Rachel Dunlop, our Participation Manager, was selected by Arts Council of Wales as one of four lead invigilators for Cymru yn Fenis / Wales in Venice this year.
Rachel was part of the Invigilator Plus programme, which offers opportunities to emerging artists, curators, educators, writers and current students to gain International experience.
She spent five weeks at the Venice Biennale, facilitating visitors to experience artist Sean Edwards‘ presentation, with lead partner Ty Pawb and worked alongside Arts Council of Wales, Curator Marie-Anne McQuay, Assistant Curator Louise Hobson and g39.
Here, Rachel recounts her time in Venice.
In the Brecon Beacons, it’s second nature to know here I am according to the landscape around me. The office sits snugly at the base of Table Mountain, I follow the River Usk along the valley each morning to work, and I recite bridge numbers on my bike as I travel back home to Brecon on the Mon and Brec Canal.
Famously, Venice is the city where people go to ‘get lost’, with its 500 canals, towering architecture and labyrinthine streets that span the city. However, in the five weeks that I lived there representing my country, meeting hundreds of Welsh people and talking about the arts in Wales, it quickly felt like home.
I was lucky enough to be selected as a Lead Invigilator for Cymru yn Fenis/Wales in Venice for the 2019 Biennale. I’m part of the Invigilator Plus programme, an Arts Council Wales initiative for emerging artists, writers, curators and educators.
Being part of the Biennale has been on my bucket list for some time now – somewhere between developing studio spaces for young artists and getting fit, to be exact. I grew up thinking it maybe wasn’t for me – it was for wealthier artists, buyers, curators. What I learned quickly through conversations with people was that it was for everyone; whether a couple who were attending their 22nd Biennale over a 44-year commitment, or a couple from Tenby who came in to say hello to show their support for their country.
The universality of Sean Edwards work, coupled with the warm welcome/croeso that we’re known for, made the Wales in Venice exhibition a joy to work on. Sean’s show UNDO THINGS DONE was thoughtful, quiet but impactful, deeply considered. There’s lots of press that write much more eloquently than I ever could about Sean’s work (links at bottom of page) – but what I can write about is the opportunity I had to get to know a show on a deep level over the course of five weeks.
I was part of the first team, so myself and my two teammates Gwenllian Llwyd and Claire Francis got to know the work very quickly. ‘Vernissage’ week (press, VIPs, previews) still seems like a bit of a blur. I was told by many that the Welsh opening party was always up there with some of the best, and I can see why. In the month that followed the opening week, I had the chance to have conversations with thousands of visitors from all over the world about Sean’s work.
A highlight for me was the work Refrain – a live radio play developed with National Theatre Wales that was performed by Sean’s mother, Lilly, and broadcast live at 2pm from her flat every day in Cardiff. Venice is renowned for its poor internet connection, so each day I had the same nervous, excited anticipation. As invigilators we would do various tests from 1.30pm onwards, where we’d type questions on a chat box to Lilly and the team from NTW and then listen back on headphones to test the connection. To the Biennale goers she is ‘Lilly Edwards,’ a performer in a live radio play for Wales’ presentation at the Biennale 2019. To me, she’s all of that but she’s also Lilly who used to live in a town close to me where I grew up in Northern Ireland, Lilly who cared about the weather in Venice, Lilly who reminded us to put sun cream on and Lilly who was always delighted to hear that visitors enjoyed her performance.
I heard the play 23 times, and each time it was different – every hesitation, cough, when her voice was a little tired, or when she was well rested. It was a unique experience to get to know someone only by listening to their voice. I felt sad to say goodbye to her when I left, although we’ve never met.
When invigilating a show, you develop favourite ‘spots’ to stand. The Wales in Venice show was in a building called Santa Maria Ausiliatrice, a former convent and now community centre. One of my favourite spots to stand was in the former convent chapel, with its opulent sanctuary, where Sean has placed ‘In Parallel with the past l-IV’ – a large sculptural piece that occupies the space. I’d stand opposite the entrance and watch people react to the work for the first time. I listed some reactions from people in my head: surprised, shocked, happy, elated, confused, slow-to-react, wowed, giggly, lifted, cheerful. What I loved most about watching people view this artwork is that they’d walk around and through its paths looking up and down with curiosity and wonder, in exactly the same way myself and other visitors to Venice reacted to the beautiful city – people come to see and look. I really appreciated being part of a team that looked after a show that occupied such a big part of my life.
So, what else did the five weeks in Venice look like? I hopped on a boat to see some of the most exciting contemporary practice I’ve ever seen. I went to a deserted St. Mark’s Square for sunrise, and watched sunsets from the edge of the island. I walked – a lot. I spent an afternoon on an overgrown wild island looking back to Venice. I spent a lot of time trying to buy certain cleaning products for the exhibition in the local co-op whilst my Italian got a little better. I questioned myself every time I took a picture of someone’s washing line, but never stopped. On my daily commute, I targeted one coffee shop in particular where my regular coffee came down from €4 to €1.50 (tourist prices). I swept flood water back into the canal and away from the exhibition venue for two weeks. I got to meet other invigilators like me from all across the world. I unpacked the Wales in Venice cupboard a lot. I ate four ice creams in one day – from the same place. I had 10 minutes alone in front of The Vitruvian Man before the crowds descended. By week five, I got tired of Italian food and ended up walking forty minutes across the city for chips.
Three days before I left Venice, I was on a boat heading towards Burano, one of the islands surrounding the city. The boat was full, with about 200 people on board. Beside me, I could hear a couple speaking Welsh. I said hello, introduced myself (yn Gymraeg) and they said they had been to UNDO THINGS DONE– they weren’t in the city for the Biennale, but had seen it on the Welsh news and wanted to show their support. This felt like a really special way to end my trip – we’re a proud country and Wales’ presence at the Biennale is vital. I feel very pleased to have been a very tiny part of this ongoing legacy.
Many thanks to Peak for allowing me to have a secondment away from the office for this opportunity to gain International experience, I’m excited to see where it will take our projects. I’m really looking forward too, to working alongside the young people on our projects to support them to apply to the programme next time as emerging artists, writers, curators and educators of the future.
Thanks to: Sean Edwards and family, Arts Council of Wales – Cerys Thomas, Louise Wright, Iwan Llwyd, Betsan Jones, Lead Organisation Ty Pawb – Jo Marsh and James Harper, Cymru yn Fenis/Wales in Venice Curator Marie-Anne McQuay and Assistant Curator Louise Hobson, Anthony Shapland at g39, Thomas Goddard and all of the wonderful invigilators.
UNDO THINGS DONE