When the Venice Biennale closes in November, artworks from hundreds of artists will be packed up and shipped back to countries around the world. But a little piece of the contemporary-art circus that brings so many jet-setting art collectors to the Italian city will stay at the lagoon thanks to Bosco Sodi.
That’s because the artist is giving away one of the artworks in his exhibition “Bosco Sodi: What Goes Around Comes Around.” Venetian residents will be able to take home the small 195 clay spheres that surround a giant one in Noi Siamo Uno, an interactive display on view beneath a Murano glass chandelier at the Palazzo Vendramin Grimani.
“It’s very gracious, the biennale, in a way. People come, go around, and then boom, everything disappears,” Sodi told Artnet News. “I think it’s important to leave something for the people of Venice.”
The artist sourced the clay for his sculptures in Oaxaca, just a few miles from Casa Wabi, Sodi’s studio and a nonprofit arts center that hosts an artists’ residency as well as programming for children. (He baked the clay spheres on improvised oven on the beach at the waterfront property.)
During the show’s run, visitors are welcome to take a single sphere and roll it across the floor to create a space that changes slightly with each guest’s arrival. Each orb represents one of the world’s nation states, while the big one symbolizes humanity (the title means “We Are All One” in Italian.) The opportunity to take one home will come on the show’s last day.
The gesture is in keeping with the exhibition’s themes of global trade, inspired by Venice’s centuries of history as a major sea power.
The artist created new works for the show using cochineal, a red dye made from insects that he brought to Italy from his native Mexico. Sodi hadn’t done a project with cochineal in several years, and had to track down a new supplier for the pigment, which precolonial Mexicans used to paint Maya stelae and other monuments.
“It’s an insect that grows in the nopales cactus, and it’s a parasite,” he said of the bug. “The make a nest and the leaves get covered with white spots. The farmers scrape them off the leaves and put them in the sun to dry.”
“What’s interesting about it is, depending on the batch, the color can change completely. It depends on the acidity of the insect. When the cochineal arrived here, it was embraced by all the classical painters of Europe. It doesn’t fade. It changed completely the approach to red and to color—and it came back to Mexico and there began to be classical painting in Mexico.”
Adding another layer to the cultural exchange, Sodi set up a makeshift studio on the first floor of the palazzo in preparation for the show. He combined the red pigment with sawdust, wood, pulp, natural fibers, and glue to make his textured canvases.
At his waterfront studio in Red Hook, Brooklyn, the floor is encrusted with excess material that dripped off the edges of each painting, the colors from different works layered atop one another like some kind of manmade sedimentary rock.
But in Venice, Sodi found excessive amounts of liquid seeping through the canvas, which was more loosely woven than what he is used to working worth.
“I was afraid it would stain the marble floor, so I cleaned it up with the rest of the canvas that was left over, and I began to play with it,” Sodi said.
He formed the canvases, now dyed deep red, into small bundles and left them to dry. The result was a group of simple but beautiful sculptures shaped like roses—a form that, serendipitously, echoed the rows of ornamental rosettes that adorn the ceiling in the room where they are now on display in Venice.
There are also new works made during lockdown at Casi Wabi. During a trip to the local fruit and vegetable market, Sodi became intrigued by the sack cloths used to transport food and began using them as makeshift canvases. He ransacked a storeroom full of materials left behind by former residents, finding tubes of oil paint and using them to mark the sacks with simple red, black, and orange circles.
Installed in the palazzo courtyard are a set of sculptures made from volcanic rocks, coated in a fiery red glaze that recalls their origins as molten lava. The series grew out of boredom a decade ago, while Sodi was in Guadalajara fabricating an edition of individually crafted ceramic decanters he was making for 1800 Tequila.
“I had nothing to do while I was waiting for them to dry. I said to the owner of the factory, ‘What happens if we put a rock in the kiln and we glaze it?’” Sodi recalled.
At first, the factory owner was worried the rock might explode. Then, a salesperson stopped by selling molcajetes, a Mexican mortar and pestle traditionally made from volcanic rock. If he used a rock that had already been fire tested, Sodi realized, it was unlikely the kiln would be in any danger.
Soon, he was leading an expedition to the Ceboruco volcano, about two and a half hours outside the city, in search of raw materials for his experiment.
“We went the Mexican way, not with a crane—with two donkeys and 10 guys,” Sodi said. “I call it rock hunting. I pick the rocks that I like, I clean them, and I do the glazing. I respect the form of the rock totally.”
The result is a fusion of art and geology. Sometimes, the rocks did still shatter in the heat of the kiln, revealing the raw insides—an accident that Sodi embraced.
Inside the palazzo, works have been installed amid the historic decor. The Grimani family owned the home from 1517 to 1959, and the original interior remains largely intact, with neoclassical frescoes, damask wall coverings, ornate tapestries, and terrazzo floors.
There’s even a collection of decorative fans, which Sodi has cheekily augmented with contemporary fans bought in Mexico and in Venice that he’s painted to match his other works in the exhibition.
Curated by Daniela Ferretti and Dakin Hart, the show is the first contemporary art exhibition at the palazzo, which opened to the public in 2021 and is operated by the Fondazione dell’Albero d’Oro.
On the ground floor are more clay works: another giant sphere, cracked towers of large cubes, and a neatly stacked pile of bricks. The sculptures sit just beyond the doors that open out onto the Venetian canal, where deliveries would have been historically made to the home and its residents.
“We wanted to present the works as if they were unique goods coming from America—these red paintings that maybe were found in the Amazon, these clay cubes that were part of a pyramid discovery,” Sodi said.
But he also believes that these works have a universal quality.
“Clay has been part of the evolution of man. If you go to a museum in Rome or Egypt or Korea of India or Peru, the first figurines are all very similar, because it’s the essence of man,” Sodi said. “Clay is in our DNA.”
“Bosco Sodi: What Goes Around Comes Around” is on view at the Palazzo Vendramin Grimani, San Polo, 2033, 30125 Venice, April 23–November 27, 2022.
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