View of “Lucy McKenzie,” 2017. Photo: Kristien Daem.

View of “Lucy McKenzie,” 2017. Photo: Kristien Daem.

Lucy McKenzie

View of “Lucy McKenzie,” 2017. Photo: Kristien Daem.

Lucy McKenzie’s exhibition at the Palazzetto Tito (one of the venues of the Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa, whose headquarters are in the Piazza San Marco in Venice) offered visitors a totally immersive art experience. The Scottish artist took advantage of the context and venue to create a cohesive body of new works, in which she abandoned every form of naturalism and camouflage in favor of abstraction. This solo show, titled “La Kermesse Héroïque” after Jacques Feyder’s 1935 French film of the same name, unfolds throughout the first two floors of the palazzo, with twelve works installed in six connecting rooms. The spatial relationship between the sculptures, paintings, furnishings, and lighting mirrors the equilibrium of the architectural space, giving the impression that everything has always been there. Yet the kermesse héroïque is also a world of appearances, a theater of mannequins and stage sets, where in each room a dimension of abstraction—which simultaneously comforts, disturbs, and inexorably transfigures the very notion of habitation—continuously confronts the visitor. 

Indeed, the exhibition could also be interpreted as a fragment of a larger, amorous discourse on residency, as it was inspired by the artist’s recent acquisition of a villa that goes by the name De Ooievaar, in Ostend on the coast of Belgium. Built in 1935 for the large family of a Belgian Catholic doctor, the villa was designed by the controversial Jozef De Bruycker (1891–1942), a modernist architect and political figure involved with the Flemish nationalist party in Belgium. As with his other earlier residences, the architect conceived the house as a “total” project, overseeing the design of the spatial volumes, furnishings, and every detail of the interior within two interconnected spaces. That building has been the subject of extensive research by McKenzie, and a video she made about it was included in the Venice show. Moreover, she was interested in the sociocultural conditions that made the construction of such a space possible—a context in which applied arts, painting, sculpture, and architecture came to articulate the gestures and behavior of people who adopted the ethos of the Art Deco, De Stijl, and modernist objects that surrounded them. 

Visitors first encounter a map with illuminated shells applied to its surface. On the upper floors, large paintings on canvas render the motifs of murals from famous transit stations around the world (such as Gent-Sint-Pieters, or Congonhas Airport in São Paulo). Various depictions of nationalist iconography and diverse worldviews act as reference points for the furniture on display, such as a faux-marble copy of the flagpole outside St. Andrew’s House in Edinburgh. A group of female mannequins seated on a bench, each with the face of Donatello’s St. John the Baptist and clothed in a gymnastic uniform, are proxies for the human figure and, in this case, transmit social and critical value as objects connected to commerce and display. Their bodies take on an ambiguous status halfway between figuration and abstraction, man and machine. Like Oskar Schlemmer’s dolls for Bauhaus theater or Giorgio de Chirico’s dummies, they succeed in maintaining a degree of metaphysical expressivity, due precisely to their costumes. The artist engaged with these elements of narration, acting as an agent of transformation and subversion for the relationship between form and function. 

Personal compulsions and obsessions—material research, English Arts and Crafts decorative motifs, and even the sinister atmosphere of crime fiction—are merged with the cultural blueprints of various cities the artist has inhabited. Thus, this exhibition is a house inside a house, an illusionistic trompe l’oeil, an exercise in overlapping languages and contexts in order to resist dogmas and produce new narratives. 

Paola Nicolin

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.