wales in Venice
Santa Maria Ausiliatrice, Castello 450, Venice
9 May – 22 November 2015
Interview by ANNA McNAY
Filmed by MARTIN KENNEDY