An artistic collaboration between mother and son is a rare thing to see in the art world. When the duo’s joint forces evolve beyond the sum of their parts, it is an even rarer occasion, given the loaded relationship of a family. ‘Belonging’ is one of these precious gems in art history, where it works out.
Once you take Vaporetto Number 2 from San Zaccharia after St. Mark’s Square, and have crossed the undulating water reflecting the low skyline of Venice, you can reach – these days – a remarkable collaborative installation of depth and honest artistic scope which is rarely found in an active church. The facade by the famous architect Palladio (1508-1580), who designed the Basilica in 1575, welcomes the visitor with reflective white Istrian marble, bathing the abbey to the right with glistening light on summery days, and with golden smooth curtains when the sun sets on the island of San Giorgio. Your eyes might need to adapt when you step into the church through the small wooden portal, leaving a gap open into a world brimming with tourism and boats ploughing the waters of the lagoon. Light is the first, main ingredient in the work of the Vockenhubers, subtly altering the mind of visitors when they transition from the outside to the inside.
Light & shadow
The light in the Serenissima reflected on the lagoon alters the atmosphere continuously, and has been perceived as a sculpture of its own by many fine artists and curators for centuries. In recent times it attracted the likes of Heinz Mack, a pioneer of the Zero movement of the ‘60s, who exhibited an array of 7m high golden columns in 2014, or Marc Quinn, whose “Alison Lapper Pregnant” appeared in 2013 beside the church of San Giorgio Maggiore. Ai Wei Wei showed his biggest ever chandelier inside of the Basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore in 2022, and painter Sean Scully installed a ~10m high coloured sculpture “Opulent ascension” during the Art Biennale 2019, as part of his 40 piece exhibition called HUMAN on site. The so called “anti-Gabbiotto-in-Piazza-San-Marco site” boasts a light which is unchallenged in quality in the world, especially in its transitions and changes over the days and seasons. The Venetians are often fed up with the appropriation of their city (and its most famous sites) by commercial or outside interests – only in this case the Austrian intervention goes hand in hand with the meaning of the space – and it blends into the basilica, supports religious life and still sticks out like an alien thorn, at the same time…
The initiative, curated by Don Umberto Bordoni, is part of the cultural programme of the Benedicti Claustra Onlus, a non-profit branch of the Benedictine Community. But no other crew or assistant helped Helga Vockenhuber to create these enormous pieces of bronze – a set of sculptures which almost did not fit through the church’s portal – which are currently exhibited in the Basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, other than her son. The pandemic provided time and a focused environment for a first time collaboration; her son has also added his own photographic work, featuring documentary shots of the process and his own sculptural installation made of wood and alabaster. As a young architect (*1991) and an accomplished sculptor, they took it into their own
hands to finance the creation and transportion of “Belonging” from Austria to Venice, without the help of a gallerist. An invitation from the Benedicti Claustra Onlus was all they needed.
It will pay off with the impact it will certainly make during this year’s Architectural Biennale (as a collateral event), putting them on the map. It is an astoundingly sensitive and powerful accomplishment, perhaps the best and most fitting the Basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore has seen so far,
Handicraft, not words
Helga Vockenhuber prefers not to speak much about her work, as her medium is the artwork, not words – a position all too few dare to maintain in the scene of fine artists nowadays. The pressure to sell and deliver also catchy interpretations which fit into a tweet or the caption on Instagram is all too often mandatory in the international art market. It’s refreshing that there are still artists who are holding back, who do not care to be possibly perceived as difficult or pretentious. Helga Vockenhuber is neither. Her artworks are her expression, three dimensional space is the language, sculptures are the grammar, and the semantics she uses to convey meaning – all the rest she leaves to curators and journalists. While she generally stays in the background, rather than representing and becoming a surface of projection which might distract from her artworks, her son Aegidius – an architect and artist – has more to say, and also uses words to build a body of work: a corpus which is intricately laced with his mother’s aesthetics.
Affinity, but distance
Helga Vockenhuber’s fascination with the Christian faith may stem from a very positive relationship with a priest in childhood who taught her about the calm presence, but also the distance, that the core history of Christianity may evoke, especially in churches, where people pray to Jesus and God. The communion which is sparked by being in this space, together – this sense of belonging, is the main motivation for her to exhibit 7 gigantic fragments of the crown of thorns inside a black circle in the middle of the Basilica, reflected in a surface of still water, acting like a mirror to the bronzes and the interior architecture. The crown is broken, Jesus paid with his life for our sins, and ascended, thus pointing to the result, rather than the Passion of Christ.
One cannot enter the circle and touch the long thorns, but we all get reflected in the circle, as if creatures from a different dimension diffused through the liquid floor and crystallised. Like an altar, which the faithful do not touch and are distant from, sitting across from it on benches, the thorns and broken wood are unattainable and untouchable. Still, their sheer size and twisted, almost abstract forms. give those bronze pieces an almost alien-like organic quality. They almost didn’t fit through the rather small wooden portal, which has a width of only 1m 20, and no, the thorns are not separate, detachable pieces. Only one big thorn exists in the back of the altar, in natural bronze colour and more than 1m long, but one has to reach it through the Choir. Belonging is the translation of German “Verbundenheit”, a concept which both Vockenhubers stress a great deal. It can be translated as attachment, ties, affinity (also in a spiritual way), connectedness, closeness, bond, fellowship, bonding, solidarity, bonds, connectivity, attachment (regarding emotions) or social cohesion. The thing which strikes most is their cohesion in artistic expression. Distance plays the counterpart, evoking mystery created by being a respectful radius away from the object of worship.
Mindful of common grounds
The force which fuses the fragments may be the minds of the spectators, whose bond and connectedness stem from a shared religious experience, without irony. Shared faith is the aim, not just aesthetic tricks or a spectacle for the art market. Even though many artists might avoid real closeness with religion, in order to avoid getting swallowed up in the centuries of visual interpretations and biblical exegesis which divided Christianity, it may also be an opportunity and a treasure trove, if one dares to not only reference symbolism, but to mean it. Helga Vockenhuber is one of those, hand in hand with her son, who contributes their eye and a different materiality to the overall installation which is so much more than the big crown pieces in the nave.
Roots of light and shadows
Large, more than human sized analogue prints of photos which Aegidius Vockenhuber took. are exhibited in the corridor leading on the left of the altar to the Choir and the entrance to the belltower. They were shot with the world’s smallest available analogue camera. which works with normal 35mm film. and shows scenes in a forest, with light breaking through the branches. Also here is analogue quality, with no CGI, no AI, no inkjet, only paper and film touched by light in the hand of a human being who makes choices. No crisp over-detailed panoramas, but daring blurriness which makes one wonder what may just have happened in the woods shortly before or after the photo was taken. Somehow the lights and shadows paint the lush nature in contrasts, peaceful forestall situations, giving birth to wood, which may become a crown or a sculpture through human choice. Nature does not choose this form; we do. We observe, we walk among the trees. We take photos in front of these photos. Following the corridor Aegidius also displays documentary photos of the process of making the large bronzes. These have the same intricate quality in light and shadow, often only showing parts of the artist working in them, like being lost in the woods of her own clay, constantly refining the three-dimensional work, obsessively…
Birth and the infinite
A truly unusual installation was added by Aegidius Vockenhuber in the Palladian sacristy, in which a famous painting by Palma il Giovane (Young Palma) and one by the son of Tintoretto is usually kept away from the stream of visitors wanting to book some time for a panoramic view on the tower.
Among the rooms designed by Andrea Palladio for the monastery, the ancient sacristy was built in the last years of the 16th century, and completely restored in 2011.
Inside there can be found two canvases, which gives the space a certain background and a foundation: the Presentation of Jesus in the temple by Palma il Giovane, one of the author’s first works, datable to around 1570, and a Saint George killing the dragon whose execution is attributed to the workshop of Domenico Tintoretto, son of the great Jacopo Tintoretto.
Additionally there is a large wall clock, built in the 17th century, of great visual impact for its painted architecture and repeating the round, circular theme of the Vockenhubers, here embodying time.
Vockenhuber turns the Palladian sacristy into a Baptistry, adding an array of logs to sit on and a baptismal bowl of white alabaster. The smell of the freshly cut timber alters the atmosphere a great deal. The logs are arrayed perfectly, but can be moved and used as seats, which will mean they are distributed differently over time. The procedural dimension and temporal decay, like in nature, is an important theme for Vockenhuber. A small life-size bronze of a complete crown of thorns complements the room, as well as some documentary shots. A priest who was present during the Preview praised the sensibility and thoughtful change that the Vockenhubers have brought into the space, and would gladly offer to use the Palladian sacristy for baptisms, using the water from the tubular alabaster bowl incised with a parabloid. The plane curve of a complete parabola becoming a symbol of having no endpoints, extending infinitely to the left, right, and upward. Ultimately it may stand for eternal life, closing the circle between the presentation of the newborn Christ and the tradition of baptism, while old Pagan beliefs in the form of the dragon are overcome by Saint Georg. Vockenhuber´s work seems to mend these ruptures with wood being “alive” and changing over time in a sensitive and profound way, bringing back nature to the place where we are invited to celebrate bi
Sketches in space
The Choir across the entrance to the sacristy holds another small-scale sculpture by Helga Vockenhuber, and the aforementioned big thorn as a bronze. In the middle of the finely carved wooden Choir stalls and in front of the lectern, Vockenhuber has positioned a sketch for the crown of thorns. It is made of resin and the parts still held together with screws which also keep the crown elevated from the surface. It might be the perfect item to support liturgical incantations as an unbroken crown which has the predetermined breaking points in place, but needs the music, voices and holy texts to evolve and get “broken”.
Faith, not spectacle
Some artists are often quick to claim that their work can serve as a conduit between the physical world and the spiritual one. Raised as a Catholic, Vockenhuber acknowledges that the ecclesiastical location of the show is loaded, but she stresses that it provides an important context: that particular space is needed for this kind of work, and not the other way around. It serves not as a “conduit”, but as a statement of belonging. It does not bring something in that is not already there, but it aims to connect people who bring their faith. It is meant for those who have a connection with the Christian belief system rather than the common art spectator who may want to perceive a stylish spectacle and take pictures or selfies. That does not work here very well, because “Belonging” is too serious to be just an aesthetic spectacle. It can be perceived as an antidote for modern society in which authentic social life has been replaced with its representation – here authentic social life does replace the representation – and creates space for contemplation, encounter, and thoughtful interaction. It reflects where one belongs to, born out of a most basic bond of belonging, the beautiful ties of mother and son.