Postgraduate student Roberta De Caro has researched the work of contemporary artist Zhanna Kadyrova through the lens of materiality, applying the investigative methods developed during the MA Art & Material Histories course. The resulting work is an essay titled ‘The matter of materials in Zhanna Kadyrova’s installation Second Hand, Venice Biennale, 2019′. 

De Caro examines Kadyrova’s work, made almost exclusively of ceramic tiles, from a number of perspectives, questioning the materials of the work beyond what is tangible. In doing so, she highlights the contingency of the work to its setting, unravelling an intricate web of histories linked to humankind’s engagement with the material world. The essay is published on Roberta’s website in its entirety here.

In contemporary art discourse, the question of what constitutes the material of a work of art can be a matter of a certain fluidity. Since the birth of conceptual art in the 1960s, the notion has expanded beyond the traditional mediums of painting and sculpture to include intangible matter and ideas, as outlined in Lucy Lippard and John Chandler’s 1968 essay ‘The dematerialization of art’. Minimalism gave relevance to the spatial relationship between the object and the viewer; installation art of the ‘60s and ‘70s made this relationship crucial. The site of the artwork is activated in a shift from formalism towards more experiential forms of art making, particularly in site-specific installations, conceived at their origin as part of a predetermined space. Moreover, through the postmodern lens of institutional critique, the gallery is increasingly viewed, not simply as an architectural container, but as a concrete presence that alters the content of the work. It doesn’t just present it, but actively shapes it, using it as an ideological mirror. What’s more, in site-oriented art, the concept of context is extended further, beyond the gallery walls to the locality of the exhibition, to its geography, culture and socio-political history. In these cases, the institution that commissions the artwork and the wider context of its location can be interpreted broadly as the materials of the work, equal to its physical matter.

A contemporary work of art that can be said to employ its context as material is the site-specific installation by Ukrainian artist Zhanna Kadyrova (b. 1981), presented at the 58th International Venice Biennale in 2019 as part of a long-running project titled Second Hand (2014-). This essay posits that not only does this specific intervention depend on its placement at the Biennale, but it is also contingent on its presence in Venice. Observing the interdependence of these elements, integral to the work from conception to reception, it argues that the Venice Biennale and the wider context of the city of Venice are materials of the work in their own right, on par with the more tangible aspects of the work.

Photo by: Roberta de Caro

Approaching the back of the Giardini’s Central Pavilion by boat, the viewer is presented with a familiar sight, albeit out of place: suspended from two metal cables passing as a continuous string of washing lines, a series of items of clothing appears to be hung out to dry. The wires extend away from two adjacent windows; one towards the left and the other to the right of the outside of the building. Hanging loosely on the latter are: a pair of socks pegged individually, an orange dress patterned with circles, a pair of knickers, more knee-high socks, followed by some ankle socks, a shawl. On a shorter line on the other side, a large drape resembling a bedcover decorated with oblong oval shapes repeated rhythmically, sways gently next to a neatly folded sheet. It is the architectural structure of the gallery, as it zigzags its way along the canal that determines the length of these clotheslines. Even to the uninitiated eye, these fabrics appear unusual: their movement in the wind is incompatible with what they represent. Their folds are angular and rigid. Soon enough the viewer can recognise the unmistakable grid-like structure of ceramic tiles and their smooth, glazed surfaces. Plain and monochrome, or with intricate patterns and rich colours, these tiles are grouted together in three dimensional sculptures, and displayed to mimic the ubiquitous clotheslines of the Venetian landscape. Out of context, these architectural clothes seem to nod at a tradition of feminist art focused on domesticity, exemplified by Louise Bourgeois’ Femme Maison (1946-47). However, context is the fibre of this work.

Venice Biennale, 2019 is part of the ongoing project Second Hand that started five years previously, during a residency at the Galleria Continua, Brazil. Sao Paulo, 2014 was created in response to the aesthetic of the city’s architecture. The artist used locally sourced second hand tiles to make clothes that reflected the richness of the city’s buildings, lined with tiles of elaborate patterns and vivid colours. In an interview with the Calvert Journal, Kadyrova says: “I wanted the project to be about memory, but in a way that preserved the material history of the place.” The artist has developed six different interventions since, repeating the same modus operandi: making clothes from reclaimed tiles. As the title of the project suggests, the tiles have a previous history, a biography of their own, which is key to understanding what distinguishes one iteration from another, and their meaning in the overall project. Kadyrova is an itinerant artist, one that creates work in response to the place they are invited to, by the institution that commissions it. Her work is produced in situ, with locally sourced materials. As well as physical matter, the resulting artwork contains the cultural and historical framework of the site within its fabric, employed as a mere material. Curator and art historian Miwon Kwon describes similar nomadic practices as being “site-oriented” but not site-bound, where the artist acts “as the primary vehicle for [the work’s] verification, repetition and circulation.” (2004, p.47)

Accordingly, to make the items on her clotheslines, the artist sourced her material in Venice, salvaging the tiles of the Hotel All’Angelo, which was undergoing renovation when Kadyrova was invited to participate in the exhibition. The hotel, situated in the heart of San Marco, has a long history of supporting artists, occasionally providing accommodation in exchange for artwork. Thanks to this, the hotel boasts a collection that includes the work of Matisse, Braque, and Picasso amongst others. Kadyrova inverts the trend of the modernist painters: instead of producing work to enrich the walls of the hotel, she recycles the hotel’s discarded walls to add to her postmodern collections of garments.

Venice Biennale, 2019 is visible from inside the gallery through the two windows it hangs from. A mannequin, wearing a stylish 1970s dress, is placed between them. Its blue, green, white, and brown tiles are arranged in a regular pattern. These tiles have a different story: they are the remains of a disused bus station in Chernobyl, as the label reveals: “Second Hand, 2017, Poliske bus station (Chernobyl exclusion zone), collected ceramics”. Further into the gallery, hanging from wooden hangers, a series of colourful clothes are displayed on a scaffolding structure, posing as a two storey wardrobe. Although stylized by the dark lines of their interstices, these sections of walls are descriptive of the clothes they represent. There are various dresses, a turquoise puffer jacket, a pair of shorts, a skirt, a poncho, and a scarf. The tiles in this collection, titled Kyiv, 2015, are from the old Darnitski Silk Factory in Kiev, Kadyrova’s birth place. A short accompanying film provides historical context, contrasting images of the factory in its current guise as a busy shopping mall with those of a flourishing textile factory, a “Soviet era production giant” of the second half of the 20th century. The video highlights that, beyond providing employment, the factory offered a social infrastructure for its employees. Designed to enable social interaction, it was made welcoming by the colourful tiles that covered the otherwise grim concrete walls of the modernist buildings.

Kadyrova’s poetic appropriation of architectural spaces draws a parallel with other works that act as monuments to memory, where the materiality of the work re-enacts the loss of lived spaces: namely Rachel Whiteread’s large-scale casts of buildings such as Ghost (1990) or Heidi Bucher’s latex Raumhauten or room skins, such as Kleines Glasportal, Bellevue Kreuzlingen (1988). Made of clay, a material that it said to have a memory, these tiles are used by Kadyrova to re-enact the memory of social spaces, whose stories are being forcefully deleted or woefully ignored. However, whilst Whiteread and Bucher create single sculptural works that replicate specific architectural spaces, Kadyrova deploys her work in series by reusing the tiles of the different social environments she recovers. With her architectural dresses, the artist shifts the focus from habitation to habit, and to habitus; from the personal to the collective and vice versa. The project is not simply a recuperation of what is lost, but a reflection on society’s attitudes towards it.

The use of tiles from the Chernobyl bus station highlights the harsh reality of the nuclear disaster. By dressing her mannequin in a material that has been physically affected by radiation, Kadyrova puts on display that which has been degraded, abandoned and forgotten; an act of preserving its memory whilst shedding light on how easily anaesthetised we become with ‘the new normal’. What’s more, she sets it against the frivolous portrayal of commodity fetishism promoted by the fashion industry. Similarly, in Kyiv 2015, the material – previously appreciated for its social value – embodies the memory of its former system as a way of rescuing it from historical and political oblivion. The Darnitski Silk Factory is one of many industries of the communist era which were dismantled with the dissolution of the USSR, and replaced with a westernised model, founded on capitalism. Witness to these socio-political changes, Kadyrova critiques the process of de-communisation (formalised in Ukraine in 2015), considered by many a ruthless attempt to erase all evidence of the country’s soviet past. The work invites a comparison with the current economic model, centred on productivity and performance over welfare. The artist says of the Darnitski Silk Factory: “[it had] a surprising approach when we look at it in a modern-day context, with our obsession with ‘efficiency’ and ‘cost effectiveness’”, adding: “The question is whether such ideas really belong to the past, and what comes in their place.”

In contrast, the tiles of the Hotel All’Angelo, in St. Mark’s Square, are a symbol of heritage commodification, where value is placed on the economic benefits of the tourism industry. Used to embellish a centre of international tourism, these tiles were valued for the profit they enabled, until the current aesthetics made them redundant. Presented anew at the Venice Biennale as commodified objects, these tiles reach beyond the memories imprinted onto them. They surpass the social and political mould of the buildings that contained them. They make reference to contemporary Venice, whilst forging links to the city’s imperial past that, despite its decline, still makes Venice the prestigious city it is. Tying one end of her clothesline to modern-day Venice and the other to its maritime power of the past, the artist creates a visual image of the cultural and historical lineage of the city, and one that reflects broader narratives of power and privilege. The legacy of Venice, as importer of materials and as innovator in design, prompts an examination of the material history of tiles, providing a new framework for the various iterations of Second Hand. All these elements make Venice an indispensable part of the installation; one of its materials.

The formal representation of the work makes an immediate connection with contemporary Venice, punctuated by seemingly endless strings of clotheslines that, like a Duchampian experiment, thread through the city across narrow passageways or above the numerous canals. Nowadays a major tourist attraction, Venice’s network of waterways once provided the defence system that enabled the growth of its empire, as historian Francesco Da Mosto details in his television program and book Francesco’s Venice (2004, p.22). History is palpable in the topography of the city and in its architecture, which juxtaposes the neoclassical, Gothic, Renaissance buildings with constructions of eastern influence. The artist’s gesture of presenting wall fragments of other cultures is set against the background of Venice’s mismatched architectural styles; assimilating looted marble columns and slabs, and statues such as the four Horses of St. Mark’s; plundered during the sack of Constantinople in 1204. The spoils of the Byzantine capital that still adorn St. Mark’s Square once functioned as an embodiment of power, signalling to the neighbouring states the Venetians’ imperialistic agenda. The material weight of these marbles and bronzes acted as a signifier of entitlement for a people who considered themselves the heirs of the Roman Empire. By washing the city’s dirty linen in public, Kadyrova’s work questions their role in modern-day Venice.

 “Envied [by the world] for its material and artistic wealth” (Da Mosto, 2004, p.81), Venice is strongly associated with its past as unrivalled mercantile power. The Venice of late medieval and early Renaissance times has a rich history of movement of materials through trading routes of the historic Silk Road, reaching across the Mediterranean basin to the Far East and Asia Minor. Venice was a major importer of goods ranging from gems and spices to fine fabrics. Between the 9th and the 13th centuries, the Republic of Venice constructed a powerful economic empire thanks to its expansive maritime capabilities, trading rights granted by the Byzantine Empire, and a strategic position on the Adriatic Sea – the crossroads between east and west. These conditions set the foundations for a burgeoning mercantile industry that dominated the European markets for centuries, introducing to the west objects and materials that told stories of eastern cultures and traditions.

Just as a merchant that has just returned from their travels, Kadyrova puts on display her exotic textiles and luminous wares that project stories of different places. Like the silk, brocades, and cottons transported overseas by the Venetians, these “text-tiles” reflect the narratives of their provenance. But whilst Venice built an empire on the commodification of materials, valued as symbols of different cultures, the artist uses their discarded materials to question the status quo. Venice used materials to gain power, and still derives benefits from its past glory through the tourism industry. By contrast, Kadyrova uses this history as a material of her work to weave a complex tapestry of power structures. To use art critic Brian O’Doherty’s terminology of the conceptual gesture, the work “dispatches the bull of history with a single thrust.” (1976, p.70)

The Venetians excelled in diplomacy as much as they did in craftsmanship. For centuries, in medieval times, they were the keepers of the ancient knowledge of the arts of fire, which had originated in the Middle East, and had been developed by the Romans. Adept in the use of glazes and enamels, they revitalised the art of glass-making, setting the benchmark for quality and taste throughout the whole of Europe, for centuries to come. The history of Venetian ingenuity in the art of glass and in the use of glazes draws parallels with the history of its close relative: ceramics. As curator Catherine Hess demonstrates in the exhibitionThe arts of fire: Islamic influences on the Italian Renaissance, heldat the Getty Center in 2004, ceramics were developed by the same Mesopotamian civilisations who improved pottery by fusing vitreous substances (glazes) onto the porous surface of fired clay (2004, p.13). Strengthened and sealed by glaze coatings, these new waterproof surfaces were employed also in tile-making. To this day, tiles are still made by cutting rolled out slabs of clay or by pressing it into moulds, and firing a coating of glaze onto their surface. As noted by assistant curator of ceramic and glass at the Victoria & Albert Museum, Terry Bloxham, the process has hardly changed in the last three thousand years, since the earliest known examples found in the subterranean chambers ofthe Step Pyramid in Saqqara, Egypt (2019, p.7).

Used in kitchens and bathrooms, floors and roofs, in historical and contemporary buildings, tiles range from unassuming to highly sophisticated, depending on the glaze. Ceramics are also present in the tesserae of antique mosaics: used frequently in Imperial Rome to signal status, such as those discovered in Pompeii; or employed, for their luminosity, to evoke the heavenly realms in Byzantine churches, as in the example of the church of San Vitale, Ravenna. Impermeable and toughened by the protective layers of glaze, tiles resist decay, providing glints of the values of previous civilizations. A remarkable example of this is the unspoiled and perfectly preserved Ishtar Gate (575 BCE), the eighth gate of the city of Babylon, on display in its entirety at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. In the instance of Kadyrova’s textiles, tiles give presence to something perishable that would otherwise fade away with the corrosion of time. If the other interventions of Second Hand re-instate the histories of specific places, Venice Biennale, 2019 goes one step further to trace part of the history of our engagement with materials.

Despite coming from different places, the various tiles of Second Hand all originate from the same matrix. Ancient civilizations of what is modern-day Iraq collected soft clay from river beds, formed naturally from the accumulation of rock detritus. With the use of fire, they transformed a plastic and malleable substance into a rigid, unmoving material, which travelled across the globe and across millennia. Whilst the Soviet tiles grew out of a tradition arching back to the Byzantine Empire, the tiles of Sao Paulo, 2014, and of a later intervention titled Havana Libre, Cuba, 2017, followed an alternative trajectory that moved between North Africa, Sicily, the Iberian peninsula, and Florence, where the art of majolica was developed (Hess, 2004, p.13), to cross the Atlantic with the colonisation of the Americas. Descendants of the same civilization, the history of these tiles marks the developments of mankind, bearing witness to a continuum of socio-political changes. As a city that has been instrumental in the transfer and development of innovative processes based on material investigations, Venice acts like a magnifying glass on the intricate web of these histories.

In summoning Venice’s past and present, the installation bridges the history of materials with the history of humanity, shaping the reading of the work and of the project. However, the work also depends on another element, arguably one of its materials: the exhibition itself. The Venice Biennale, a context within a context, is crucial to the installation for different reasons. Firstly, the work was created in response to curator Ralph Rugoff’s invitation to participate in the show. Kadyrova adapted her modular project to its new setting, sourcing the tiles in-situ. It is on the strength of Rugoff’s curatorial choice that ideas were formulated based on the space. Another such reason lies in the role that the institution plays in the artwork. It is therefore important to consider its history.

The Biennale was conceived as an opportunity to revive Venice’s cultural status in Europe which, by 1895 when it was established, had been depleted by the previous decades of crisis (Da Mosto, 2004, p.188). Originally named the International Art Exhibition, it was to become a demonstration of primacy in the arts, which would position Venice at the heart of the world’s cultural map. As art historian James Voorhies points out in Beyond objecthood: the exhibition as a critical form since 1968, the Biennale “sought to promote the superiority of the nation-state with a political agenda” (2017, p.92). The exhibition was, much like the spoils of Constantinople in St. Mark’s Square, a way to re-assert the prestige of the city, the last vestiges of the powerful Venetian empire. Much like today, participating countries would compete to win the Golden Lion by showcasing their greatest artistic talents, each in their own national pavilion. Designed and built by each country to their taste and specifications, the pavilions remain the property of each nation and a mark of national identity. This conglomeration of international buildings made Venice an international hub of arts and culture, positively impacting its economy. Recently, the nationalistic tones of the Biennale have softened, although it can hardly escape its imperialistic legacy (ibid, p.93). The institution’s longevity and the widespread adoption of its model worldwide are credits to its success. But what is the measure of this success?

For an artist engaged in Marxist critique, such as Kadyrova, the Venice Biennale represents the perfect place to set up their stall; which the artist does, not just with this installation, but also quite explicitly with the work presented in the Arsenale titled Market (2018), a stall laden with reproduction foodstuffs. The tiles of the Hotel All’Angelo are at once the waste of a system that has rejected them, and the fabric of highly valuable sculptures. This new value is contingent on the rarefied arena of the art gallery. Kadyrova is not limiting her critique to the commodification of the tourism industry. By reassigning the value of these disused tiles, the artist also makes a comment on the commodification of art. Moreover, by presenting them at the Biennale, she attacks the commodification of culture tourism. In one single gesture, Kadyrova uses the exhibition to broaden the scope of her critique, including this model as the arena of art tourism; one that combines “the experience of a city and the experience of the exhibition […] to elevate the biennial into a single marketable global commodity” as Voorhies observes (2017, p.98). The exhibition shapes the meaning of the work; it is employed as a material.

The idea that the institution alters the content of the art it displays was articulated by O’Doherty in his groundbreaking 1976 essay ‘Context as content’. Kadyrova’s work engages deeply with this insight into the role of the white cube as an ideological model, founded on a presumption of neutrality. In his words: “With postmodernism, the gallery space is no longer ‘neutral’. The wall becomes a membrane through which esthetic and commercial values osmotically exchange” (1976, p.79). Kadyrova’s clotheslines follow in the tradition of artists who, in the 1970s, openly questioned the purity of the white cube, such as Daniel Buren, Michael Asher, and Hans Haacke to name but a few. Her display of clothes hanging in the wind makes reference to Buren’s signature green and white striped canvasses that extended beyond the confines of the gallery to hang outside. Like Buren’s Within and beyond the frame (1973), Kadyrova’s site-specific installation creeps out of the “magic chamber” of the gallery (ibid, p.80), as if to repudiate this logic. The illusionary nature of the white cube is subverted further by the physical interruption of its structure by way of two windows. These openings break the flow of spotless white walls, unchanging lighting, and controlled ambiance of the gallery’s hermetic environment. Architecture is called upon again, in this instance to disturb the hybrid timelessness of the gallery space, and to bring the viewer back to the real world: sunlight pours in, glimmers of light bounce into the gallery, reflected by the waters of the canal below and by the glaze of the tiles. Kadyrova encroaches on the Biennale exposing the site, in Miwon Kwon’s terms, “as a cultural framework defined by the institutions of art.” (2004, p.13)

Legitimised by the structure it critiques, the work engages with the contradictory nature of the art institution, which on the one hand provides the arena of art and on the other constrains it, by imposing its own ideology upon it. Kadyrova employs wit as a synthesis between these two opposites. If the gallery is “in the image of the society that supports it” (O’Doherty, 1976, p.80), the artist produces artwork in the image of its vernacular: the work can be easily assimilated into the city’s walls, rich in clotheslines, shifting the focus towards the pressing issues of the outside world. In fact the clothes hung out to dry faithfully portray the experience of dealing with the problem of rising waters, the plight of Venice. The work sits well within the context of Rugoff’s project for the 2019 Biennale, May you live in interesting times, at once a curse and a challenge. With the 58th edition of the Biennale, Rugoff proposes to present diverse art practices that deal with current challenges, not as documentaries of our times, but as complex inquisitive approaches that “raise questions about the ways in which we mark cultural boundaries and borders.” Rugoff’s proposition is to curate works that inspire fresh insights by providing “deeply engaging points of departure” (Fossa Margutti, 2019, p.37) rather than concrete answers to deal with contemporary issues from fake news to climate change. Global warming is threatening Venice’s existence as the city and all its riches are at risk of disappearing under water. Through Kadyrova’s work, the imperative of the title was made all the more poignant in the final week of the show, when Venice experienced the worst incident of acqua alta since the 1960s, exposing the systemic fragility of the city. The Biennale, like the rest of Venice, came to a halt. The streets, squares and campi were flooded, the transport network paralysed, as the high water seemed to have lowered the bridges, disabling a system that has worked for hundreds of years. Above scenes of destruction, the city’s washing lines were in full swing.

It can be argued that on this occasion, Venice, considered as a material entity, acted upon the work independently, contributing to both Kadyrova’s and Rugoff’s projects. The material world intervened to form new layers of meaning bound to the timing and location of its presentation and to its formal elements. Unlike the other iterations of Second Hand, Venice Biennale, 2019 is “site-and-time-bound”. As Kwon expands, “the in-situ configuration of a project […] is defined by a unique set of geographical and temporal circumstances [and] is dependent on unpredictable and unprogrammable on-site relations.”(2004, p.46) In this case, the material world took ownership of the work, manifesting Rugoff’s interesting times in the birthplace of capitalism (in the 13th century the Venetians invented a series of business practices that, according to Professor at Harvard Business School, Sophus Reinert, set the basis for modern business practices and global capitalism.) The same system that puts profits above welfare, critiqued in Kyiv, 2015, is responsible for the destruction of the environment, which in turn causes the interruption of ‘business as usual’. Now at the receiving end of capitalism’s destructive forces, Venice becomes a theatre for the performance of the world of materials. The city’s own magnificence has returned to haunt it; its material forces are appropriating its material wealth by sinking it into its own waters. Water made it rise, and water makes it sink.

The tiles, the Biennale, and Venice are all equally instrumental in tracing this complex system of interrelated histories linked in rhizomatic ways, in Deleuzian terminology. Whilst the tiles are indisputably Kadyrova’s materials, this edition of the Biennale is Rugoff’s project. These two actors, and their materials, join forces in the making and presentation of the work, which connects to the history of Venice whilst also providing the arena for the material essence of Venice to interfere with the work. Shifting the focus away from a human-centred vision, some scholars of new materialism may view this as proof of the agency of Venice’s materiality. Others, like anthropologist Tim Ingold, may see it as the manifestation of an endless process defined as “hives of activity, pulsing with the flows of materials that keep them alive.” (2007, p.12) Either way, the question of authorship arises: was the complexity of the work built into the design of the artwork from the outset of Kadyrova’s peripatetic project? Or is it attributable to the collaboration with the curator and with Venice, either as a material agent or as a representation of Ingold’s “fluxes and flows of materials” (2017, p.2), described as “a meshwork of interwoven lines of growth and movement” (ibid, p.3).

In conclusion, this essay maps the system of overlapping and contingent histories that unfolds with the presentation of Kadyrova’s clotheslines at the Venice Biennale. By observing the links between the tiles and their previous histories, the city and the history of the materials, and the theme of the show and the lagoon’s predicament, it illustrates how crucial the tiles, the Biennale, and the city of Venice are to the work; all three are its materials. Moreover, it questions whether the design of the installation is purely ascribable to the artist’s peripatetic practice, or whether it springs from a kind of collaboration not only with the curator, but also with Venice as ‘material in action’; its histories and current challenges contributing critically to the meaning of the work. In any case, this site-specific installation is a remarkable example of a multilayered work of art that masterfully connects histories and places, focusing our attention on the relevance of the material world as a conduit for all aspects of life.

Photo by: Roberta de Caro