The Ghetto is a place of connections, a place of a plurality of languages and cultures: of German, Flemish, Persian, Ottoman, Spanish and Portuguese Jews alongside Italian. This was a place of constant translation, a testing ground for comprehension and nuance.
It was noisy with learning, debate, poetry and music. It should be again. Everything is plural here, one history reaching out to another, a palimpsest of voices. I think of how the Psalms work as songs of exile from the city, the ever-present absence of Jerusalem. The Psalms are songs that move between the singular and the plural, the solitary voice and the tribal, from anger, despair and lament to joy.
So I’ve made new works to sound in these spaces.
One installation, tehillim, is placed on the threshold of the Canton Scuola; eleven vitrines, each one holding a thin sheet of gilded porcelain of almost unimaginable fragility and a piece of translucent white marble – a call and response between materials. A small installation, Adonai, sits high up on the walls of the staircase: you may miss it. And there are installations that recall particular poems of elegy and remembrance from Osip Mandelstam and Rilke, with words scribbled into pieces of porcelain, broken shards collected and held together. I’ve made a table for the Jewish poet, Sara Copio Sullam, who lived and wrote here in the Ghetto in the seventeenth century, into which I’ve inscribed the words of Psalm 137, by the rivers of Babylon onto and into porcelain slip, brushed over gold leaf. Another palimpsest.
Above this room is the Sukkah. Sukkot, the Feast of the Tabernacles, commemorates the forty years of wandering in the desert, celebrated by taking shelter and eating meals in a sukkah or temporary structure, often set up in a garden. This beautiful space is a place high up, a memory of a city. I’ve made an installation of porcelain vessels and leaning gold: a sanctuary of towers.
I remember Rilke’s story of an elderly man in the Venice Ghetto and his yearning to move higher and higher: ‘Finally, they were living at such a height that when they stepped out of the narrow confines of their apartment onto the flat roof, their heads already reached a level where a new country began, of whose customs the old man spoke in dark words, as though half caught up in the raptures of a psalm.’
– Edmund de Waal