VENICE — Angel iconography is universal, but there’s something truly arresting in the seven cherubs created by Rachel Lee Hovnanian, cast in white bronze and silenced by two sculpted, crossed pieces of tape over their mouths.
The American artist’s immersive installation, “Angels Listening,” which is being unveiled Thursday as a Collateral Event of the Venice Art Biennale and will be on view from Saturday to Nov. 27, has the angels staged around a silver confessional, dubbed the “Cathartic Box.” The artist invites viewers to write on a ribbon their most personal thoughts, whether repressed due to fear of judgment or out of an inability to speak them.
Visitors will be able to place the ribbons into the box while ringing an awakening bell that symbolizes the role of the angels as mute listeners.
At the end of each day, the messages will be taken out of the box and ironed on prayer-like mats in the garden, and made permanent. “The performers become the listeners,” Hovnanian explains during a preview visit with WWD.
The location is conducive to meditation and silence, far from the tourists on gondolas and the bustle around Piazza San Marco, as it is nestled in the 18th-century Biblioteca Zenobiana del Temanza and in its gardens in Dorsoduro, home to the Armenian Culture Studies and Documentation Center since 1991.
“’Angels Listening’ offers a space that transforms hundreds of silenced voices into a chorus of confessions, allowing to reflect on issues related to identity and relationships, and on the role of art in this unprecedented moment in history,” says Hovnanian.
The COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing have “deeply altered the way we connect with each other today.”
The artist has explored the dominance of technology before, highlighting how alienating it can become, but she admits that during the pandemic, it has also helped to communicate and share experiences when physical encounters were restricted. “The phone became a lifesaver when we were silenced and apart, masked and anxious,” she says.
The messages at the installation will also contribute to a sense of freedom as “you can’t be traced through a global platform.”
This is a very personal installation, reflecting Hovnanian’s own struggles to speak up as a victim of sexual harassment and, as a child, growing up with a father whose issues with alcohol drove her to silence, thinking that “maybe nobody will want to be friends” with her if others knew what was happening at home. The artist has explored the image of a silenced angel before, illustrating the suppression of truth and the expression “be an angel and keep your mouth shut.”
As the #MeToo movement started to take shape, she began to feel “strong enough” to speak up through her art, while “many other people are silenced, living with their trauma.”
The number seven recurs throughout the installation. The angels are seven, as the days in the week, the frequency bands and colors that create the visible spectrum and the fundamental units of measurement, she explains.
“Seven bright stars that form the Big Dipper and Ursa Minor constellations, seven heavenly virtues and musical notes and seven deadly sins. Seven is the number of hills that comprise Rome — the core of Western culture — and seven is the Buddhist number of completeness,” said Hovnanian.
Hovnanian is a New York- and Miami-based artist whose multidisciplinary practice explores the complexities of modern feminism, cultural ideals regarding physical perfection, and the psychological effects of new media and technology. She has lived and worked for several months every year for the past decade in Italy, leading to several solo exhibitions in the country, in the Church of San Cristoforo in Lucca in 2020 and in Pisa at the Church of Santa Maria della Spina last year. With The Women’s Trilogy Project, a three-part solo presentation at Leila Heller Gallery in 2018, Hovnanian became one of the only female artists to be given three consecutive exhibitions at a New York gallery. She has exhibited internationally in solo exhibitions at the Joyce Gallery in Beijing and Fundación Pons in Barcelona, among others.
Hovnanian, who in 2019 staged the first solo exhibition by a woman at the medieval Medici Palazzo Museum in Tuscany’s Seravezza, a small town near the luxury beachside resort Forte dei Marmi, says humbly that she was “thrilled to be part of the Biennale” and that it was “an unexpected surprise.”
Minas Lourian, director of the Armenian culture center and formerly the president of the Union of Armenians in Italy, said he was impressed by “how open Rachel is, how her messages are limpid, and she is passionate and engaging. I really wanted to show her work in Venice in this magical venue.”
Curator Annalisa Bugliani also underscores the importance of the immersive environments where Hovnanian has been staging her exhibitions, from the palazzo in Seravezza, to this “other very important location, a place of study, silence and devotion, evoking strength and energy,” recalling how April 24 is also the anniversary of the Armenian genocide.