Lucía Pizzani’s works could easily be mistaken for particularly beautiful artefacts of olden scientific studies. The Venezuelan artist uses bygone methods of documentation such as cyanotypes and collodion wet plate photography to investigate and reinterpret events of past times, creating interwoven narratives about biological and societal transformations. Her past works have focused on investigating the state of female metamorphosis throughout different points in history, taking inspiration, inter alia, from a suffragette attack on an orchid greenhouse at the Kew Gardens in 1913 (“Orchis”, 2011) and the funerary mask of a beautiful unknown maiden whose body was found in the river Seine around 1880 (“Mariposario”, 2013). For “Descent”, her most recent exhibition, Pizzani takes a turn away from her inquiries on the past, focusing instead on contemporary issues in Venezuelan politics.
Winding ceramic sculptures, made of shiny black surfaces that resemble snakeskin, lead the way into the main hall of the Berlin House of Egorn gallery. There, the snakeskin ceramics remain prominent, with several of them being nailed to the walls like poacher’s prey. Next to them, a projection of “Ciclo”: a silent black-and-white video collage of snakes shedding their skin, snakes attacking and devouring each other, stone snakes growing out of a Medusa statue’s head, mixed together with footage depicting Venezuelan protests, police violence and famine. The issue of food shortage is readdressed in the third component of the exhibition, a series of ten photograms depicting Venezuelan staple foods. Using the surrealist-coined method of placing objects onto the surface of light-sensitive material and then exposing it to brightness, Pizzani has created images that render the groceries impalpable, abstract and at times indistinguishable. SLEEK met the artist to find out more about the sombre new tendencies behind these works.
You have worked with collodion photography, photograms and cyanotypes. What interests you about these old, manual methods of documentation?
I started doing that because I was reading this book on the legends of the Victorian era, the technique was contemporary to the story that I was researching. So it was not a random decision. Nowadays, many people are going back to analogue processes of photography, which is also a response to everything being so digital, but in my case, it was more due to the fact that I was researching stories from that era. I was looking into this book called The Worshipper of the Image that was written at the time of the Inconnue de la Seine, that death mask that inspired Man Ray and other surrealists, so I decided to work with collodion because it was a technique that was used in the same historic period. I was shooting these women kind of trapped in cocoon suits made with African fabrics that I saw in Brixton market. I live around there in London. In a way, we are a bit of a mix of everything. I am from Latin America, but I’m living in London in a neighbourhood that has a lot of Carribean and African culture – it’s all in there, it’s all a blend up of places and cultures. I also used collodion for a project about Beatrix Potter. Before becoming a children’s books author, she was researching fungi species. In Victorian times, she was not really allowed to be a scientist, she was not taken seriously. I did this whole project called “A Garden For Beatrix” for which I did these kinds of images in collodium again.
So you generally choose your working method based on your story?
Yes, my method is mostly research-based. But sometimes the material will talk back and make things change. With the ceramics, for example, I started to imprint textile into the clay and when I realised that my result was a lot more animal than fabric, I began to research the symbolism of the snake. So it can be a conversation with the material as well as with the ideas and the research.
How do you do your research and find your stories?
This exhibition, which is related to Venezuela’s current political situation, has been a bit different from my previous work. I’m a trained journalist, because, in Venezuela, there are not really a lot of art schools, so a lot of people mix careers when they study – architects can become artists, for example. I studied visual journalism, so I did photography and film, but with a journalistic base. I tend to do my work using this kind of training. In this show, it comes from a rather personal experience, but in previous ones, I was fed by the media, documentaries and books. I usually try to find these gender-issues-related stories from previous times. I’ve had two or three shows and projects related to the Victorian era, for example, and I just try to make connections from there to the present. This exhibition is more directly about the present, but even this show, with its exploration of the symbolism connected to snakes, has all these little bits and pieces from different periods of history – you can jump from the greek to a contemporary folk symbol of Venezuela.
What exactly does the snake stand for in Venezuelan culture? From a European viewpoint, I automatically associate it with deceit.
It can have various meanings. In a symbol dictionary, snakes have the longest entries. Of course, it stands for the creational myth in various cultures across time. In the creational myth of Adam and Eve, the snake is a temptation – that’s why the show is called “Descent”, because I was really trying to relate this feeling of going down from the celestial to the terrestrial. I was also looking into the Venezuelan legend of María Lionza – she is not a snake herself, but if she goes near a body of water, the anaconda, the force of the river, is going to eat her. The snake is equally associated with earth and sky, positive and negative, feminine and masculine – it’s highly ambivalent. In the María Lionza legend, for example, the snake is the masculine and she is the feminine force. So in Venezuela, it doesn’t only have one meaning. I don’t think it does in any place.
Why did you decide to connect this ambiguous symbol in particular to the events happening in Venezuela at the moment?
At first, these were to separate works that were almost going in parallel. But for the show, I wanted to work more site-specific, so I decided to do these three pieces of work for which snakes were a starting point. The first thing that you see are the sculptures which almost seem like the remains of the animal, not the actual snake but rather it’s skin that is drying. It was important to me to include the segment of the video where you can see a smuggler skinning a snake. That image, in particular, was what I wanted to transmit about this feeling of loss, of violence. And so I felt a point of connection between what was happening in Venezuela and the snakes through all of this imagery that I was adding in there.
I thought that too when I saw your video “Ciclo”. It was an interesting contrast between seeing a snake shedding its own skin naturally and then, in another segment, the violent and deadly purloining of the skin through human force. The sculptures on the walls also felt like someone had violently taken the skin from the animal and nailed it to a wall like a trophy.
Yes, because the snake shedding its own skin is also a symbol of transformation, so it is associated with rebirth, and that’s also why the ouroboros symbol that stands for cyclicality was important to be included as well. In my understanding, what’s happening in Venezuela is that the snake is biting its own tail, and you don’t know how to break the cycle and actually make a change. I’m just trying to pose a question that doesn’t have any answer yet.
How is the situation in Venezuela similar to a snake biting its own tail, in how far is it recursive or cyclical?
Because every time the people go and protest some governmental measures or some problem such as the shortage of food, what happens is that the government goes harder on the people. They oppress them even more, more people go to jail, and then more people decide to go protest because of this, and then they are taken to jail as well… Every time, the situation becomes more radical and society is more polarised. There is no middle ground or dialogue, there is no possible encounter for a solution.
Is this feeling of the situation constantly getting worse the reason why you’ve decided to touch upon contemporary political issues in this exhibition?
It’s actually the second body of work dealing with contemporary subjects. In the summer of last year, I had an exhibition in Caracas where I made a huge cyanotype wall work showing hygiene- and feminine-related products that are scarce. It was inspired by Anna Atkins, who did an inventory of algae, one of the first photography books ever made. I made a similar inventory, but mine consisted of Tampax, condoms, nappies. They addressed contemporary issues in Venezuelan culture. For example, pregnancies are on the rise at the moment because contraceptives are either scarce or super expensive. But of course, the fact that I address the current political situation has to do with my personal experience. Out of the six members of my family, all of them have either been kidnapped or robbed. I’m the only one who hasn’t suffered from that because I don’t live there. My dad, for example, was almost killed three months ago. These kinds of things really shake you up.
Are your family members political activists?
No, not in particular. Of course, everybody goes to manifestations at the moment, just like in the US where everybody goes out to protest Trump. They are citizens that are aware of what is happening, but they are not in any political organisations. It happens to a lot of people, the majority of people there have suffered from some kind of violence, whether it’s robbery or being kidnapped. And what they say is: “Oh, nothing happened to me, I was lucky!”, because they didn’t receive a bullet in their body. Of course something happened to you, you were threatened with a gun, that’s something! But’s that’s the way you talk and the way you get used to the violence.
That sounds really intense. I feel like these issues are rarely addressed in German media – maybe because there is so much going on around the world at the moment.
Yes, it’s been overlooked because we had a really bad timing. When the Ukraine crisis erupted three years ago, student protests were taking place in Venezuela and 43 people were killed. When 43 people were killed in Mexico, it was being reported all over the planet. But nobody knew about what happened in Venezuela, our deaths were just swept under the rug. And a big part of the problem also is that people still idealise Chavez. Nobody realises that the country is falling apart. My home was without electricity for seven hours yesterday, and these kinds of things are really common – shortages of food, of electricity, of medicine…
You also address the shortage of food in your Cesta Basica photograms. Could you tell me a bit more about the ideas behind that series?
The photograms all show items from the Basic Food Basket, which is the list of groceries a family needs to survive for a month. With the current economic situation, you would now need almost 18 salaries to buy all of that food. The photograms worked well because they are a camera-less photography method showing a shadow a shadow of the object that was put on the paper, pointing out its absence. Like the rest of the show, they are also completely black and white to express a mood of mourning.
Are there still a lot of artists working in Venezuela or have most of them fled the country?
Yes, of course there is still a vibrant community of artists left. But there is an amazingly huge migration. Almost everybody that can leave does so, but not everybody can – you need to have visas, or a passport from a European country, the resources, the money, etc. And with the difference of currencies, this is becoming more and more of a problem. The country really has become isolated.
Are you in contact with artists living there?
Yes, I go there every year, and I’m still doing exhibitions with artists there. I also try to bring some of their works to some shows I organise. We have a network. I’m a member of an artist-run space there called Abra Caracas, and we’re planning to do some things together. So yes, of course, we’re all doing anything we can do being here. Sol Calero from Berlin, for example, invited me and some other Venezuelan artists to participate in one of her projects. It feels like being part of an international community, which is really important right now.
“Descent” is on display at House of Egorn until the 31st of March. The gallery is open by appointment