Outside, an intimate stone palazzetto accessible by boat or byzantine stone street faces onto the cool green seawater of Venice’s Grand Canal; its gentle chop laps the white, barnacled foundation under its hovering wooden deck. There’s never not a light breeze coming in from the Adriatic. Inside, a large darkened room speckled with warm light and cooled with earthy ambient sounds contains an array of iron and titanium shapes. In piles, stacks, tumbles, towers, and metalliferous cairns an Ozymandian field of industrial beams, platforms, pedestals, and shadow-boxes supports, conceals, and choreographs the many figural elements of a mysterious monument laid out in pieces.
Placid godlike faces of human and architectural scale, some whole and some in puzzle-piece parts, and bits of their bodies too, perch atop and emerge from within the peaceful wreckage. Both ancient and futuristic, unassembled but not broken, meditative but not religious, sci-fi and so very human, the room beckons and the body enters the space, gliding through it intuitively, as one would a garden in a dream, and the art begins to reveal itself. This is—was, is—Wallace Chan’s TOTEM, formerly and perhaps imminently a singular 10-meter sculptural monument expressing the eternal power and invisible forces of nature, installed in its current form at the Fondaco Marcello through October this year to coincide with the 2022 Biennale.
When it’s whole, the work is called TITANS: A dialogue between materials, space, and time. As TOTEM, materials and time endure as elements of the composition but add to the mix, the infusion of context, the inversion of scale, the unfolding of time, and the requirement to accept the paradox that, even in appearing separate— like the pieces of the monument—humanity, the earth, and indeed the entire universe is in fact a single connected whole. This is more than the conceptual framework of this particular project—it’s the core of Chan’s deeply held and perennially revisited philosophy about the meaning and quality of life itself. The prominent inclusion of a wall work illustrates “instructions” on how to re-assemble and install the sculpture. As its 10-meter towering whole, it’s hinted that the initial impression of ruins is in fact but a pause before a fresh reconstitution. In this remaking, we are invited to imagine a moment in the cycle of its life, in our own lives, and in which we are encouraged to participate.
Is the frisson of poetic electricity we feel as we wind our way through this cosmic field the romantic energy of ruins, or the anticipatory mise-en-place for creation? Yes. TOTEM exists in a state of constant potential and flux—and it’s the consciousness and the bodies of its viewers that set that flow in motion with their presence. Forced to choose your own path through the space, creating ever-renewed sight-lines, discovering tiny details and being awed by scale, noticing your own emotions and silently building the work in your mind’s eye. Lights and sounds are your guides, they beckon and shift, hot and cold, distant and siren-like. But you are the one who creates the reality of the show with every step and turn of your head—just like many believe we create our own existence/reality moment to moment every day, with every choice we make.
As TOTEM’s curator James Putnam writes in the marvelous catalog essay, “A totem usually refers to a guardian or ancestral spirit…[they] are symbols of human connections with all living and in - animate things.” Chan’s fascination with this motif is informed by traditions from his own Buddhist faith to the iconography of the Christian churches and cemeteries he saw in Hong Kong growing up, as well as the salient Western/Greco-Roman art historical idioms. (Venice knows a thing or two about the art and architecture of worship.) Chan thinks of this transcultural, transtemporal fusion as a vision of Gaia, a Mother Nature-based representation of the ultimate highest life source, parent even of all the other gods, and as Putnam says, “a kind of personification of our planet and its natural energy.”
Chan’s own practice, as a sculptor and renowned jewelry designer, has often said TOTEM is the result of his desire to shrink down and “enter” his designs. This sentiment is assertively grounded in his deep contemplation of the properties of his materials, meditating on the energy signatures of metals, sound, and light. But in Venice, TOTEM has a stirring companion piece in a video by art director Javier Ideami, a transportative interpretation of Chan’s ideas on flux, fragmentation, uncertainty, and integration. Many of the sculptural faces display qualities of distortion that evoke the look of 3D modeling software, in a hint toward the unavoidable intrusion of technology into our consciousness. Ideami’s film takes this hint to an operatic reality in which key images from the installation manifest in an unending flow, narrating creation, dissolution, hybrid realities that assemble and take themselves apart, spread wide and go invisible like a murmuration of sparrows, repeats its organic symphony like a ritual, and ultimately serves to access further aspects of the viewer’s consciousness.
Chan would have you remember that all of this is an expression of the truth held in the macro/micro resonance of universal particulate interconnection, the fractal perfection that encompasses everything real and imagined, molecular and galactic, past and future, material and spirit. As you emerge from the chapel-like sanctuary of the Fondaco Marcello into the multifaceted context of the ages-old fairytale city, and the bustle of a modern Biennale built around themes of material, ritual, surrealism, assembly, and physical, shared experience—you are ready for it.
Written by Shana Nys Dambrot