Island of Marvels


At the heart of Homo Faber – Venice’s month-long celebration of contemporary craft – is a cabinet of curiosities filled with work by rising stars alongside master craftspeople devoted to passing on their skill to future generations. Entitled Next of Europe, it is a showstopping showcase.  Jean Blanchaert’s curatorial eye brings harmony and coherence to what could have been cacophony and chaos. Eclectic in style, this selection of sculptural pieces speaks to the breadth and diversity of practice in Europe today.

Cockpit’s own rising stars are well represented, with Darren Appiagyei’s series of Banksia Vessels, Jacob Monk’s ikat artwork Pink Princess III, and Leah Jensen’s The Healing of Justinian – a white stoneware vase form intricately carved in Jensen’s unique pattern-mapping technique to reveal the hidden geometry of Renaissance paintings.

Taking over the island of San Giorgio, Homo Faber is epic in scale. Next of Europe is just one of 15 exhibitions showcasing 850 works by 400 designers and makers, representing 43 countries.  It a bold assertion of the power of craft to shape our lives.

Several of the exhibitions take their inspiration from La Serenissima itself.  The site-specific installation Tracing Venice comprises tessellated works in coloured, semi-oxidised metals that pay tribute to the mosaic floors of St. Mark’s Basilica.  Blossoming Beauty by Sylvain Roca for Venini is an immersive fairy-tale flower garden celebrating the city’s master glass makers.  And in Pattern of Crafts, German designer Sebastian Herkner invites craftspeople to interpret the geometric pattern of the terrace of the Basilica of San Giorgio in techniques spanning marble, glass, mosaic, stucco, wood marquetry, and fine goldwork embroidery.

Herkner’s installation and Tracing Venice each pay homage to craft’s often overlooked contribution to interior design and architecture – a theme further explored in The Artisan, a crafted tearoom curated by Tapiwa Matsinde filled with one-off furniture, elaborate screens and handmade chess and backgammon sets.

Elsewhere on San Giorgio, exhibitions bring to light how craft contributes to other creative industries: haute couture, opera, car design.

British fashion curator Judith Clark’s exhibition Details: Genealogies of Ornament sets masterpieces by 15 European luxury houses – watches, fine tailoring, kimonos and jewellery from the likes of Alaïa, Hermés, Cartier, and Vacheron Constantin – alongside craftspeople demonstrating the virtuoso techniques that go into these extraordinary objects.  Cameras are trained close-up on the makers’ hands projecting onto video screens their fine skills in couture sculpture, silversmithing engraving, yüzen – the 17th century resist dying technique, and glyptics – the art of gem carving.  Fittingly, in Clark’s presentation no detail is spared: the works are set tiled plinths printed with drawings from Clark’s notebooks in a hall suffused in soft light streaming through heavy calico drapes.

In the Piscina Gandini – a drained 1960s swimming pool transformed into a cavernous exhibition space – American director and visual artist Robert Wilson stages elements from his 1993 production of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly.  Bringing together Japanese and Italian craftsmanship – brush drawings on rush paper, a black lacquered chair with a contrasting leg in Japanese bamboo, a trio of sculptures by costume designer Frida Parmeggiani – the space is transformed into a stage set in a monochrome palette, the floor rippled like a Japanese sand garden.  The overall effect creates a meditative, still sanctuary.

Blossoming Beauty is not the only display to focus on a specific material. Magnae Chartae presents the breadth and variety of makers working in paper, ‘artists who shape forms, fold scenery, carve embroidery, colour, print and sculpt.’  Here, studio Marianne Guély’s Imaginary Alphabet is a literal interpretation of an illuminated manuscript – glow-in-the-dark letter sculptures hanging in space as though escaped from the leaves of a book.  Paper sculptor Rogan Brown’s Ghost Coral Venice Variation is a masterpiece in his technique of intricate hand- and laser-cut

In the Longhena Library, the focus is on porcelain, presenting innovative approaches to the material alongside collaborations between artists and European manufacturers. The display includes Chris Antemann’s playful, subversive take on Meissen ceramics and the witty, surreal sculptures of London-based Dutch ceramist Bouke de Vries that play with concepts of trauma and repair. Cockpit artist Tamsin van Essen presents series of works that explore notions of beauty and impermanence through material experimentation that probes the technical properties of ceramic and the limits of its behaviour.

Among Venice’s art events, Homo Faber is very much the new kid on the block: the 59th Venice Biennale opens this week, the Architecture Biennale has staged 17 editions. Yet, even in its second iteration, this month-long celebration of craft and craftsmanship has established itself as an essential fixture in the cultural calendar.

Homo Faber, Fondazione Giorgio Cini, Venice, 10 April – 1 May.