Melissa McGill Saves the Sounds of Venice

The American artist records the voice of the city’s mutating public squares.

In case you haven’t heard, Venice is disappearing. Much has been made of the attempts to save the city through feats of engineering, but New York–based multimedia artist Melissa McGill seeks to salvage the city’s essence through sound.

Unveiled this May during the Venice Biennale, McGill’s latest work is a series of five wooden boxes carved in the architectural shapes of Venetian campi, or public city squares. Inside, she says, is where the real sculptures live. Hidden beneath a false bottom, speakers emit lightly edited recordings that McGill began compiling six years ago in various campi throughout Venice. The artist captured footsteps, church bells, and coffee cups clinking—noises that suggest the passage of time in the city’s most intimate communal quarters. “It’s very layered and multidimensional, so it feels like you’re there,” McGill says. Three sites, including the house and studio of famed Venetian architect Carlo Scarpa, hosted the work last month, and it will remain on view at local fine art gallery Giorgio Mastinu through June.

McGill’s relationship with Venice began in 1991, when, shortly after graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design, she moved to Italy for a year to work as a freelance photographer. Enamored with Venice’s sounds, smells, lights, colors, and reflections, she stayed for another year. In 1993, McGill returned to New York, but continued to visit Venice, taking note of the city’s rapid transformation, owing to mass tourism, each time she returned. “When I read that UNESCO recently expressed extreme concern about Venice’s current conditions, which threaten its authenticity and integrity, this project seemed especially poignant,” she says. “The campi, which are the historical hearts of the neighborhoods, are disappearing. The sounds are changing.”

Back home, McGill is best known for her outdoor installation “Constellation,” on the Hudson River’s Pollepel Island, 50 miles north of New York City, where 17 aluminum poles rise from a castle-like ruin topped with solar-powered LED lights. At night, these illuminated points resemble a starry constellation. Since 2015 (and extending through October), McGill and her guides have led boat tours around the island. They served, unexpectedly, as crucial networking tools: Last fall, while hosting art collectors Nancy Olnick and Giorgio Spanu, the artist mentioned her Venetian project, and the duo offered her sponsorship through Magazzino, their Italian art institution opening in upstate New York in June.

Like much of McGill’s work, both “Constellation” and “The Campi” ask viewers to confront the vibrancy of city life from a meditative perspective. “They really slow you down,” the artist says. In “Constellation,” McGill and her guides have noticed that spectators quickly abandon attempts to capture on their phones the moment the sun sets and the lights begin to glow. “It’s not easy to take pictures of tiny spots of light in the dark sky on a moving boat,” she says. It’s just as difficult to Instagram McGill’s campi sound sculptures. The viewer must listen instead, bearing witness to the aural fabric of one of the world’s most captivating cities before it fades away.

(Photos: Scott Burry)

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