Rachel Lee Hovnanian: Angels Listening
“What do you want to say? Nothing. Everything. Yes. Be patient. You will say it all. Begin with what you feel, here, right away.”
–Luce Irigaray, “When Our Lips Speak Together”
On View59th Venice Biennale Collateral Event
April 23 – November 27, 2022
Signs of historicism, religious iconicity and psychoanalytic thought permeate Rachel Lee Hovnanian’s current exhibition, Angels Listening, now on view as part of the 2022 Venice Biennale. Text—including the viewer’s own written words—and sculpture make up the central structure of this project. Curated by Annalisa Bugliani, Angels Listening redirects the thematic trajectory of this year’s Biennale—named The Milk of Dreams after the Surrealist painter Leonora Carrington’s fairy tale book of the same name—toward socially engaged artmaking that operates through audience participation.
In Hovnanian’s exhibition the definitions of medium and message, artist and spectator, addresser and addressee, sacred and secular, along with the aesthetic and the real, have been rendered interdependent. Each category is made flexible, able to be shaped by the introspective viewer-participant, a fluidity that redirects the traditionally circumscribed experience of a silent spectator toward psychic emancipation. To do this, Hovnanian draws on three interrelated, semireligious earlier projects that touch upon the individual’s capacity for cathartic release, or even purgation: Dinner for Two, staged in Pisa in 2021; another iteration of Dinner for Two, this one held in Lucca in 2020; and Taped Shut, which was presented in New York in 2019.
Visitors entering the current exhibition first confront X Listening, a neon text just about two meters high, mounted upon the eastern wall of the portico of the 1767 neoclassical casino, or pavilion, the show occupies. The architecture is characterized by an elegant Palladian façade designed by Tommaso Temanza. Currently known as Biblioteca Zenobiana del Temanza and located in Dorsoduro, one of the six sestieri or subdivisions of Venice, the casino faces Ca’ Zenobio degli Armeni, an eighteenth-century palace skillfully designed in a grand Baroque style by Antonio Gaspari.
Upon entering the exhibition space proper, inside the pavilion, the viewer is guided by the following instructional text posted upon a wall:
Approach either side of the confessional.
Take a ribbon.
Write what you could not say, what you did not say.
Open the door and leave your message in the box.
Ring the awakening bell.
Take a listening blanket and reflect in the garden.
Titled Silenced White Bronze Angels, seven replicas of a two-meter-high bust of a cherubic figure in white bronze, each mounted upon a cylindrical pedestal, surround the visitor within a low-lit space, where a barely audible hymn of penitence, attributed to fifth-century hymnologist and linguist Mesrop Mashtots, carefully treads the threshold between sound and silence, expression and reserve. With X-ed out mouths signifying “what you could not say, what you did not say,” Hovnanian’s depiction of celestial bodies is accompanied by La confessione d’argento (The Silver Confessional), a baroque-style confessional, along with La Scatola Catartica (The Cathartic Box) & Awakening Bell, consisting of a repurposed vessel placed underneath a bell. In concept, both of these structures recall the function of Sigmund Freud’s famous psychoanalytic couch. Visitors are accordingly invited—through white ribbons and writing instruments—to anonymously express their innermost thoughts, impulses, repressions, existential concerns and metaphysical quests. One’s doubts about the self, about the immediate familial space, or about the broader sociocultural sphere may also be disclosed. The analyst and analysand, now desegregated in the person of the visitor, together give rise to such written utterances as:
I feel constantly alone.
Sometimes I feel so ashamed of myself that I would like to disappear.
I wish I had been able to say no.
Am scared of dying but I’m afraid to live.
All the things I tolerated made me cold inside.
I do not love a person I should.
I cannot forgive. I was abused. I was a victim. I am not a bad person. I am afraid.
I was raped.
Hundreds of these sentences in numerous languages, left within the temporary repository beneath the bell, are regularly incorporated into blankets spread upon the lawn of the garden outside, where visitors may sit down to reflect upon their own experiences within the context of the writings of others. Recalling concerns detailed by Anna C. Chave in Trauma and Visuality in Modernity—a formative collection of essays by ten academics who address modern and contemporary art’s place within the broader social field—Angels Listening is a form of social work that coexists in critical tension with its distinctly highbrow humanist framework. As Chave explains,
No matter how appalling, rape statistics remain social statistics, of course, and art and art history are not exactly social work … And what troubles me, in a time of some post-ness for feminism, is art writing that seems bent on banishing the troublesome specter of woman as victim by erasing signs of traumatic experience, or even of difference in general, from women’s art production.1
Chave’s commitment to examining the praxis of art and its reception within the context of female corporeality and trauma finds a powerful parallel in the tenets of Angels Listening.
And yet the extent to which Hovnanian’s interactive and meditative project can actually engender some degree of self-reflection, self-redemption, catharsis, or emancipation can only be assessed by the individual participant. I cannot help, however, but recall the words of Hélène Cixous as a discursive counterpart to Angels Listening: “Women’s imaginary is inexhaustible, like music, painting, writing: their stream of phantasms is incredible. … Time and again I, too, have felt so full of luminous torrents that I could burst—burst with forms much more beautiful than those which are put in frames and sold for a stinking fortune. And I, too, said nothing, showed nothing; I didn’t open my mouth, I didn’t repaint my half of the world. I was ashamed. I was afraid, and I swallowed my shame and my fear.”2 It is the very exigency of such repressions, felt by Cixous as by so many of us, that Hovnanian’s installation seeks to reckon with.
Anna C. Chave, “'Normal Ills': On Embodiment, Victimization, and the Origins of Feminist Art,” in Trauma and Visuality in Modernity, eds. Eric Rosenberg and Lisa Saltzman (New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 2006), pp. 132-157, here pp. 141-43.
Hélène Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Vol. 1, No. 4 (Summer 1976), pp. 875-93, here p. 876.