Climate change inspires Atlanta artist Deanna Sirlin’s Venice Biennale installation

Deanna Sirlin's "Borders of Light and Water" extends across 15 windows of the Palazzo Bembo in Venice, Italy. (Photos by Sirlin)

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Deanna Sirlin's "Borders of Light and Water" extends across 15 windows of the Palazzo Bembo in Venice, Italy. (Photos by Sirlin)

Three Atlanta-based artists, Shanequa Gay, Megan Mosholder and Deanna Sirlin, were invited to exhibit this year at the prestigious 59th Venice Biennale, the largest art fair in the world, April 23 through Nov. 27. ArtsATL talked with each of them about their participation and how it’s impacting their life and art. (Full disclosure: Sirlin is an ArtsATL writer.)

When viewers look at Deanna Sirlin’s large, transparent artworks, they see more than the bands of vibrant colors affixed to the windows of buildings like the High Museum of Art. They see the landscape beyond, whether it’s Peachtree Street in Atlanta, the Georgia Tech campus or the Grand Canal in Venice, Italy, the location of her most recent site-specific work.

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Sirlin recently got back from Venice, where she installed her work “Borders of Light and Water” across 15 windows of the magnificent 15th-century building, Palazzo Bembo, overlooking the Grand Canal. Megan Mosholder is exhibiting in the same gallery.

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This work represents Sirlin’s deep concern about climate change and how the rising waters threaten not only Venice but communities worldwide. “Water has been a big part of my work since the beginning,” she told ArtsATL recently.

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Looking through “Borders of Light and Water,” visitors see the buildings on the opposite side of the Grand Canal steeped in the colors of the artist’s work.

Credit: Deanna Sirlin

Looking through “Borders of Light and Water,” visitors see the buildings on the opposite side of the Grand Canal steeped in the colors of the artist’s work.

Credit: Deanna Sirlin

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Looking through “Borders of Light and Water,” visitors see the buildings on the opposite side of the Grand Canal steeped in the colors of the artist’s work.

Credit: Deanna Sirlin

Credit: Deanna Sirlin

Q: This is the second time you have exhibited during the Venice Biennale. What did you exhibit the first time, in 2001?

A: Venice is my second city. I have been going there every two years for the Biennale and in 2001 I was invited by Università Ca’ Foscari to create a new work for an auxiliary exhibition. I created an 18-foot by 18-foot transparent work for their law library. People entered and exited the library through my work. It was supposed to be up for one month and stayed there for 17 years, until the building was renovated five years ago. The title was “Punto di Fuga,” which translates as vanishing point, or point of escape.

Q: How has your work changed since then, and what is the concept of your 2022 Biennale exhibit, which is being presented by the European Cultural Center?

A: Being site-specific is very important to me. In Venice I was only interested in doing work that involved the architecture of the room. It is titled “Borders of Light and Water” and it’s all about color, light and healing.

Two decades have gone by since I installed “Punto di Fuga” and the urgency of climate change in Venice is very prominent in my mind. I knew you would see the Grand Canal (through the work) but the way the layers and bands of color dissect the viewpoint of the other side of the canal was a surprise. The work itself creates a chromatic lens that alters the vision of the viewer. What you see through the work is very important to me. How it’s perceived is part of the content.

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“Watermark” at the Georgia Tech Library floods the floor with light and color.

Credit: Deanna Sirlin

“Watermark” at the Georgia Tech Library floods the floor with light and color.

Credit: Deanna Sirlin

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“Watermark” at the Georgia Tech Library floods the floor with light and color.

Credit: Deanna Sirlin

Credit: Deanna Sirlin

Q: You have an installation in place at Georgia Tech too, titled “Watermark.” It’s installed on the floor-to-ceiling windows near one of the entrances of the Crosland Tower section of the library. When the sun shines, the pinks and oranges and lime greens of the work are reflected on the floor inside. Tell me about this work and how it’s connected with “Borders of Light and Water.”

A: The title refers not just to the watermark on paper, but to the rising of water. It’s also connected to the Joseph Brodsky poem “Watermark.” Science fiction literature talks about climate change a lot, how fragile our cities are. Like Venice. There’s a particular color palette of science fiction and that’s where the palette for this work came from. The work in Venice has a hotter palette.

Georgia Tech has an interesting connection with Venice. It’s a sinking city because of climate change and in 2019 there were terrible floods. The MOSE project is a (recently installed) engineering device which prevents “aqua alta” or high water so when the water rises in the Venice lagoon the city doesn’t flood. It’s pretty powerful. Rafael Bras, a professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering and School of Environmental and Atmospheric Studies, was part of the team that created this engineering feat.

“Watermark” is influenced by the exhibition “50 Years of Science Fiction” at Georgia Tech. I am also the Georgia Tech Library artist-in-residence for the 2022 spring semester.

Q: In 2000 you were commissioned by the High Museum of Art to create a work that would span the windows facing Peachtree Street. That feels like a precursor to your current projects.

A: Yes, that was “Retracings.” I put the print transparencies on the windows at the High and I saw Peachtree Street through them. Before that, I had included a reference to landscape, but when I saw how the landscape was revealed through the work, I left out the idea of representation in the work itself.

Q: What will happen to the work in Venice? Can it be reinstalled elsewhere?

A: After the High Museum installation, I did a work in Portugal in a 15th-century building. You looked out through my transparencies and saw a Roman ruin. We discussed the intensity of the light in Portugal and how hot the windows become. Because of that, we used a new installation process. When the work was deinstalled it was destroyed. The same will happen with the work at Georgia Tech and the one in Venice. They are ephemeral.

The High owns “Retracings” and it’s in storage there, but it doesn’t have to be. I have learned from Christo that the moment when a work exists in space IS the work. Then it’s gone and it doesn’t exist anymore except in your mind. That is perhaps the most poignant aspect of the work.


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