December 24, 2013

American Preservationist in Venice: Impressions from the 55th Venice Biennale

  • By: Guest Writer

Over the next few months, we'll be featuring posts from our colleague Tom Mayes, deputy general counsel at the National Trust and a 2013 Rome Prize winner in Historic Preservation from the American Academy. (Follow Preservation Leadership Forum for Tom's periodic essays on "why old places matter.") Here on PreservationNation, he'll be sharing his reflections on preservation at home and abroad.

Outside Venice's Arsenale, where the Biennale was held. Credit: Thompson Mayes
Outside Venice's Arsenale, where the Biennale was held

I recently took a quick trip to Venice to see the 55th Venice Biennale, an international art exhibition that happens every two years. Over two days, I wandered through the installations at the two primary locations -- the Giardini and the Arsenale.

Although I entered the exhibition thinking only about experiencing art, I quickly recognized that many works dealt with preservation issues. With a theme of the Encyclopedic Palace -- the idea of capturing all the world’s knowledge in a museum -- it’s not surprising that many of the artists grappled with themes of history, place, collective memory, and identity.

I was also struck by the extent that the exhibition as a whole highlights a worldwide problem -- a sense of alienation and dislocation, both from place and from society. The artists seemed to channel a sense of anxiety and a desire for stability and belonging, and to pour it into their art.

Because I’ve been thinking nonstop about why old places matter, it dawned on me that this is exactly the problem that people who save old places are trying to address -- to give people the chance for belonging, identity, and continuity in the places around them, and to mitigate their sense of alienation. Like the artists who are trying to forge connections, re-connections, or new understandings, old places have the capacity to help people feel connected to themselves, society. and the world.

Recreated portion of a Hui-style house by Chinese artist Hu Yaolin. Credit: Thompson Mayes
Recreated portion of a Hui-style house by Chinese artist Hu Yaolin

It’s good, healing work. Here are three of the installations that particularly resonated with me as someone who thinks that old places build identity:

  • The installation with the most direct preservation message was by Chinese artist Hu Yaolin, who recreated a portion of a Hui-style house in the garden of the People’s Republic of China pavilion to make a statement about the loss of traditional Chinese architecture. The artist has worked to preserve, restore, and rebuild old Chinese styled houses. The commentary accompanying the work stated that the frame of the reconstructed house creates an oval that looks to the sky, symbolically tying the installation to the oculus of the Pantheon in Rome. It is an opening where we can look back through history and the human imagination.
  • In the Danish Pavilion, Jesper Just installed films that show three people walking through a landscape that seems partly destroyed and partly under construction. The architecture of the buildings is historicist, but the buildings are new. (In fact, they are the reproduction of Paris as a gated city in Tianducheng, China.) As I watched a man walking through muddy, trash-filled fields, then entering the planned city, I felt his alienation from this landscape and place. He stops and touches the building. His hands feel the texture of the wall. He leans into the building and seems to listen to it. His -- and the other characters’ -- search for a connection to place and identity was powerfully apparent. (See images from the work, titled Intercourses.)
  • The Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar chose two places for his work, Venezia, Venezia. The work begins with an image of the artist Lucio Fontana returning to his bombed and destroyed studio in Milan in 1946. The next aspect of the work is a large pool of water. Every three minutes, an exact model of the Giardini (the location of the permanent national pavilions for the Venice Biennale), rises from the water, which is the color of the lagoons that surround Venice. My immediate reaction was that this must be about the threat that Venice faces from rising seawater. And yes, that is part of the meaning, but Alfredo Jaar was also making a statement about what these buildings in the Giardini represent -- countries that were imperial powers before World War II -- and the need to challenge the concept of national identity. Preservationists grapple with all of these themes -- the terrible destruction of places of personal and collective memory during war, the threat to historic places as a result of climate change, and the persistent need to re-evaluate and re-interpret places of national identity.

This model of the Giardini by artist Alfredo Jaar sinks and rises. Credit: Thomas Kelley
This model of the Giardini by artist Alfredo Jaar sinks and rises.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the Biennale from a preservationist perspective is its location in Venice, a World Heritage Site, and at the Arsenale, Venice’s old naval yard. It’s a breathtaking juxtaposition of contemporary art in historic buildings and gardens in an astonishingly old and beautiful city. The Biennale makes Venice contemporary and even more meaningful.

Like the artists who struggle for identity, meaning, and connection through their art, people who save old places provide these possibilities through place. Better yet, they preserve the opportunity to find new meanings in old places -- just as in Venice.

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