Woman About Town

Controlled Chaos

This article is taken from the May 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The show by Mexican artist Bosco Sodi at the Palazzo Vendramin Grimani divided opinion in Venice last year. What Goes Around Comes Around was described as a reconfiguring of the journey of raw materials which had conventionally flowed just one way into the great mercantile maw that was La Serenissima in its pomp. 

A living manifestation of absolute political power

For example, the production of the cochineal dye which produced the refulgent glosses of Titian’s draperies was for centuries the principal export of Oaxaca state on Mexico’s Pacific Coast, and Sodi explored its “appropriation” in a “controlled chaos” of sculptures installed in the palazzo’s androna, the long central portico which was the traditional locus of Venetian trade. 

Or he dumped huge spheres of raw clay all over the floor, depending which way one felt about it. 

I admit to being a bit underwhelmed by Sodi’s works until I was lucky enough to have the chance to explore them in situ at Casa Wabi, the foundation created by the artist near Puerto Escondido. Designed with Japanese architect Tadao Ando, it incorporates a 312m concrete wall which divides public and private spaces — studios, galleries, workshops, gardens, a maze, the whole space humming with the hypnotic weight of Escondido’s vast, deadly waves; the most harmonious, serene and organically intelligent site of contemporary architecture I have ever seen.

* * *

The big frieze 

One highlight amongst many at Casa Wabi was the austerely haunting observatory, reached by a short underground tunnel, modelled on construction of the ancient Zapotec temples at another Oaxaca miracle, Monte Alban. The sheer scale of this fifth-century pyramid complex, high on the mesa above the state capital is rendered even more impressive by the fact that the city was deliberately constructed (without the aid of horses or wheels), in a place with no natural water or space for agriculture, a living manifestation of absolute political power. 

The inhabitants of Alban were maintained by tribute alone, and whilst the purpose of many of the mighty buildings remains unclear, one of the most intriguing relics is the series of friezes known as Los Danzantes. There are presently three theories as to what these graphically-contorted sculpted figures represent; the sacrifice of conquered Olmec chieftains, the deformed incestuous offspring of the Zapotec elites, who practised interfamilial marriage to preserve their bloodlines, or the victims of a plague which eradicated the city of Alban in a single generation. 

Whatever its origin, the work is disarmingly modern in execution, a reminder of the sophistication of a civilization which was tracking the movements of the planets with silver astrolabes at a period when most Europeans lived in wattle huts. 

• • •

Between waitressing and signing-on in Stoke-on-Trent, there wasn’t much in the way of “yah” to my original gap year. 

Three weeks in Mexico with a backpack and no itinerary felt like a glorious regression into irresponsible teenagerdom, but on the nine-hour minivan journey across the mountains from Oaxaca City to the coast I began to feel rather elderly. 

It wasn’t so much that I was the only passenger not to have stopped off to do mushrooms in San Jose Pacifico; I’d just forgotten that people under 25 think that hallucinogens are an engaging topic of conversation. Zipolite, the beach where the Summer of Love went to die, was full of yoni massage workshops, giant ants and the sorry knowledge that I am just too old for the filth of hostels. 

Why can’t people who spend actual years of their lives twisting their ankle behind their heads in Resting Warrior get their elbows round a bottle of Jif? 

The low point wasn’t so much the combined shower/loo combo (I know, pathetic, I had an actual bathroom), but the “Naked Margarita” party every afternoon. Trying to do a talking-head Zoom call for a TV history job with the odd junkie wearing nothing but tattoos weaving about in the background wasn’t quite the carefree vibe I had been aiming at.

* * *

Time and tide

Back home in time for the launch of Philip Gwynne Jones’s novel The Angels of Venice at the Circolo Italo-Britannico. The Circolo is one of Venice’s oldest cross-cultural institutions and its lectures are as varied as they are recondite — recent topics include the history of magistrates’ courts since the fourteenth century and the redemptive potential of I.A. Richards’s literary criticism. 

I met Philip when I moved to Venice nearly five years ago when he was working on the first of his books featuring Nathan Sutherland, the honorary British Consul. They have enjoyed huge success, with a sixth, The Venetian Candidate, to be published in July this year. The present novel is set during the acqua alta of 2019, the worst flood the city has experienced for fifty years. Guests compared notes about their experiences, including Sotheby’s Venetian Property director Pietro Rusconi, who carried on working in waders while fish swam beneath his desk.

Then to London to catch the magnificent Spain and the Hispanic World show at the Royal Academy. After Casa Wabi, the ceramics and lacquered wood were particularly compelling: one seventeenth- century bowl from Periban features a densely-populated invented landscape alive with hunters, armadillos and unicorns, a fantastical recreation of a world the artist had never seen. Its vitality reminded me of the unlikely pair of Lions of San Marco I had seen flanking an altar in the Carmelite church in Oaxaca City, evidence of imaginative exchanges which were taking place across the world centuries before the concept of ‘appropriation” began its insidious work.

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